Headmaster of Scotch College Alec O’Connell leads an elite school. But he chafes at any accusations of elitism.
"We have elite standards, but we are not elitist. There’s a big difference," O’Connell tells The CEO Magazine.
"Demanding excellence and striving to be excellent every day is different to being elitist and hierarchical – and that’s what we’re not."
Scotch College has demanded excellence of its pupils since its founding in 1897, graduating young men who have become Rhodes Scholars, judges, politicians, businessmen and professional athletes.
We have elite standards, but we are not elitist. There’s a big difference.
A veteran educator in Western Australia, who previously served as Assistant Director of Catholic Education in the state, O’Connell has focused on maintaining Scotch College’s high standards since becoming its seventh headmaster in 2011.
He’s also overseen an overhaul of its curriculum, expanded its course offerings by partnering with sister all-girls colleges and worked with the wider community to provide opportunities for Scotch College graduates.
"It’s all about the school being a community. Our job is to connect people, connect our boys with each other, connect them with the world, connect our staff," says O’Connell, who describes himself as a steward caring for the Scotch College legacy and striving to leave the institution better than he found it.
"When I finish, I hope that people will think of me as a person who’s been a connector – both inside and outside of the community."
As a part of his work, O’Connell has deepened the school’s relationship with its alumni, the Old Scotch Collegians.
He’s also had four major buildings of historical significance refurbished, as well as built new facilities on the Scotch College campus – partnering with Focus Building Company on a state-of-the-art educational center for its senior students with 15 different learning spaces.
Returning to its roots
During the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Connell began promoting a scholarship program known as Tàlantach – a Scottish Gaelic word for gifted and talented – for bringing academically capable boys of all backgrounds into the school. The decision to expand the scholarships was made to return Scotch College to its roots.
"We started out in 1897 as a Presbyterian school for boys with a 500 pound donation and very much a working-class egalitarian institution," O’Connell says. "I’ve used this time to reinforce that."
The pandemic struck schools especially hard. Scotch College was no exception, though O’Connell was determined to make the best of it.
He implemented a policy of students maintaining normalcy as long as possible: checking in with their normal home rooms, tutorial groups and primary classrooms. The school also developed Scotch College Online Teaching (SCOT), which accommodated remote learning and is now being deployed for a small segment of students who wish to study at a distance.
"What everyone realized is that schools are very much social organizations," he says.
Another takeaway O’Connell drew from the pandemic was the need for decisive action. The buck stopped with him, the Headmaster – something necessary in times of crisis to avoid confusion.
"I was very clear that if you hadn’t heard it from this desk, then it didn’t matter. I’d be clear about what Scotch wanted them to do and how we could all help, because there were so many theories. Everyone was sending emails," O’Connell recalls.
"I remember one mum rang me and said, ‘I don’t actually agree with the decision,’ but she said, ‘I love the fact that I know exactly what we have to do’."
O’Connell’s style of leadership is largely hands-off for the three sub-school heads – one for each level: junior, middle and senior.
"It’s about autonomy and letting them develop and run their sub-school, and in turn that means that I stay connected with each of the sub-schools," he says.
"If I had two deputy principals in the middle between them, I would just get the information filtered through them."
I place a very high importance on the concept of servant leadership. Service is everything to me.
As a part of staying connected, he also actively seeks feedback from stakeholders, including students. He and the head of the senior school invite each of the Year 12 students to lunch in small groups during the school year.
During the lunches, he asks them, "How’s your journey been at Scotch? Have we let you down? Have we given you what we promised? Is there anything we should change? How are you going with your subjects?"
The lunches are only one example of O’Connell’s efforts at showing care and concern for the Scotch College community. He handwrites birthday cards for all staff and students.
"I call them touchpoints," O’Connell says. "It is important to try and work out how many touchpoints you can have in your job."
Along with promoting high academic standards, he also emphasizes the three core values of Scotch College: integrity, service, stewardship.
"I place a very high importance on the concept of servant leadership. Service is everything to me," O’Connell says.
"I quite often speak to the boys and say, ‘You’re very lucky. You’re in a really good area. You’re very lucky you have parents who can afford to send you to our school and they support you, and don’t apologize. That’s great, but what is important is that you do something with it. Make the world a better place. Serve your community’."