Regular readers (how freely we use that expression!) will know we were due to depart for the Southern Hemisphere and so might guess from the title of this piece that we’ve at least got as far as Singapore. But actually we’re not as unworldly as you might suppose and in fact we’ve made it to beautiful Brisbane and even given the Global Leadership lecture that was the prime mover for the trip. And jolly good it was to be able to speak in The Customs House, a wonderful building that in 1889 when it was opened must have looked a bit like a cathedral – albeit dedicated to mercantile trade and the enlargement of the British Empire. Today it’s Corinthian columns are dwarfed by the constellation of fantastic skyscrapers that now make up downtown Brisbane – which makes it a really special place to step into. It was also a great privilege for me to talk to a full house that was so appreciative I think I was still answering questions two hours afterwards when the staff were on the point of carrying us outside to continue our discussions on Queen Street while they went home.
Even if you’ve never been to Australia you’ll know it’s a land of surprises and while I was still thinking nothing could upstage my evening in Customs House, next morning I found myself in front of 200 students at the QASMT school in Toowong, a delightfully hilly and leafy suburb of Brisbane. The somewhat daunting plan was to talk to them for an hour, persuading them that biology is fantastic and telling them a bit about cancer. Daunting hardly does it justice in that I’d never tried to keep that many school kids entertained before (not even when, for a mercifully short time, I was actually a teacher in Liverpool did I get confronted by classes of that size [as an historical aside, the first time I walked into a school classroom as a teacher I found before me 50 (exactly) nine year olds, of mixed ability and desperate backgrounds. So nowadays, with even the biggest UK class size being seemingly 30, the teaching game must be a doddle].
My teaching experience could hardly be more different to what greeted me at the school on Bywong Road. Entry is via the school’s exam and they follow the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme which means they teach a broad curriculum, albeit with a strong emphasis on science (their acronym stands for Queensland Academy for Science, Mathematics and Technology). The buildings are extensive, new, include (as their blurb puts it) university-standard science laboratories and, all told, provide a wonderfully attractive environment. However, what made my visit the highlight of Australia so far were the pupils. Favourable impressions are certainly helped by the Australian predilection for school uniforms and at QASMT all students are required to wear the Academy’s uniform. And very smart they look too. Without being regimented, they appear comfortable, neat and completely professional. I know that probably sounds like an old fogey talking but, if so, we have to conclude that there are a few of those determining school policy in Australia – and long may they prevail!
I’m not sure whether my 200 were entertained but boy were they attentive and full of great answers as we went along. After my main talk the head girl and boy made a delightful presentation after which – perhaps the best bit of all – I sat for an hour or so in the sunshine chatting to a charming and wonderfully polite group of boys and girls who were just full of interesting, thoughtful and clever questions.
I arrived at Bywong Road in a state of some trepidation but left marvelously uplifted, feeling much privileged to have spent a few hours in the world of these inspiring young Australians.