Acting principal contemplates how best to serve Catholic education

POLITICS is entwined in education and for three decades Mark Mowbray has been watching its evolution and impact on school communities in the Manning and Great Lakes areas.

At 56 years of age, the acting principal of St Joseph's Primary School in Taree describes himself as "just a pup!" but it is not with inexperienced eyes that he studies the complexities of politics, curriculum development, staff advocacy, parent communities and the impacts on children committed to Catholic education.

Mark says "education has become more prominent on the national agenda" and with that marked change in recent years came his considered decision to step forward and become active in numerous State and national associations so that he "could tell politicians what they need to hear about what happens inside schools."

Over time those conversations have included discussions with premiers and ministers for education - the politicians may come and go but Mark remains and his advocacy continues to be resolute.

"Every minister of education wants to make an impact and it's not always a positive impact. Generally they want to do the right thing but they want to make their own stand ... I always have a very strong message about what primary schools stand for and the impact of those policies on schools," Mark explained.

That message is heard by the men and women who cultivate education policy and determine revenue as Mark is a commissioner on the NSW Catholic Education Commission, the primary chair of the NSW Association of Catholic School Principals, vice-president of the Australian Catholic Primary Principals Association and a member of the National Executive Council of the Australian Primary Principals Association. He is a heavy-hitter in education and his contribution recently earned him the John Laing Memorial Award from the Principals Australia Institute.

Mark is currently immersed in the community of St Joseph's Primary School as the school works to select a new principal.

"Schools are very, very complex places and I think the community still sort of sees them as the way to move forward but are confused as to how to effect change," Mark explained.

"Leaders in primary schools will always hold on to the objectives that primary schools are the foundation of building community, connections and the academic. We have to argue that a lot with politicians."

He supports the move to a national curriculum and points to a 2008 document called the Melbourne Declaration as being the foundation of the education reform. He says that education will continue to evolve and it fuels his choice "to be a leader ... to ensure that I can impact on the future direction of education."

"When I first started teaching I worked with nuns and priests as they were mainly the teachers within our schools," Mark said.

"In three decades so much has changed, our nuns and priests are now mainly working in our communities and education has changed from teaching a class to teaching individuals. It's about changing the fabric of society by growing one child at a time.

"A Catholic education is based on gospel values but it's also about the whole child. We work with God's most precious gift, the heart and mind of a child. That's what Catholic education is about and I love it.

"Catholic schools have become very much the parish for a lot of families. Catholic schools are growing, every year our enrolments are growing across the state, the number of Aboriginal children, the number of special needs children just keeps growing because we offer something that people want.

"It's the culture of the school that is attracting more people and that culture, at its core has the gospel.

"Everything that is in the gospel is what you want in life - you want joy, you want forgiveness, reconciliation, peace and happiness. You want people to show respect for each other and that is the core of what we want to do with society.

"We have the freedom in Catholic schools to say, that is what we stand for, and that is what a lot of people cherish."

Mark is currently wrestling with how he can best serve the community and continue with his professional development.

"My conundrum is how I continue in education. I think I want to stay in community. I have the option of moving out of a school and into system leadership but I'm not sure," he explained.

"I think leading principal associations has a great impact on schools. I work with principals who are all working with communities and we are in touch with parents, teachers and children everyday. So when we take a message to a peak government body it is a real one and they have to listen to that."

Listening is a skill and an integral part of being a principal in a community. Mark says one of the "privileges is that you get to know people intimately" and believes that "schools are increasingly taking on more of the roles once performed by the parish."

So the days are long, and at times, the burden of knowledge is heavy.

"My job at the moment is 24/7 and so on Sunday afternoon I give myself two or three hours down time. I've got 120 acres so I'll light a fire in the fire pit of our barbecue area and put on Hunters & Collectors and sing very loudly .. the kids go, 'Oh dad's having a moment!'," Mark laughed.

Also listening to him 'sing' is his wife, Marina and the smile is broad when he says, "she is my port in a storm!"

"We have been married 26 years and it's bloody awesome - it just gets better and better."

Marina is also a teacher and shares his passion for education. Together they have nurtured numerous school communities in the Manning and Great Lakes as they raised their children, Liam, Adam and Emily.

It is their first year as "empty-nesters", and according to Mark, they will work together as they negotiate and plan this new chapter in their lives.

So for now his agenda is set, and next week (June 25 to June 27) Mark will travel to New Zealand to address the New Zealand Catholic Primary Principals Association. He will share the Australian experience of education and also glean ideas from his New Zealand counterparts that could contribute to education reform in Australia and help to deliver the best learning experience for our students.

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