In the vibrant corridors of Barker College, a ripple of anticipation spreads each morning as students await the gentle knock on the door by Principal Phillip Heath. With a handwritten birthday card and a signature Freddo frog, Heath’s daily ritual not only brings joy to every student celebrating a birthday but symbolises the deeper connection he’s nurtured within the College’s tightly knit community.
Indeed, Heath’s mantra, “progress occurs on the edge of discomfort”, reverberates throughout the five thriving campuses he oversees – campuses that are collectively enriching the lives of more than 2,800 students and 1,000 staff.
With strong HSC results, including three students attaining a score of 99.95 and three achieving first in state places in 2022, the academic achievements at Barker College undeniable, and Heath’s plan to build a new Maths and Senior Studies Hub will no doubt sustain this culture of academic excellence.
The astonishing leadership score of 92% in the 2022 MMG survey of parents, coupled with the acknowledgment of Barker College in May as one of The Educators Employers of Choice for 2023, underscores the respect and admiration he has earned.
That same month, Heath was named one of nine Excellence Awardees for the Prime Super School Principal of the Year (Non-government) Award in recognition of his successful leadership approach. Speaking to The Educator following the announcement, he explained the philosophy underpinning his approach to school leadership.
“At its heart, education is a caring profession, and when done conscientiously, care is a gift of love,” Heath told The Educator. “As a leader, you must love the students, the staff, the parents and the life of everybody in your community.”
Despite the constant pressures associated with principalship, Heath believes it is not merely an operational role to play but “a celebration of humanity filled with love”.
“This love must be genuine. Education is not achieved by anything less than the full commitment of a loving heart,” Heath said.
“Like all effective Heads, I’m a cheer squad for the students. I love to know and to enthuse in what they are doing at all levels of the School, whether it be their birthdays, their drama performances, their sporting matches, concerts, debates, dances, or public addresses.”
An essential component of personal growth in leadership, says Heath, is the allocation of time to connect to the life of the community itself.
“There are no short cuts,” he said. “Headship essentially requires us to exercise what the literature refers to as ‘cultural and symbolic leadership’ through being present and attentive, through engaging purposefully and knowledgably about the life of our community.”
On Friday, 11 August, Heath’s outstanding work was recognised yet again – this time on the national stage – when he was named Education Perfect Australian School Principal of the Year at the Australian Education Awards 2023.
“Considering the talent in Australian schools, to even be recognised among them is an enormous honour,” Heath said.
“This Award is a tribute to the outstanding people with whom I work, and the wonderful community of the school that I have the joy to lead. It’ also an enormous affirmation of what I’ve been dedicated to for my entire my life, and something for which I think I was born – to care for people in a community.”
Speaking to The Educator following the Awards, Ian Pedler, the Head of Australia for Education Perfect, said it was only fitting for the company to support the event given that Education Perfect has always been committed to empowering educators with the time, insights and resources to help every learner achieve their full potential.
“It’s so important to recognise and celebrate the nation’s top educators and schools who are leading the way and continually striving for excellence,” Pedler told The Educator.
“We were delighted to sponsor the Australian School Principal of the Year and the Australian School of the Year awards, which recognised leadership, excellence and innovation. Congratulations to all of the finalists and the winners.”
Pedler added that The Australian Education Awards are “a wonderful way to celebrate the outstanding achievements and commitment of teachers, whose efforts are the foundation of education in Australia.”
“Education holds the key to a brighter future for our society. It is through education that we mould young minds, nurture their talents, and inspire them to become the best versions of themselves,” he said.
“At Education Perfect, we believe in the transformative power of education and so we are proud to support the awards and celebrate those that have demonstrated exceptional dedication and success in this noble field.”
Reflecting on what it means to be a school principal in 2023, Heath noted the stress and isolation that continues to weigh on leaders, but said the importance of the job cannot be understated.
“The role is a lonely one. There is no job alike in the school, so there needs to be a community of leadership across Australia where the work of a head and principal is recognised, supported and nourished, and that the community understands its importance,” he said.
“That would make a huge difference. The professional learning and support that goes with the role is something that I think we can do a little bit better.”