A newspaper ad was the catalyst for Patricia Carroll OAM to realise her dream of easily accessible adult education courses for people with disabilities. Her daughter, born with Down Syndrome, was her inspiration for making this happen. More than 40 years later, Carroll’s determination has helped forge pathways for people with disabilities, and women in management roles. Here, she shares her leadership journey and lessons learned.
Patricia Carroll OAM was reading a newspaper in suburban Sydney, Australia when she spotted an advertisement from TAFE NSW Outreach. It was 1979, and the technical college was seeking ideas for new courses for people from disadvantaged groups.
Carroll’s then five-year-old daughter, Erin, had Down Syndrome and she was worried for her future. Both Carroll and her husband had university degrees – Carroll’s in Education, but at that point in time, education for adults with disabilities was mostly limited to basket-weaving and crafts.
Carroll wanted more for her daughter and other people with disabilities. She was sure that, with further education, they could have meaningful roles in the workforce. So, she booked a meeting with TAFE Outreach and shared her dream of adult education classes for people with disabilities, preferably alongside able-bodied people.
To her surprise, the response was enthusiastic – and quickly snowballed.
“It was like a massive corridor, and doors kept opening,” Carroll says. “It was an idea whose time had come.”
Opening doors for her students
Within months, with the help of a grant and corporate sponsorship, Carroll opened the door to her evening college for people with disabilities in Caringbah High School, in Sydney’s south. Initially, she offered classes two nights a week to 14 adults aged between 18 and 40. The courses aimed to provide the students with skills that would make them more successful in society.
“It was revolutionary,” Carroll said. “We did current affairs, politics, literacy, first aid, cooking skills, grooming… it was June Dally Watkins meets survival skills meets A Current Affair,” she says.
The classes were so successful, the college soon began to expand onto other campuses. Recognised for her passion and talent, it wasn’t long before Carroll was promoted to principal, and later CEO, of what ultimately became known as the St George and Sutherland Community College (SGSCC).
Today, some 42 years later, the SGSCC has a $12 million annual turnover and more than 200 staff. The college educates 130 students with a disability (as an official NDIS Provider), alongside 6,000 able-bodied students, both domestic and international, who are enrolled in more than 400 vocational, accredited and leisure courses, including in English, Leisure, School Age Tutoring and Vocational Training.
Most Thursdays, Erin can be seen having lunch with her mother on their Jannali campus, where she attends adult classes twice a week. Carroll could not be prouder.
Growing a family and a college
In the early days, as Carroll’s college grew, so too did her family, increasing from two to five children – all without the benefit of parental leave.
“We were fairly early to offer a family friendly workplace, only because I needed it so badly,” Carroll says.
“I cut down on my sleep and would work when the kids slept during the day. I think I was one of the first people to have a home office. Then my husband would come home from his law practice and take over, or my mother-in-law helped out. Life fitted around what we needed to do.”
Many employees have caring commitments that overlap with their work lives. Providing them with the flexibility to manage these responsibilities helps engender long-term loyalty.
“People bring their needs to work. If you let people look after their families, their children and elderly relatives, especially in hard times, you’ll have their hard work and loyalty forever,” Carroll says.
Carroll’s husband of 48 years, Michael, didn’t just help out with the kids. She describes him as a feminist and her greatest supporter. “Sometimes he was critical of me,” she laughs. “But when I’d reach a higher mountain to climb and hesitate, he’d say: ‘Come on, you can do it! What have you got to lose?’ So he’s been a great coach, a great believer in me, and a great supporter.”
However, as the college grew and Carroll took on more responsibility, not everyone was happy seeing a woman in a leadership role. Carroll recalls an incident when she was first promoted as principal to the then evening college. Her appointment angered a male teacher who’d unsuccessfully applied for the position. While Carroll was being given a tour of a campus where he taught classes, he loudly sneered: ‘I can’t believe a housewife got my job!’
Embarrassed, insulted, but not wanting to make a scene, she walked away muttering under her breath: “Stand aside, mate, this housewife’s time has come,” more determined than ever to be successful.
As she climbed the community college ranks, Carroll encountered a ‘boys club’ who facetiously called her ‘superwoman’ behind her back. They didn’t appreciate her energy and determination to drive change in the sector. It was only as more women moved into management that the sexism eased up. “I am firmly of the opinion that things only change for women as more women enter into leadership roles,” she says.
Female leaders should believe in themselves, be true to their vision and follow their instincts.
“Female leaders need to be authentically female and strong. Not be a wannabe man,” Carroll says.
A significant blow
Spurred on by a desire to fund a greater variety of courses for people with disabilities, and for the community at large, Carroll expanded the college in the 90s into adult education migrant services (AMEP), winning a joint tender with a corporate partner to teach English. The program was a huge success, growing over 12 years into a key part of their offering – until their partner walked away and they lost the account – along with 35% of their income.
“It was a scary time,” Carroll says. “Most organisations would have shrunk the business and consolidated.”
But that would have led to fewer services for people with disabilities. Carroll couldn’t let Erin, and all her other students down, so she found her courage. Backed by her Board, Carroll reinvented their international student business, introducing a vocational education program up to an Advanced Diploma level. Within seven years it was even more successful than the AMEP program and today, over 300 students from 26 countries attend the college’s vocational courses.
Good leaders are innovators. They have a vision for their organisation and strive for growth.
“Be prepared to break the rules, and go the road less travelled if required,” Carroll says.
Building a successful culture
The college’s culture is a reflection of Carroll’s personality – warm, caring, ambitious, and respectful. She is popular among her students, and over the years has been invited to their celebrations, including a wedding.
Carroll is a great believer in making work fun and celebrating success. In the early days, cake was so frequently brought in to mark their milestones, both personal and professional, that they jokingly nicknamed the college ‘Eating College’, a play on ‘Evening College’.
Carroll also believes it is important to develop your team’s skills.
“You’ve got to develop the people around you; you’re crazy if you don’t. You get the best from them, don’t have to work quite so hard yourself – and you’ve got a succession plan.”
Carroll recognises that, inevitably, she will need to retire. Her inspiration for the college, Erin, is now 45 and living in a group home. She is preparing her daughter for the fact that, when she retires, she won’t be on campus for their weekly lunches any more.
“I told her: I hope you will continue to learn at the college, even if I’m not here,” Carroll says.
Erin turned to her mother and declared: “Mum, I’m an adult learner!”
It was more than she could have ever asked for: Carroll’s dream had come true.
Patricia Carroll’s Leadership Lessons Learned
This article is by Laini Bennett, MBA