“How do schools prepare for this diversity? I believe it is through quality leadership that builds a culture from within.” – Fiona Forbes, Australia

In today’s fast-changing education environment, principals must not only provide day-to-day leadership for their teachers and schools, they must also drive whole-school transformation. As the Microsoft in Education team prepares to attend the annual meeting of the International Confederation of Principals in Perth, Australia next week, we’re excited to highlight the work of its President-elect, Fiona Forbes.

Forbes has worked in the early childhood, primary, secondary, tertiary and special education fields for 25 years, and for the past 14 years has been the principal of a unique special school that caters to early childhood students with language disorders. But it’s the work she does outside of school that is having the broadest impact.

Forbes is managing the development of a major federally-funded professional learning tool designed to help school leaders develop cultural change in their schools in order to improve learning outcomes for students with disabilities.

“My team and I have, for the past year, been working on developing a suite of resources that will support schools, leaders and teachers in this,” Forbes says. “The materials have been on trial in schools and the feedback has been outstanding as well as constructive. We look forward to launching these resources by the end of this year and my personal hope is that schools use them to develop communities of inclusive learning practice that improves the learning outcomes for all students.”

With an Honorary Doctorate from the Australian Catholic University, Forbes has been serving as the National President of the Australian Special Education Principals’ Association, and will soon assume her duties as President of the International Confederation of Principals. She has published papers on inclusion, educational leadership, initial teacher education, curriculum, and assessment for special needs learners — both nationally and internationally.

When it comes to school transformation, Forbes knows that involving school staff in the process is critical to success. It’s a philosophy she’s applied successfully at her own school, and in her extensive work with educators throughout Australia.

Says Forbes: “My advice to others is, if you have a good [staff] – trust the process!”

Enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Fiona Forbes.

What do you see as the greatest challenges in education, and how you do see schools responding to these challenges?

The greatest challenge in education is supporting diversity. Schools around the world have changing school populations. This in turn means that there are many students with additional learning needs in schools.

How do schools prepare for this diversity? I believe it is through quality leadership that builds a culture from within. This means school staff must first examine their own beliefs, attitudes and values. They must then come to an agreed-upon position that everyone can learn in their school if they find the right way to support students through their teaching and learning programs –whether that is academically, socially or emotionally.

As a school leader, what leadership qualities do you most admire most in others?

People who are relational leaders are those that get results in the most humane way. Leaders who are able to make a significant contribution to the lives of others while still being able to balance their own work and life are to be admired. I think ethical, sustainable leadership that looks at the health of the organization over the individual – more we and less I — is to be admired.

Schools aren’t all about curriculum and routine — they are places which can show the best we are. Could you share an example of an event that inspired you at your school?

Each year at our school we give our early childhood students an opportunity to ‘teach’ their parents something they have learned throughout the year. Besides being one of the biggest turn-outs of parents and loved ones inside the classroom, it is an opportunity for these children who have additional learning needs to be confident instructors of learning.

It is delightful to see the students giving clear instructions to their parents and loved ones, and the sheer delight on all of their faces as the children show the progress they have made in their learning. It is also a wonderful self-reflection tool for our teachers who get to see how their students view them as instructors of learning. Sometimes this is positive, and other times it is constructive, as teachers are able to modify approaches based on student feedback. There is a real positive buzz in our school – it is just fabulous and what education is all about.

Why do you feel passionate about innovation and technology in the classroom?

Technology and innovation are hugely important in schools. I live and work in Western Australia, which is a large state in Australia with many areas that are rural and remote. Our school runs an outreach service for supporting the professional development needs of teachers in these areas.

One of the major initiatives we have invested in is video conferencing facilities. We now have three video conferencing centers in the school so that we can provide a live feed for professional learning to our colleagues in rural and remote locations. This will enable us to be able to offer a wider range of professional learning opportunities.

We are also able to provide teachers in these locations with targeted instruction on specific interventions that we use with classes in our school. They can see lessons in real time and then have real-time feedback about what they saw. We can model specific lessons to assist them in their teaching and learning programs.

Because I am frequently away from my school in my national and international roles, I also use Skype, Zoom and other platforms to join my leadership team in real-time for our meetings.

What are some steps you can share for a successful whole school transformation plan?
The most successful plans are those that are owned by the staff. When you as the leader are clear about the goal of the transformation and you have a very clear and trusted process of change – it is easy to trust the process to deliver your goal.

When staff has ownership, then true transformational change takes place. This year at our school, we implemented Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). These are run by and for staff with very clear goals and outcomes. Everyone has the same goals and outcomes and a set of guidance, but there is no prescribed way of getting there. This has had the effect of allowing staff to be creative for themselves and their colleagues. It has also meant that they are taking more ownership in what happens regarding teaching and learning planning in the school. It has been a joy to watch and to get the positive feedback from staff.

About Fiona Forbes
Principal, Peel Language Development School

President, Australian Special Education Principals’ Association

President-elect, International Confederation of Principals

Perth, Western Australia

  • Birthplace: Perth, Western Australia
  • Educational background: Post Grad Diploma, Honorary Doctorate
  • Website I check every day: BBC News
  • Favorite childhood memory: Playing in the surf at the beach
  • Favorite book: Too many to name!!!
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