Colin Simpson Tribute

It is with immense sadness that we acknowledge the passing of Colin Simpson.

Colin was the Foundation Principal of Richmond High School.  Before that, he was the Principal of the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School.  He is broadly recognised as one of Victoria’s leading Principals.

I remember my first meeting with him in early 2017.  Sue Collins and I had started the process of creating a film about Richmond High School, a project which has subsequently become Innovation High.  Colin was humble and excited about the prospect of building a new school from the ground up.  While he played the fact down, it was of great interest to us that he himself had been a student at the original Richmond High School, which had been shut down shortly after Colin graduated and then resurrected as Melbourne Girls College some years later.

An Inspiring Educational Leader

Over almost 3 years, Sue and I were fortunate enough to film with Colin regularly.  Our goal was to document and understand how a new school is conceived, and how it develops into a living breathing community over time.

Colin was incredibly generous in sharing his vision with us.  From very early on, Colin made it clear that he wanted to lay the foundations for a great local school.  He was intent on developing a school that fitted the community, where local students could be supported in a safe, high-expectation environment, and where they could access a variety of educational pathways, giving them the best chance of self-improvement during their high school years.

While an outstanding school that serves its local community is one thing, Colin’s vision was underscored by a much broader mission.  He believed that by making Richmond High School the best it could be, he could demonstrate the opportunity for schools elsewhere around the state and the country.  He was was a passionate advocate for equity in education.  He felt that the antidote to the equity problem was amazing local schools – like Richmond High.

Trust and Believe in Your Students

In 2017, Colin was a Principal without students.  This was the year he was to dream and conceive of the school, then lay its foundations while construction was taking place.  He confided in us how tough he found it not having students, after all, a principal without students is a bit like a doctor without patients.  So when we did see him interacting with prospective students for the school at the Gleadell Street Market and at the information sessions in a local hall, it was exhilarating.  On market days, he would dress casually in sunglasses, a fedora, and tee-shirt looking more like a band member than a headmaster.  And he would engage with young people and their parents in a most disarming and amicable manner – quietly but passionately sharing his vision for the school.  At the local hall meetings, he wore a sharp suit and articulated his hopes and dreams for the school to an audience of hundreds of local families.  When a bright local boy raised his hand during a Q&A session asking if there would be a code club at the new school, I was struck by how Colin met the question with the utmost respect.

Perhaps, this was the quality I grew to value in him most over the years.  Colin was a person who listened to, and genuinely respected, young people.  In fact, he believed in them so much, that his students helped him hire the teachers at Richmond High School.  He also had a lovely ritual of greeting the students by name each morning as they arrived.  He’d have a casual chat and check in on how they were doing.  It’s one of those small things in life that probably make all the difference in the world.

When I compared the day-to-day experience of students at Richmond High to that of my own schooling, which was largely defined by tradition, discipline, and rules – I knew Colin was onto something.  The students seemed, by comparison, relaxed and confident.  And perhaps most importantly, they were able to express themselves authenticly in a safe environment.  Colin was an open-minded person, but he had zero tolerance for bullying.  He also had enormous respect for student agency.  These two qualities define him in my mind.

The Art of Life

Colin was a lover of the arts.  He was passionate about art, music, and drama.  He would tell us about his dreams of a grand piano defining the gathering point on the main campus that was under construction.  I found it ironic that such a lover of the arts, who openly admitted that sports were not his forte, ended up founding the new school in a gymnasium.  Because due to the pressing need for a new co-educational school in the neighbourhood, Richmond High was founded in an indoor basketball court on Gleadell Street.  I was blown away by the first cohort of foundation students and teachers who made this situation not only work out for the best but actually leveraged it to inform a spirit of ingenuity and innovation that would define the school culture.

One of the foundation school values was agreed as Making A Difference.  Colin was adamant that the school would be a force for good.  This speaks volumes about his outlook on the world.  He was a person who fed off helping others.  But to achieve his dream he needed a team, and not any old team, but a dream team of teachers and staff.  He was so thoughtful about his appointments, from his first staff member, the indefatigable Business Manager Charlene Lloyd, who he valued so much, to his Assistant Principals James Taylor and Victoria Triantafyllou, through the full contingent of amazing teaching and staff he attracted to Richmond.  It was always clear to me from my on-and-off-camera chats with Colin, that he felt the longevity of his vision relied on this hand-picked team.  And the legacy of the school was always designed to be carried forward by them.

Vale Colin Simpson

It was a great honour to have known Colin Simpson and documented some part of the impact he has made as a leader and educator.  He was, to me, an egalitarian visionary and innovator who knew how to respect others.  From the first peoples of Australia to the local community he worked with, and the diverse body of students he served –  Colin embodied respect for others and was, in turn, respected and admired.

Colin will be sorely missed.  But he also left us a gift.  A gift he embedded through the respect he placed in his team and his students.  He provided a foundation, a vision and a belief in ourselves, that the school he founded is, and will continue to be, an amazing local school.  And the impact of the example this school leaves will inspire communities across the state, the nation, and the world to make a difference by valuing education for all.

By Mike Hill, Producer Innovation High