Profile: Dale Burden, Principal, St Peter's Cambridge

Dale with head students


What attracted you to the principal’s role at St Peter’s, Cambridge?

The recruiter introduced me to the previous principal and between them, and the vision for the school from the board of trustees, it seemed like a great opportunity. When I came down to visit the campus and meet the board, it sealed the deal for me.

The trust’s vision is to provide a world-class learning experience. This campus, where we are and where we are going in the future will enable limitless learning opportunities for students. That was the thing that made me go “wow, this place has real potential”.


How would you describe St Peter’s, Cambridge?

St Peter’s, Cambridge is a different kind of learning environment. With space to learn, space to thrive and space to think differently – students are prepared for a new and exciting future.

With a proud tradition stretching back to 1936, St Peter’s is now one of the most respected co-educational, independent day and boarding schools in New Zealand, with a roll of over 1200 students, ranging from Years 7 to 13. The split of boys to girls is roughly 50/50, a ratio the school works hard to maintain, enabling equal opportunities for all students.

It has a geographical advantage, facilities advantage, history and the work put in by previous principals – particularly my predecessor Steve Robb, who did a great job during his 20 years at St Peter’s.

Then there are the people we are working with – the Board of Trustees are entrepreneurial-type people, who support the progress of the school and are not afraid to attempt new programmes. The school is informed by its history, but is not held back by it. St Peter’s, Cambridge is very progressive.

I believe we have the best campus in New Zealand and probably Australasia. That alone creates an environment of opportunity and with the resources we have, complements this wonderful learning space.


What do you hope to achieve through your leadership?

I am a great believer that leadership is stewardship – you’re in the position for a relatively short period of time, and the key thing is to leave it better than you found it. Everyone who has been in this role before me, has done just that.


What are your future ambitions for the school?

By being independent, we can be leaders and innovators in education, because we don’t have the handbrake of the state. We have to comply with the laws of the land in health and safety and so on and there are things in the Education Act that do apply to independent schools, but we are given much more freedom to provide learning opportunities to meet the needs of the students today – we don’t have to wait for resources or for the curriculum to change or for Government to give us permission. Therefore, some of the areas where we are innovating – eg, wellbeing, the arts and sports’ academies are easier to establish and make progress on.


What pathway has your career followed?

I grew up in Christchurch and attended the local Papanui High School – the “other side of the tracks” – but got a good, solid state education.

Following High School, I attended Canterbury University and Christchurch College of Education.

Funnily enough, the only history teacher’s job that then came up was at Whanganui Collegiate. I did not think that they would appoint a first-year teacher. I was on practicum at St Andrew’s and the head of history there, Alvin Andrews, kept badgering me to apply – so I did in the end and got it!

After that I went to Whanganui High School as head of social sciences and then to Auckland to Westlake Boys’ as deputy head – I was only about 30 and, when I look back, I still think “far too young”.

From there I went to Mt Albert Grammar as associate principal and then headmaster for ten years, before coming to St Peter’s, Cambridge.


Were there enlightening moments or inspirational people who set you on your way to a career in education?

Quite a few teachers at Papanui High School – Debbie Francis was a standout, along with Peter Williams and one or two others. Debbie was an excellent history teacher but has since held many roles, most recently running the investigation into bullying in Parliament.

A couple of people really helped when I was on teaching practicums, like Graham Warburton and Geoff and Dawn Tait, and then the principals I’ve worked with such as Trevor McKinley, Warwick McGuire, Jonathan Hensman and Jim Dale. The existing principal of Mt Albert Grammar, Greg Taylor, gave me opportunities and guidance when I first arrived.

I’ve been lucky that I’ve had good people as mentors and people to look up to when progressing through the system, and I always reflect on that in my own practice.


How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

My philosophy is very much centred in the “servant leadership” model. I believe I am serving my staff and students. Their needs will always come first.

I expect hard work and a high level of competence, to enable St Peter’s to provide the very best for our students.

I really enjoy surrounding myself with people who are better than me, because that way you form really good teams. I really enjoy leading a group of people that challenge and demand more from each other, but at the same time are all working on the same page to get great outcomes for students.

If you appoint the best people and then get out of their way, you end up getting really good results. Then, as their leader, you focus on the big picture in a strategic way and ensure everyone is doing their bit. I have been lucky with the people I have been able to collaborate with, to bring about those outcomes.


Can you share your thoughts about independent education – in New Zealand and internationally?

I quite like the collegiality. Other people have said our part of the sector’s “a bit competitive and nobody wants to talk to anybody” but I haven’t found that. I like sharing things with people and I see us as all as one big sector really – if kids want to move, then they move.

Another benefit is not having the rules and regulations of the state school sector. As a state school head for ten years, I ignored many of the rules. Frankly, if it worked in the best interests of the students or staff, I did it.

By not having the restrictions of the state system and for us here at St Peter’s, Cambridge more resources, it means that we can be more in control of our destiny. I like the freedom we have in the independent sector both in New Zealand and Australia.


What do you see as the benefits of working at an independent school?

If you want to focus on your teaching and developing relationships with students most of the time, then you are going to be able to do that at an independent school. Because everyone that goes to an independent school wants to learn and there is no school-based reason why you can’t do a really good job. Independent schools are just so well resourced for teachers – you don’t have a lack of resolve in the classroom or time – you can really get on with your job and be a great teacher.

With greater resources at our schools, we can also embrace the latest developments in education.


What do you see as the benefits for students of attending an independent school?

More opportunities. This is achieved by the better resources we have at St Peter’s, Cambridge and greater freedom and flexibility to be the best possible version of yourself.

Independent schools should be funded more by the Government, I agree with that, but having said that, the opportunities at an independent school to meet individual needs is much greater across the spectrum. For example, if you are really bright or really struggle or you just want to play badminton or learn an instrument, you are more likely to get that opportunity at an independent school. And at the end of the day, we should be better and offer more opportunities, otherwise what are our students’ parents paying for?