Blackfriars’ late headmaster Father John Neill is credited with transforming the school over his long tenure.
Among many building projects, he championed the creation of the gymnasium that, to this day, bears his name, and oversaw the development of the Hallinan Library, the Maher Building and the refurbishment of St Catherine’s.
But it is perhaps a less-lauded change, introduced by Fr Neill in 1986, that made, and continues to make, a huge impact at Blackfriars.
Fr Neill was responsible for introducing the school’s “vertical” Home Group system.
Unlike in many other schools, Blackfriars students meet each morning in Home Groups made up of boys from Years 7-12 from within their House.
Fr Neill recognised the benefits of senior students “mingling” with the younger students and, hopefully, acting as role models to them.
Almost 40 years later, university studies have shown that Fr Neill’s pioneering move was the right one.
Speaking at the recent National Catholic Education Conference, in Melbourne, Professor Donna Cross discussed the benefits of multi-year level home groups in schools.
“While mixed-age ‘house’ groups were traditionally used to engage students in co-curricular activities such as sport and music, their important contribution to students’ pastoral care has also been more recently recognised,” said Prof Cross, formerly the program head at the Telethon Kids Institute.
She said a Western Australian study found that, in the first year of Secondary school (Year 7), “students in schools with vertical streaming pastoral care structures reported feeling significantly more connected to their school than students within schools reporting a horizontal (same-age) only structures”.
“A vertical pastoral care structure provides a structured opportunity for mixed-age mentoring or ‘buddy’ systems that foster leadership skills, service and responsibility for others in students,” she said.
Blackfriars Deputy Principal Brett Knowles said Blackfriars’ Home Group structure was a “significant point of difference we have compared with many other schools”.
“Vertical Home Groups, containing students from Years 7 to 12, are wonderful opportunities for students to connect, build belonging and develop social emotional intelligence skills,” Mr Knowles said.
“Better social skills amongst our students leads to better social interactions, including connecting and finding friends.”