Livia Aleck-Ripka on Brendan Murray
I first heard of Parkville College when an old friend rang me at Dumbo Feather, wanting to know how to get his students involved in our high-school writing competition. His pupils were curious and willing, he told us. “There’s just one thing. These boys are in prison.”
Parkville College is Victoria’s youth justice centre for people aged 10 to 18 who have been sentenced to time in custody. Almost all of the students are from low socio-economic backgrounds, and more often than not have committed serious crimes in drug- or alcohol-induced states. Many of them are reoffenders.
Before 2010, Parkville was the end of the line for many teenagers who were likely to spend the rest of their lives in and out of jail. But four years ago, an ombudsman’s report on Parkville revealed appalling conditions, breaking of state legislation and abuse of a fundamental human right: education. Children in most need of attention were being locked up and ignored.
Today, inside a classroom at Parkville, the first thing you would notice is its outstanding educational model. Using the method of “unconditional positive regard,” teachers meet behaviour problems with compassion, rather than punishment. A focus on individuality and liberty means that before each class students have to agree to what and how they will learn. It seems a radical model for teaching any teenagers, let alone criminals. But in the last few years, the students have shown rapid progress and genuine interest in their studies. A number are completing their Victorian Certificate of Education.
After some conversations and preparation, we decided to work with the students to create a publication, rather than have them enter Dumbo Feather’s competition. We were warned the boys might make lewd comments or taunt us when we first met them. But we were reassured it would be in good nature. It was just a test of trust. These teenagers had been let down too many times.
After a few months of hearing about the principal and the way he had revolutionised the school, I finally meet Brendan Murray. As we speak, we walk through the leafy Melbourne suburb of Parkville, whose grand old buildings stand in stark contrast to the prison complex. Walking along the train line, Brendan describes how he had once been a promising AFL player when a family tragedy made him realise that he wanted to do more than chase a ball around a field for the rest of his life.
Today, Brendan tirelessly leads a school for the sidelined and forgotten. Not only has Parkville transformed the educational outcomes for its students, it’s trailblazing the way for other schools around the world as well. Inhumanly hardworking, yet somehow still open and endlessly giving, Brendan doesn’t gloss over the fact that his students are criminals. He is keenly aware of the terrible things they have done; the impact they have had on the lives of others. He doesn’t forgive violence, but knows that to change things, bad behaviour must be met with help, rather than exclusion.