This week I travelled to Canberra to attend a two day briefing for principals of Independent Schools about the Health of the Nation. The Forum brought together a variety of speakers to reflect on specific aspects of the national landscape that are relevant to schools. I am delighted to share some of the key messages with you below.

The Acting Minister for Education and Youth, The Honourable Stuart Robert MP, commended Independent Schools for the work they have done in the last two years to maintain high standards of teaching and learning and provided an update about the progress in developing the revised Australian Curriculum. The Honourable Tanya Plibersek MP, Shadow Minister for Education, outlined the Opposition’s plan for education and the priorities of improving teacher education, improving academic standards and ensuring that all students are valued and well taught.

Marjorie Evans, CEO of Independent Schools Australia provided an update on the health of the Independent Schools Sector, reporting that in 2021, enrolments in this sector grew by 3/1% against a general population growth of only 0/6% - a reflection that families are looking to Independent Schools because of the excellent educational outcomes and breadth of opportunities that they provide.

Karen Mundine, CEO of Reconciliation Australia spoke about the need to bravely move forward actions at schools that will promote reconciliation. At the moment, Lowther Hall is auditing our curriculum to assess how we are doing with the teaching of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures and it is vital that we continue to do more in this space. We are also engaging with local Aboriginal elders to begin the process of developing a Reconciliation Action Plan for Lowther Hall over the next 12 months and Karen Mundine reinforced the importance of this undertaking.

General Manager and CEO of the office of the e-safety Commissioner, Rebecca Razavi, shared alarming statistics about the growth of image based abuse on-line, cyberbullying (especially via private messaging) and exposure of children to inappropriate content. She outlined the work that the e-safety Commissioner is undertaking in terms of seeking more proactive protection of young people by online providers and increasing action under the increased powers afforded by the Online Safety Act 2021. Her presentation was a reminder of the need for all adults to remain vigilant in monitoring internet and app use by our young people and to report inappropriate content to the Commissioner or to police if necessary. I felt confident that the work we continue to do in this space at Lowther Hall is in keeping with the strategies advocated by the office of the e-safety Commissioner.

Perhaps the most insightful presentation was that from Professor Donna Cross, the Program Head of Health Promotion and Education at Telethon Kids, who presented data on the wellbeing of young people around the country. Some of the numbers shared in this presentation were very concerning and reflect a significant amount of anxiety and distress amongst children and adolescents in Australia. Professor Cross reflected on the impact of the pandemic and the fact that Lifeline’s 10 busiest days on record all occurred during the last 2 years, and 5 of these were in August 2021. On a more positive note, she re-capped the factors that are the best predictors of wellbeing: consistent exercise, at least 8 hours of sleep and positive relationships, with this last factor being the most important. I was interested to hear the research which has demonstrated that people with stronger reciprocal social relationships have a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker relationships and that the best predictor of a long and quality life is the number of positive relationships that a person has.

At a time when a key priority for us at Lowther Hall has been re-engaging with our community and supporting students to reconnect with each other, this information served to underscore this important aspect of our work. We know that having students connect  through classes and cocurricular pursuits, facilitating routines to assist teachers to get to know their students and providing forums for parents and caregivers to come back on site and be together, are going to be vital measures to implement to promote mental and emotional health – and the physical health – of everyone at our school.

I return from Canberra feeling well abreast of the health of our nation and confident that the approaches we are taking at Lowther Hall to provide an excellent education, to build social connections, to foster wellbeing, to promote online safety and to work towards reconciliation are informed by sound research, supported by experts and will continue to serve our girls and our community well in the coming months.

Ms Elisabeth Rhodes