Robots, a barbershop and bagpipes: a Sydney school reinvents its tough past and what it means to love learning

The principal at Granville Boys high school is sick of talking about its one-time reputation for being a difficult, violent school.

Noel Dixon, who has been principal at the western Sydney school for just over four years, instead wants to talk about the success of their robotics team, their barbershop program or their bagpipe band.

“Reputations can hang around a school for too long, we still hear about incidents from 12 years ago being brought up. But that’s not our school now,” he says, as a robotics class buzzes behind him.

Dixon has worked hard to shift the mentality of the school, which was once known for schoolyard violence and low attendance, focusing on rewarding positive behaviour and encouraging the boys to enjoy school and find something to be passionate about.

The school’s year 12 robotics team, which won the First Lego League national robotics competition in December, will be heading to the United States to represent Australia in the First Lego League Razorback Open Invitational.

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As the students explain how their winning robot works, all pumping pistons and complex wiring, Dixon looks on with pride.

“We used to lose all of our good students, and now we’re keeping them all,” he says. “We have massive numbers coming in next year, after a record year 7 this year, with 165 boys coming in.

“The changes we’ve made have made it a safe space, first and foremost, and we’ve made it an exciting space for the boys, so that they can love coming to school.”

And his efforts have been rewarded, with the school improving its Naplan and HSC results, with Dixon also citing improvements in attendance and behaviour.

“All of the big stats at the school are showing significant signs of improvement,” he says.

The school got a dedicated robotics lab three years ago, a regular classroom converted into a workshop, complete with spare parts and a robot obstacle course.

Zaiyan Ahmed, a member of the year 12 winning team who has seen the robotics program grow, says there have been some “pretty big changes” at the school.

“This room used to be just a normal, ordinary classroom,” he says. “And now we have full fields, big robots, and it’s very cool.”

On the school’s reputation, Ahmed is dismissive, waving it away and pointing to the robots around him as he explains.

“It’s the past now, we moved on and we’re in a better place now,” he says. “It’s just a happy environment now, where we all have all sorts of opportunities.”

Another member of the team, Nimal Sivakumar, says the program has changed his life.

“This robotics program has provided me a new outlook on life, it’s now a stepping stone in a direction I wanted to go because I originally wanted to study engineering as a child and it’s now become an easier dream for me.”

Their teacher and mentor, Fiona Donnelly, says the new programs have given students a reason to love their school, and to stay at Granville Boys.

“I remember when these boys were in year 7, we used to do the robotics program out of a plastic container, and we had to pack it up after every lesson. Now we have a dedicated lab,” she says.

“I work very hard here to provide our students here in our community the same opportunities that students from private schools get. I’m very proud of that, and the programs they can get here.”

Enrolments at the school had previously plummeted by 2020, with only 500 students in the high school by the time the pandemic hit.

Donnelly says the record number of enrolments next year, with more than 200 boys expected in year 7, reflected how well the local community has embraced the changes at the school.

Another of Dixon’s innovations is a barbershop program, where students can either learn to cut hair, or get their own haircuts on school time.

Held in a side room in the main hall, the chairs are constantly full.

The boys also provide haircuts to the community, with the local Vietnam veterans’ club and nursing home all having days where the students cut their hair.

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Dixon looks on as the boys carefully chop away, saying it was part of his philosophy of rewarding good behaviour.

“It doesn’t even matter what kind of haircut they want, if all they want is mullets, that’s fine,” he says. “Whatever it takes.”

“You can’t keep hitting kids with a proverbial stick, you hit them with a bigger stick and they will stand there and break the stick in front of you.

“We reward them with things they like, we take them out fishing, we get them haircuts. This is what they tell us they want to do.”