A deep motivation has driven Marnie Parker to take on the role of Principal at the Cape York Girl Academy. The school is small in size but profound in effect, and it needs an empathetic mind and a safe pair of hands to ensure the fulfillment of its mission – bringing education to those who were denied it elsewhere. Having cradled the reins since the start of Term 4, Marnie has been able to appreciate the school’s unique environment.
“I visited this school for the first time five years ago. The moment that I walked through its gate, I immediately marvelled at its serene beauty, particularly the gardens and its proximity to the beach. I knew it was the place that I wanted to work one day,” she says.
“I find it to be a calm and peaceful place; the students are always smiling and laughing. I’m relieved that they, and the staff, have been supportive and welcoming.”
Perched above Marnie’s desk is an aged portrait of her grandfather, who was, according to Marnie, a learned Indigenous man of the Kamilaroi nation (located in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland) and an inspiring force behind her decision to become an educator. However, as he lived during a less enlightened era of Australia’s history, he did not have a fair and equal opportunity to formal education because he was an Indigenous person.
“He was a very kind man. He taught himself to read and write, and he taught me that education is everything by retelling stories of how it had benefitted him,” says Marnie.
“Because of his story, I know how important it is to provide opportunities for a holistic education to the students here at Girl Academy. That means looking at the learning outcomes as well as the whole person.”
The Cape York Girl Academy is an all-girls boarding high school located in Wangetti Beach, a 40-minute drive north of Cairns. It is an institution that accommodates school-age Indigenous mothers and their babies. It also provides a place of education for Indigenous girls who have otherwise been alienated from the typical schooling system – reasons for this include severe bullying and dismissal of their culture.
Every part of the schooling experience at Girl Academy prioritises cultural safety – the practice of respecting cultural difference. The school educates students collectively as part of junior or senior classes. However, they each require personalised approaches to instruction, given their differing cultural backgrounds, educational histories, and unique post-schooling ambitions.
Marnie’s career to date includes leadership and instructional positions at schools akin to Girl Academy. She was the Curriculum Manager at Carinity College Southside, and the Head of vocational education and training at Redlands College.
“I feel my previous experience has set me up well for this role. At Carinity College, 60 per cent of our students identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander. I learnt a lot there about cultural norms and practices, and how to have important conversations relevant to such matters,” she says.
“At Redlands College, I managed 85 students on individual timetables. Each student was very different, so I became quite experienced in personalising learning environments and curriculums.”
“All of my experiences have helped me with getting young people set up for success, so they’re not just signed up to a learning institution for the sake of it. I have ensured that they are engaged in conversations about the purpose of their education and have then tailored their experience accordingly. This could include traineeships, work placements, and career pathway design.”
I want the girls to leave here as confident young women who know how to use their voices. That is the ultimate outcome.
Marnie values a kinaesthetic approach to teaching. This means she grounds her instruction in a hands-on style by applying theoretical knowledge to practical situations. She believes real, autonomous learning occurs when the students are enjoying the process and have a chance to demonstrate their understanding in their own way.
According to Marnie, a student’s inability to demonstrate learning is not a mark against their capability. Instead, it is a signal for where the school has instructional gaps that need greater focus.
“It’s important to give the girls the opportunity to show what they know and can do,” she says.
“If we can’t get that evidence through written work, we will apply reasonable adjustment. This could mean verbal or hands-on demonstrations or having someone scribe for them. We then become aware of the areas in the curriculum that need reinforcement or adaption.”
Marnie intends to practically align the Girl Academy schooling experience with the realities of life beyond schooling. Typical subjects – such as English, mathematics, and sciences – remain important. However, the Girl Academy curriculum will also prioritise knowledge pertaining to financial literacy, digital literacy, communication skills, problem-solving skills, and health and nutrition. Marnie has termed these as “transferrable skills” – otherwise known to some as ‘employability skills’ or ‘soft skills’ (Marnie believes the latter term diminishes their significance).
“Participating in a whole range of activities outside of the classroom environment builds transferrable skills,” she says.
“My goal is to ensure our girls are equipped with those skills. They need to be able to articulate what they are, and have portable evidence of them.”
Marnie explains transferrable skills to be both innate and learnt. She gives an example of a traditional dance routine that the students performed during their NAIDOC Week celebrations. By the way Marnie describes the story, the students transferrable skills were the transparent, but not invisible, thread that wove their theoretical knowledge together.
"During their routine, the students displayed knowledge of culture and performing arts. They also displayed all the skills known to constitute teamwork," she says.
“To formulate that dance, the girls would have needed to listen to each other, resolve differences, and harmonise their ideas. These are the skills that are really valuable for employment."
“Employers don’t always know how an ATAR, QCE or VET qualification is relevant to their workplace. Research indicates that approximately three-quarters of employers are more concerned with a job candidate’s broader skills and capabilities.”
The Girl Academy does not just accommodate babies of the student mothers, but also nurtures their own cognitive and physical growth in an on-site creche. Being a single parent herself, Marnie understands both the support needs of the young mothers and their concerns for their babies' development. She says this will be a priority during her tenure.
"Having raised my daughter on my own, I understand the importance of a holistic support service to ensure our young mums have the chance to complete their education," she says.
"My idea of support includes more than child care services and parenting programs. Rather, a friendly ear to listen, words of kindness and encouragement, and empathetic understanding. If our mothers feel valued and strengthened by the support of the school community, their babies will grow and thrive too."
Marnie has a vision for the Girl Academy. She wants the school to be a model of excellence; she wants the young women educated there to realise their dreams.
“I am cognisant of the girls’ wellbeing needs, so I will suit the curriculum accordingly,” she says.
“I want the girls to leave here as confident young women who know how to use their voices. That is the ultimate outcome.”