Transforming school culture to overcome ‘wicked problems’: A case study on Holy Cross Primary School

Transforming school culture to overcome ‘wicked problems’: A case study on Holy Cross Primary School

In the world of Australian education, the need for transformative change has never been more crucial. While the current challenges facing Australian schools are undoubtedly significant, there are schools leading the way, using innovative approaches to tackle the most pressing issues head-on. Holy Cross Primary School is one such institution.

You may be aware of one prominent figure in global education, Professor Pasi Sahlberg and his recent insights on the 'wicked problems' in Australian education. There are many discussions happening in schools and the media landscape about the challenges in education including inclusion, equity, safety, teacher shortages, and student and staff wellbeing. Discussions around some of these challenges led Holy Cross to search for an education and wellbeing framework that could create and support a positive school culture.

A new school, a unique opportunity

Holy Cross Primary School opened its doors for the first time in 2022, welcoming 140 students and a team of 19 dedicated staff members. In just two years, the school has seen its population surge to over 260 students, with further enrolments planned in 2024. What sets Holy Cross apart is the conscious effort it made to create a positive school culture from the beginning. The school recognised that building a thriving educational environment that supports the wellbeing of its students, staff and school members, required a deliberate, informed and evidence-based approach.

Aligning vision and values

In the 12 months of planning before Holy Cross opened, Principal Mark Miatello undertook a search for an education and wellbeing framework.

Mark had a strong vision for Holy Cross and it was important that any education and wellbeing model work alongside it. Their search led them to the ReLATE model, developed on the frontline in MacKillop Education schools, delivered by The MacKillop Institute and independently evaluated by Monash University. The model resonated deeply with Holy Cross's core values of love, hope, and unity, and aligned with its mission to create a safe, supportive, and enriching learning environment.

The ReLATE model: A catalyst for change

The ReLATE model, developed by The MacKillop Institute, reframes learning and teaching environments by creating a whole-of-school culture that focuses on improved teaching and student wellbeing. The four foundational concepts of the ReLATE model are safety, counter-stress school environments, enhanced teaching and learning, and whole school sustainable change.

The ReLATE model combines educational research, social science, behavioural theory and neuroscience and recognises that the preconditions to effective learning and teaching are environments that are safe, supportive, and predictable for both students and staff. ReLATE provides school leaders and educators with the knowledge, strategies, and implementation science to create whole of school change.

Deputy Principal, Gemma Gowland, recognised the model's adaptability and its potential to suit their unique school community.

“We've been able to take learnings away from ReLATE and apply them to our own context and vision. We don’t see our school vision and ReLATE as separate,” says Gemma.

Prioritising everyone’s safety: A cornerstone

The ReLATE model has helped Holy Cross to embed its priority of safety into their everyday practices. The model provides strategies that support physical, emotional, and spiritual safety—a commitment to the psychological wellbeing of both staff and students.

“Safety is a huge priority and that was always the case. But we’ve been able to look at the ReLATE framework to help us embed that element of safety into our everyday being,” says Deputy Principal Gemma Gowland.

“The psychological safety of our staff and students is paramount. This includes the physical safety, the emotional safety, and the spiritual safety.”

“Teachers need to feel safe. They need to have an environment that is organised, structured, and has routine. They need to know that their well-being is important.”

Putting in the work, seeing the results

Implementing the ReLATE model was not without its challenges.

“My experience has been that sometimes you take part in professional development and then you expect things to change overnight without actively doing anything about it,” says Gemma.

It took commitment and time, and the data demonstrates the tangible results experienced at Holy Cross. Staff members have reported increased confidence in delivering trauma-informed education and managing wellbeing, a more positive school culture, and a noticeable improvement in the perception of support at both a personal and system level. These indicators demonstrate a workforce who are confident in their job, feel supported, and believe they have the skills to respond to challenges that arise in the classroom.

Building a transformative school culture

The journey wasn't solely about embracing the ReLATE model—it was about making school culture an integral part of Holy Cross' identity.

“To build culture, you have to keep having the conversations and you have to keep living out the concepts. We make that an explicit part of our routine. I think you need patience, resilience, and time,” says Principal Mark Miatello.

Articulating the link back to safety, support, wellbeing and the foundational ReLATE concepts, when incidents occur has been crucial in building a culture rooted in these principles. Mark and Gemma emphasise that building culture requires ongoing effort and patience. It's not about quick fixes but about aligning school culture, supported by a model such as ReLATE, with the school's vision and values. 

“I would say that it's embedded here now. You can feel it, you witness it, you can see it, you can hear it.” says Gemma.

A foundation for improved teaching and learning

Today, Holy Cross Primary School proudly stands as a testament to the role that education models like ReLATE can play in helping schools address problems like teacher wellbeing and teacher shortages. These problems can be addressed with a concerted culture-change model that focuses on safety and wellbeing to create supportive environments for teaching and improved student learning.

About the ReLATE Model

The ReLATE program merges educational research and neuroscience, focusing on trauma theory and its impact on children's development. It equips educators with skills to understand and address the effects of adverse experiences on learning. The model prioritises wellbeing, creating supportive classrooms and advocating for school-wide cultural change for better learning environments.