In a class of her own

Sophie Fenton collaborated with Jeanne Shaw to co-found a primary school, partly sourced by crowd funding. The experiment has paid off and now there are plans to open a secondary campus. By Graham Reilly.

Sophie Fenton and Jeanne Shaw
“You can sit in any school staff room and teachers will talk about what if they could start their own school. But only a few of us are insane enough to think we can.”

Ideally, education should transform the lives of students. And there is no reason why it cannot also be transformational for teachers. This is exactly what happened with Sophie Fenton. As part of her master’s degree in school leadership at Monash, Fenton (MA 1998, DipEd, 2004, MEd 2014) was required to  set out what she believed education should seek to achieve and how it should be done.

“And in writing down my school platform I wrote down everything I believed a school should be,” she says. “Two months later I decided I needed to start my own school.”

Fenton erupts in a startling explosion of laughter, as if she cannot believe what she has just said. “I had an acute belief that education is a magnificent thing, but it is limited by existing systems in so many ways. And you can sit in any school staff room and teachers will always talk about what  if they could start their own school. Always.

“But only a few of us are insane enough to think we can.” The school Fenton is referring to is the Sandridge School in Williamstown, of which she is co-founder and deputy principal (Dr Jeanne Shaw is principal and the other co-founder), and which is nearing the end of its first year in  operation as an independent, secular primary school.

Of course, it took a lot more than a jocular, self-deprecating reference to her own so-called mental instability for her to be in a position to establish her own school. It took a lifetime of experience, significant achievement, acute self-awareness and some pretty hard thinking about what a school should  be.

For Fenton, this journey began when she studied politics and history at La Trobe University (BA Hons, 1992). She still describes these disciplines as her “passion”.

After graduating she moved to Ballarat with her scientist husband who had secured a postdoctoral position at Ballarat University. They had three children under the age of four and a question hanging over Fenton’s future. What did she want to do with her life in addition to being a mother?

She approached local educational institutions, and although she had no teaching experience she found work at the Australian Catholic University and Ballarat University as a tutor and lecturer. It changed her life, although not in ways she expected.

Fenton, who is a lively bundle of barely contained excitement and enthusiasm, says she “rocked” into her first class of young men and women studying to be primary school teachers.

“I started lecturing and all these 20-somethings began staring out the windows as I’m churning through my great dissertation. So I stopped and said: ‘Why aren’t you guys listening? I’ve got great stuff to say.’ They said: ‘We can’t follow you, you are going  too fast, we can’t take notes.’

“I realised that if I was to enable them access, my conversation needed to provide avenues for that. Very, very quickly I realised that I had to be a teacher rather than a talker. And I’d not come in as a teacher, I’d come in to talk about history.”

Fenton reconfigured her tutorials, and their popularity soared, as did enrolments in the classes she taught. “All of a sudden they had purpose and meaning to their learning. And I learned to be an educator on the job. It was the most powerful thing I ever did, and I fell in love with teaching.”

She shifted to secondary education at Loreto College Ballarat in 2004, before moving to Ballarat Grammar School in 2006, where she taught VCE history and politics. She was also chair of the humanities faculty and head of teaching and learning.

“You can sit in any school staff room and teachers will talk about what if they could start their own school. But only a few of us are insane enough to think we can.”

The move to secondary schools had taught her what she describes as the “craft” of teaching. It was a revelation, she says. “When I first started teaching I taught very organically, very intuitively, very instinctively, and I taught from the discipline itself. I knew I wanted to give students  access to learning, but I didn’t understand a whole lot about the processes and practice of teaching as a craft.”

Fenton has also been an education consultant and won several awards, the latest being Monash’s 2016 Distinguished Alumni Award for the Faculty of Education. Most notably, in 2013, she was named Australian Teacher of the Year when she was still working at Ballarat Grammar. She was “shocked” that  she won. “That notion of excellence. I didn’t feel that I was there yet.”

The point she had reached, though, is that she felt that she could no longer teach within the existing education system, because she believed it prevented her from delivering a new form of education.

She wanted to work in a school that would focus on the intellectual, social and emotional growth of students, and that would have a curriculum that was intimately connected to the community and built around real-life experience.

So the idea of Sandridge School as a “pioneer for changing education” was born. She and Dr Shaw found a site at the old Customs House in Williamstown. They crowd-sourced funds, raised money from businesses, not-for-profits, and from parents interested in a different kind of school, one  that was not elitist, that was practical and embraced the notions of entrepreneurship and citizenship, and of producing “proactive citizens”.

“It actually does matter that we are informed beings,” she says. “That enables us to be active beings. We are not passive; we are not victims. Society does not happen to us. We create society, and we create the society we want.”

The Sandridge experiment has more than paid off. The school began in February with grades one to six and 88 students enrolled. Educators from around the country now want to know more about what Sandridge is doing.

Incredibly, Sandridge’s secondary campus will open in 2018 at the Younghusband woolstore in Kensington. It will be able to accommodate up to 600 students from years seven through to 12. The connection with the community will be underlined by the presence of working artisans and artists on  site with whom the students can work and learn from.

For Sophie Fenton, it looks like founding her own school was not such a mad idea, after all.