A former bio-chemist, Annette Bennet joined the teaching staff of Kingswood College in 1982 during Rev Leigh Speedy’s principalship.
Over the next 20 years, she undertook a range of leading roles at the school along with two significant periods as acting principal until her appointment as principal in 2003 – a role she held for eight years until 2011.
‘When I first arrived in 1982, I was a new teacher and found this to be a very exciting place. It was moving forward and it was progressive. It had a science program that attracted wide interest and there was a strong integrated studies program. It was a very innovative approach that wasn’t common in other schools,’ she said.
Originally, she didn’t think she would be at Kingswood College long-term.
‘I arrived to fill a part-time, one-term position. But there were many opportunities to be involved and to be part of the projects happening at that time. Within a few years I was coordinator of Year 7, then head of science and head of senior school before appointment as deputy principal.’
Deputy to two principals, she had two six-month terms as acting principal and worked with a total of five principals at Kingswood College.
‘That’s almost like being in different schools. People often ask why I stayed so long (29 years in total) but I had many different roles during that time. I could have found similar positions at other schools but I felt strongly – and still do – that Kingswood College does such a wonderful job with its students.’
When Mrs Bennet was appointed principal in 2003, there was much work to be done.
‘I was very aware that the two biggest challenges were enrolments and upgrading the buildings. We needed to lift the standard of the property, and then work on the enrolments. So we went for every grant we could apply for!’
With strong support from the College Council, there was success in receiving grants for a range of small and large projects that started with upgrading the school’s main electrical switchboard and extended to major building redevelopments.
Alongside refurbishment, new facilities and landscaping projects, Mrs Bennet set about capital fund-raising, and establishing new processes and procedures. She also worked to continue raising the school’s international profile.
‘My goal toward the end of my tenure was to have projects finished so the next principal could come in and concentrate on other areas quickly.’
She and her team also put long hours into enhancing the school’s image and building its level of community engagement.
‘We invited principals, had community gatherings, ran parenting seminars and worked on building our image with the local schools to inform them of what was on offer at Kingswood College,’ she said.
One of the major benefits on offer was the personal attention that she believed could only come from being a small-medium size school.
‘Firstly, the staff at Kingswood were – and are – very committed to teamwork and what can be achieved in the lives of young people. I think one of the differences at Kingswood is children are known well by the staff. So their sense of belonging is very high. That was my experience of this school – and I believe that it is still the same.’
She says that students need to come to school and feel it is ‘their place’ – a place where they are encouraged to do their best and have a strong sense of belonging.
And this, she believes, is what Kingswood College has achieved from day one.
‘I think all these things were happening at Kingswood but may not have always been recognised outside of the school community. Because of some of its past problems, the school did not sometimes have the image it deserved. It was easy to discount it as a little school in Box Hill. But the reality was a dedicated team of people were working on innovative and progressive ideas.’
When Mrs Bennet felt it was time to hand over her stewardship, she did so with care and planning.
‘I always knew I’d time my exit very carefully. There was no reason not to give ample notice and Ms Elisabeth Lenders appointment was announced six months before I left. We were able to develop a good working relationship that enabled a smooth transition.’
Now semi-retired, Mrs Bennet is involved with project work and also sits on several boards and committees within the education, health and community sectors.
‘I have a quite a few different commitments that keep me busy – and I think that’s important. Well it was for me anyway,’ she smiled. ‘Playing golf every day wasn’t my scene.’
She sees some of the current challenges in schooling as funding and use of technology.
‘Governments’ approach to funding is a big issue at the moment and it will be interesting to see what provisions are made. Educationally, the continued integration of technology is also challenging. Additionally, we are preparing students for what is a completely different world in regard to careers – it’s a world we don’t know yet. But Kingswood College is addressing that very well and balancing it with the overall ethos of the school. Students still need a strong general education – it’s not just about vocational drive. We need well educated, good citizens that go on to have a fulfilling career. And I think in 2015, Kingswood College is doing this very well.’