12 January 2024

Principal driven by desire to make a difference

| John Thistleton
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Martin Purcell and his wife Sylvia

Martin Purcell and his wife Sylvia on a tour of China. He says despite the drawbacks and challenges, rewarding experiences await teachers prepared to go out on a limb for their students. Photo: Purcell family collection.

Martin Purcell had high hopes as Australia and the world grappled with an uncertain future in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having retired in 2017 as Mulwaree High School principal, he had experienced the extraordinary resilience and leadership of young people.

“I thought with COVID we would have to reset society,” he said. “We could sit back and say, ‘Actually, what do we really think is important in our society? A good health system? A good education system? A social net that catches people who are not as well off as we are?’”

To achieve those things would have meant a little more tax and doing things better than allowing health and education to run down as it had been allowed to do before the pandemic struck. But the opportunity to change came and went without that much hoped for reset.

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Martin believes society can still leap ahead by giving teenagers aged 16 to 18 a non-compulsory vote and ensuring civics is taught in school to help empower young people.

“They are outstanding in what they do, in how they lead and the opinions they have,” he said. “I think young people today know so much more than their predecessors. They understand so much more and boy do they lead the world,” he said, reflecting on his 41 years of teaching.

Having taught in Sydney’s outer west and the Southern Highlands in several roles including head teacher and deputy principal, Martin said his move in 2011 to Mulwaree High School was the best ever.

The school was right at the top of its game in every aspect, which he attributes to his predecessor Tom Cole, who had raised Mulwaree’s standing within the wider Goulburn community.


Second from left, second row, Martin Purcell, then 21, at Airds High School in Sydney’s outer west. Fifteen of the teachers were new to the school and 12 of them were in their first year out of teachers college. Photo: Purcell family collection.

But in the wider education system, investing in teachers does not match what it used to be, back when a whole range of people in the 1970s and early 1980s received scholarships, which led them into 40-year teaching careers. When scholarships stopped, the number of experienced teachers began running down, ultimately leaving a huge deficit of corporate knowledge.

The solution, he believes, is reintroducing scholarships in return for teachers committing to five years of teaching. Once teachers invest those years, they become settled in their communities, especially in regional centres.

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Involving young people more can pay off too, as Martin found in 1994 when he was head teacher of the history faculty at Picton High School and won the Minister’s Award for Excellence in Education for his work in negotiated learning.

“I really believed in negotiating the curriculum with the kids, in other words giving them a say in how we taught them,” he said. “I was working with my faculty and so we changed all our programs to reflect that.”

Students were taught how to negotiate properly and to compromise. Their teachers had to compromise too, while working within the Department of Education’s parameters. “I think it is really powerful because kids take control of their learning and consequently you get better results,” he said.

The prestigious award was one of countless highlights with individual students and collectively with schools and colleagues to improve writing, retention and students’ full potential.

He has no problem with people having the choice of private or public schools, but questions why public funding is going to elite schools for optional extras while children with higher needs in the public system go without crucial resources to further their learning.

“The importance of a public school, and all the schools I have been at that do things similar to this, we had a greater number of kids who we were feeding in the morning and giving food to take home in the evening and uniforms,” he said.

He once read about studies that had shown if kids received one positive comment a day they would continue returning to school, instead of fading into the background and dropping out. “I thought how am I going to do this in a school this size?” he said. “So I went out the front each day and met the kids as they came in to school. I just said, ‘Welcome to school; have a great day’, ‘It’s great to see you here’, all that sort of thing.”

Martin with Moss Vale High School’s first grade side

Coaching basketball as well as teaching in 1984, Martin with Moss Vale High School’s first grade side.

No longer required to teach in his principal’s role, Martin opted to take a modern history class, maintaining two passions throughout his career – history and face-to-face teaching.

Teaching these days is tough, and while he remembers the bad times, he said great times came with the job too, often created by teachers prepared to go way out on a limb to make a difference in children’s lives.

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