Profile: Pip Block, Principal, A1 Student School

Pip Block

  

What attracted you to this particular principal’s role?

Now in my third year as a principal, the role has evolved considerably from beginning my own school at the end of 2019. This is as a result of the substantial growth in pupil and staff numbers together with taking the programme online. Founding a new school required me to take on this role and I am thoroughly enjoying it. The challenge, the diverse skill range required, the social interaction, the camaraderie and the opportunity to make a difference all contribute to the attraction of being a principal. Being able to grow a team from the ground up with an open and supportive culture that experiences similar challenges and rewards is encouraging and gives me the confidence to make a difference.

 

How would you describe your school?

A1 Student School is a co-educational day school. We started with eight students and currently have 26 full-time students and 25 part-time students. We teach a neuroplasticity programme from Canada called the Arrowsmith Program, which was founded 40 years ago by Barbara Arrowsmith. Students age from 7-14 years in class and all ages from seven years to adult in our online programme. Students who attend A1 need to satisfy the criteria to enrol in the Arrowsmith Program. A1 is a small, privately-funded, independent school set in a converted villa in the Auckland suburb of St Heliers. There is a 1:6 staff-to-student ratio where staff are trained to teach and guide students who aim to improve their cognitive capacity. I regard A1 as a sanctuary for students who have not found the “right fit” for their way of learning. We are an inclusive, professional organisation where the students’ diverse needs are a priority. We pride ourselves on a family-orientated atmosphere and have frequent opportunities to celebrate our strengths.

 

What do you hope to achieve through your leadership/what are your future ambitions for the school?

Through my leadership, I hope to inspire my other teachers to help explore the different ways that students learn – there is no one-size-fits-all in my opinion. Our team is encouraged to constantly strive to improve our learning environment and through my leadership we encourage families to feel supported as they navigate and guide their children’s education.

We aim to expand, to open an additional physical site on the North Shore, Christchurch and Tauranga, and to increase our online capacity to teach students. Since COVID, our roll has increased substantially as we recognise that many families are looking outside mainstream schooling to educate their child. We would also like to approach Government with a proposal to implement a specific component of the Arrowsmith Program – a paper exercise to assist junior students in Year 2 improve their handwriting, reading and spelling. In less than a year and 30 minutes per day, we have seen students significantly improve in all these areas.

 

Can you briefly describe your career pathway?

I trained as a teacher in England in 1993 and worked in Bedfordshire until I moved to Auckland in 2002. My first position in New Zealand was at Glendowie College as the Dean of Year 9 and 10. Following this, I worked at Marist College to explore teaching in a Catholic school. I then joined the Auckland Central charity, Life Education Trust, where I delivered an anti-drug and alcohol programme in 22 schools from a mobile classroom for five years. It was this critical and rewarding position that led me to work at Saint Kentigern Boys’ School. The principal, Geoff Burgess, at that time was on our Board of Trustees and invited me to join the intermediate teaching staff at the Boys’ School where I was appointed to Head of House for four years. Three years later Geoff’s successor, Peter Cassie, looked to introduce the Arrowsmith Program which appealed to me immediately. I trained in Toronto and returned to begin the programme at Saint Kents Boys’ School. Receiving a constant stream of enquiry from families all over New Zealand throughout my time at the boys’ school, my passion to reach as many students as possible led me to found A1 Student School.

 

Were there any particularly enlightening moments or inspirational people who have helped set you on your way?

There are many inspirational people who have helped to set me on my way. Geoff Burgess, the principal who initially employed me at Saint Kents was a true professional who introduced me to the standards expected at a private school and then following him, Peter Cassie, current principal. Peter’s vision for the Arrowsmith Program and belief in me helped to orchestrate what is now a growing independent school and he kindly acted as my referee when applying to be a member of ISNZ. Peter’s hands-on and direct approach gave me confidence to pursue my passion of the programme. Last March, during the ISNZ seminar for aspiring leaders, I was introduced to Dale Burden, principal at St Peter’s. His inspirational presentation will remain with me for a long time. His speech resonated with me and reassured me that I was on the right path. My husband, Mike, is my biggest advocate. He has been behind me the whole way; his business acumen and drive ensured I remained steadfast with my vision to reach my goal of opening a school. He never waivers in his support and continues to be my closest ally and loudest fan.

In regard to enlightening moments, I would highlight training in the Arrowsmith Program in Toronto – the absolute passion I feel for this programme put me on a path I regard as my raison d’être. Being approved by the Ministry of Education as a fully-registered school gave us the credibility that new families look for and those who have been through this process will understand the absolute focus and dedication needed to be registered. Becoming a member of ISNZ truly humbled me as I have the highest regard for the organisation and what it represents; to be a part of ISNZ is important to me for support and career guidance. The moment I received notification of membership, I was emotional – the culmination of years of hard work and commitment unfold in surprising ways and this was a very rewarding moment.

 

How would you describe your leadership philosophy?

My leadership philosophy is to instill a feeling of accomplishment, both to staff and to my students. I constantly strive to help my teaching staff improve their understanding of the programme to deliver better educational and outcomes for our students. By empowering everyone at A1 Student through quality teaching and empathic awareness, this has gone a long way to ensure everyone leaves school each day a happier person. The nurturing nature of the school is key to our success and I encourage ongoing professional development (PD) to maintain current skills and promote investment in the school. I would say my ability to pass on important information about students and clear instructions to staff regarding the programme are key to the smooth running of the school. Our staff are consistently asked to participate in sharing their ideas for constant improvement and I believe this collaboration is important to help all our staff feel included, valued and respected.

 

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

Independent education in New Zealand may provide students with opportunities and resources they may not be able to access in state schools. For example, overseas travel and state-of-the-art facilities. I believe the perception is that families expect more from independent schools with regard to curriculum, sport, learning support, facilities and calibre of teacher because they are paying for them. Expectations of personal conduct from staff of their students is high and expectations of staff to deliver are high. Academic success is expected to be higher than state schools due to the alleged higher salaries to entice top-quality staff, and families tend to see independent schools as the stepping stone to securing respected employment. Alumni is strongly connected and opportunities are often found through friendships formed in independent schools.

For international schools, I would say the same as the above.

 

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

  • As a private school we are able to offer an established neuroplasticity programme that is not available in Ministry of Education schools
  • Reputation of the school can open doors
  • High standard of behaviour from students
  • Opportunity to experience career paths in boarding/pastoral areas
  • Private health care subsidies
  • Teacher registration fee waived/subsidsed
  • Networking with other independent schools (school visits, PD)
  • Sporting fixtures are well attended and supported
  • Facilities are excellent
  • Smaller class size (usually)
  • Marginally-higher salary
  • Annual bonus towards clothing allowance etc
  • Membership to ISNZ gives access to PD, support and career vacancies.

 

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

  • Smaller class size
  • Excellent facilities
  • Opportunities in music, sport, curriculum, culture
  • Alumni connections
  • Respected in the community (usually!)
  • Academic success expected and supported
  • Learning support usually at a high level
  • Opportunity to learn a variety of foreign languages
  • Strong traditions (for example, assembly, chapel, uniform)
  • Etiquette
  • Single-sex education more common (if desired)
  • Holiday dates preferable (for example, three weeks in July instead of two in state schools).