For principals, deputies, and department heads across Australia, Cook School is more than an inspiring story; it’s a road map to making a meaningful difference in the lives of children with special needs.
The school, located in Sydney’s southern suburbs, is a specialised K-12 school that provides specialist support for students impacted by complex trauma, mental health conditions, behaviour difficulties and autism spectrum disorder.
Using a carefully considered, evidence-based blend of positive psychology, neuroscience, and trauma informed practice, Cook School has seen massive improvements in students’ academic, and social-emotional outcomes.
At the centre of the school’s approach is a single mission: to see students’ safety, mental health, and confidence in life and learning not just restored, but thriving.
Cook School’s commitment to this mission led to the launch of the Acacia secondary campus, focusing intently on mental health support. In just a year, the school has welcomed 24 new students, marking an impressive growth rate of 71%.
Behind these numbers lies a plethora of innovative initiatives. Cook School’s Behaviour App has created a real-time alert system that informs Executive of classroom incidents, contributing to a 54% drop in suspensions and a staggering 80% drop in total days of suspension in just a year.
As Accelerated Adopters, Cook School is also pushing the envelope on literacy by introducing decodables and explicit phonics teaching. These advances are not mere experiments but proven strategies, resulting in massive improvements across all reading strands.
Recognising that a school’s strength lies in its people, a tireless promotion and support in the critical areas of staff safety, morale, and health have scored the school over 90% in the areas of Risk and innovation, Health and Safety and Job satisfaction in the 2022 People Matter survey. This is a feat, more so given the challenging nature of the school’s setting.
On Friday, August 11, the school’s inspirational work was recognised and celebrated on the national stage at the Australian Education Awards 2023, where it won both Education Perfect Australian School of the Year and Special Education School of the Year.
“We didn’t even know we were up for the Australian School of the Year Award, so that was a total shock for us,” Cook School principal David Hobson told The Educator.
“For special education setting to be considered Australian School of the Year is potentially a first ever, so we’re absolutely blown away.”
Hobson paid tribute to the school’s “wonderful, hardworking staff”, saying their critical work often goes unrecognised by society at large.
“We’ve got the most wonderful staff who just pour their all into it every day. I’m so honoured to work with them. It may be a Friday night, but I can’t wait to get back to school on Monday just to share this with our staff, because this is just so well deserved for them,” he said.
In terms of the school’s success, Hobson puts it down to high standards and expectations for all staff and students.
“We work with the most vulnerable students in the system. All our students are with us because they have not been able to achieve in a regular mainstream setting, but that doesn’t mean we lower the bar. It means we absolutely give them everything they deserve,” he said.
“This award is a real validation for the staff that what they do is meaningful, and that people recognise that what they do is important.”
Hobson said the Award will bring greater exposure to the important work being done at the school.
“As staff, we deal with a lot of trauma and really upsetting situations at the school, and so just to see that the wider education community values the work we do will be a massive shot in the arm for the staff at the school, and for the kids to see that they’re worthwhile,” he said.
“So many of the kids at our school have experienced so much failure in previous settings and within the mainstream, but to see that there are people looking at what they do and their achievements is just remarkable.”
When asked what he believes makes a great school, Hobson said key attributes are high expectations and leading by example.
“In terms of leadership, trying to be really agile and change as the situations require are really important skills to have, but also just surrounding yourself with people who are good at things you’re not good at,” he said.
“We’re all working together for the same goal, so finding the right people to fit into your jigsaw people is a really key challenge for leadership.”