Hartford College: The Sydney school founded by frustrated parents


What’s the solution when families feel growing frustration and concerns about what the mainstream education system offers their children?

For a collective of parents, led by Chair Tim Mitchell, their own proactive answer was to open Hartford College in January this year. The decision to start a parent-led school was motivated by parents’ own experiences of the schooling system and what they believe is the decline in boys’ educational outcomes.

Six months in, the Sydney school has a total of 22 students, across years five, six and seven – and is growing.

The foundations of a parent-led school

Mr Mitchell and his friends first floated the idea to start their own school in 2020. They were finally able to make their move when they came across the perfect location.

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The Catholic church-owned property, in the eastern suburbs of Daceyville, was an unused school that had sat empty for around thirty years, but when Mr Mitchell and his soon-to-be board impressed the Archbishop of Sydney with a written proposal, a deal was struck.

Hartford College is an independent Catholic boys’ school teaching a traditional liberal arts curriculum. “We’re built on church land, so there’s an agreement that religion will be taught, and that the religion will be Catholic, but we don’t exclude non-Catholic families,” Mr Mitchell told EducationDaily.

The global liberal arts education movement

He references Brisbane’s upcoming St. John Henry Newman College as an institution with a similar curriculum and values of Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

Saint John Henry Newman was an English Catholic Cardinal, academic, philosopher and poet, who lived from 1801 to 1890. His life and teachings continue to make an indelible impact on education across the globe. In Australia alone, numerous campuses, libraries and educational institutions are named in his honour.

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Newman wrote at least 40 books and 21,000 letters, including a series of papers called The Idea of a University. He supported a liberal arts education that focuses on nurturing well-rounded students and teaching them how to think, not what to think. In Mr Mitchell’s words, “thinking for themselves rather than regurgitating texts and churning out answers in exams”.

The Hartford College slogan is Dare to think. Dare to know. And their approach to a classic liberal arts education prioritises character education, and a collaborative dynamic with parents, with academic excellence as the benchmark.

Character education eschews a curriculum formed around gaining typically ‘useful’ academic skills and, instead, develops kind, thoughtful, moral and responsible citizens who understand the value of critical thinking. Each of Hartford’s 22 students receives 15 to 20 minutes of weekly one-on-one mentoring from a trained teacher, and, once a term, these mentors meet with individual parents for an hour to discuss the progress of each student.

It’s an example of the commitment Mr Mitchell wants from parents, and he’s aware they’re not used to making it as they transition from traditional schooling. But willingness to be actively involved in school life is a prerequisite for families joining the school.

“Parents are the most important people at the school, followed by teachers and then the students. That’s not to say the kids aren’t important, but their parents are the primary educators and we want parents who want to be involved,” says Mr Mitchell.

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He points to a global movement of parent-led liberal arts schools, and cites America’s Chesterton Schools Network (modelled on the teachings of Catholic English writer GK Chesterton), that began with just one school in 2008 and now operates 45.

“It works because it enriches students, teaching them how to love learning, not just to get a job. We develop character to better understand these boys and form the whole person,” says Mr Mitchell, whose own experiences have given him the belief that there’s “a demand and need for it”.

“Steve Jobs looked for liberal arts education when hiring,” he says. “Einstein was a fan too – he said he wasn’t the greatest mathematician, but liberal arts education is what gave him that edge.”

Prospects for Hartford College students

Where do the boys go after graduating from Hartford College? According to Mr Mitchell, there’s a flourishing higher education landscape for them to explore at a range of universities, such as Sydney’s University of Notre Dame on Broadway, Campion College at Toongabbie (which recently featured in fifth place on the QILT Higher Education Student Experience Survey results), or those offering liberal arts tertiary degrees, including ACU at North Sydney’s Ramsay Arts degree in Western Civilisation – described by Mr Mitchell as providing “a rigorous and stimulating intellectual program in which they engage with western philosophy, history, literature, politics, art and culture, and develop a deep understanding of the great works, ideas and movements within the western intellectual tradition”.

Asked if girls will ever get the Hartford College experience, Mr Mitchell says the preference for single-sex schooling means the school is currently focused only on boys but could potentially expand in the future.

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“We’re teaching boys to be men and injecting expertise and specialisation into that process,” he told EducationDaily.

The future for Hartford College

Next on the agenda for this very young school is completing their first school year, and preparing for an increased year seven intake as word spreads and parents begin the search for high schools that are aligned with the way they want their boys raised.

“The NSW curriculum gives us the latitude to emphasise the points we’re passionate about, to focus on the individual, teach respect, and confront the bigger issues of today, like phone etiquette and social media. So far, the feedback is amazing, we’re hearing about boys turned around 180 degrees and now loving learning and facing in completely the opposite direction,” says Mr Mitchell. The school he says, welcomes all parents to come and have a look, “if you’re interested in holistic character education for your sons and looking to collaborate on that process”.

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By Charlie
Charlie Writes is a Sydney based, London born, Caribbean writer, interviewer and poet. A colourful 27 year career has taken Charlie from typing poems on the spot on her 1970’s typerwiter named June, to donning a hard hat as a roving reporter in the construction industry. All while living out her favourite quote that the greatest adventures begin with a simple conversation.