Work & study

Surfing to success with CooeeGC

Tim Baker | July 23, 2021

Imagine a school day that starts at 6am but students are rarely late or absent. What kind of crazy magic is this, any parent who struggles to get their child out the door on time for the school bus or the start of the school day might be wondering?

For the students of an innovative Gold Coast education program, CooeeGC, it’s an everyday reality, mainly because the first class of the day is surf training.

CooeeGC founder Matt Barber is a local school teacher and surfer who became concerned at the number of students he saw fall through the cracks of the mainstream education system and decided to do something about it. CooeeGC uses surfing to engage students who might be struggling with regular school, and creates training and employment opportunities to prepare them for life after school, with stunning results.

Zane Silvester reckons he felt “lost” at a conventional high school, with little interest or engagement in traditional learning. Six months later, he’s loving school, getting first-hand work experience, studying for a certificate three in business and a certificate two in electro-technology and has his eye on an electrical apprenticeship, with a special interest in solar power. And he’s replaced his customary Cs and Ds with straight Bs in his latest report card, while receiving “very good” for effort and behaviour across the board.

He’s surfing every day as part of his schooling, has gained his bronze medallion, performs beach patrols at Palm Beach SLSC, has helped run a surf contest and works one day a week at The Surfboard Warehouse store in Palm Beach on the Gold Coast.

“I spent up to year 10 at the local high school and it was not for me. I was just not interested in things like science or geography,” says Zane. “I heard about Cooee from a few friends. They were telling me it gets you ready for the real world. My mum and dad and I went and met with Matt.”

Zane took the leap to join CooeeGC and has never looked back. His school day starts at 6am with surf training, he still undertakes regular school classes three days a week, along with his traineeship at the Surfboard Warehouse one day a week for practical work experience and trade college covering theory.

“It’s just so much better,” says Zane. “I get to go surfing before school, and get the training added into it.” CooeeGC students receive surf training from coach Clayton Neinaber and trainer Nam Baldwin, as well as mentoring from a range of surf industry figures. Zane has also been selected to take part in the Waybarra Surf Camp, run by Juraki Surf and Culture for promising young Indigenous surfers.



Charlotte shaping boards

CooeeGC founder Matt Barber

Keo’s doing a traineeship at surfboard manufacturing business S-Lab

The Surfboard Warehouse is one of a range of local businesses which offer traineeships for Cooee students. “Matt told me there was a spot going at the Surfboard Warehouse. I was like, yep, let’s do it. I went down to Tweed and had an induction meeting,” says Zane. “I love it, because I can connect so well with the other employees, and get to interact with customers, have a conversation with anyone. You meet so many people, so many little connections. This is the practical component, and then you do the theory in school time.”

Zane’s dad Brook Silvester, a well-known surfing cameraman, has witnessed the change in his son in just six months. “Zane was going nowhere fast at his old high school. Cooee has been a relief for me. It’s given him a good balance of surf, work and play plus an intro to the reality of working for one day a week and trade college to learn more. So, we are stoked with Matt’s effort.”

1978 world surfing champion Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew’s son Keo is another student who is benefitting from the CooeeGC program. Keo’s doing a traineeship at Tweed Heads surfboard manufacturing business S-Lab, learning every stage of surfboard production, from glassing and sanding to design and shaping.

“Since making the decision to enrol my son Keo in Cooee GC we have never looked back,” says Rabbit. “Keo has suddenly had qualifications, experiences and most importantly confidence. With this confidence he could foster his love of surfing and the ocean, but also found a passion for music. The open-minded approach and personal touches are something I feel very fortunate to have my son a part of. He’s learnt a lot quickly and he’s really having fun with it and getting a set of skills for life.”

It’s a remarkable achievement for one teacher who was disillusioned with the education system and had a vision for a better way of doing things. Matt Barber runs CooeeGC virtually single-handedly, though he now has the support of Elanora High School, that helps host the program with a single classroom and admin support. Matt was a finalist in the Queensland State Teaching Awards in recognition of his efforts.

“I taught at a larger school on the northern Gold Coast and then I taught over in England and spent time abroad. I felt a bit disheartened with where kids were ending up,” Matt says. “I really wanted kids to be global citizens, but we don’t really tell kids how to do it … A lot of the learnings happen in the wider community. I thought if I can put positive people in front of kids from a range of walks of life, it set the kids up for success, connected to their community and their environment, so they can really explore who they are.”

Based on the Gold Coast, it made sense to use surfing and the ocean as an educational resource to keep students motivated and engaged, as well as exploring career opportunities in the surf industry. “The surf industry is quite broad and quite diverse. We tap into that community to help shape the kids, so when they walked out the school gates it would be a smooth transition,” says Matt.

The traineeships pay students around $100 for their one day a week, which covers $20 a week for surf training, while Matt encourages them to budget for driving lessons to get their driver’s license as early as possible to increase their employability.

And what about the name, you may be asking? “Cooee is an indigenous word meaning ‘come together’. It’s also about the idea of an echo, that they get back what they give out – if they give a lot the returns come back 10-fold,” says Matt.

But Matt is also clear on what CoeeGC is not. “It’s not a surfing excellence program,” he says, and he dismisses any suggestions it’s any kind of “special” school for kids with special needs. “It’s making for a more rounded human. These kids have got loads to offer; they can shine. CoeeGC students have gone on to university, business school, TAFE and trade apprenticeships.”

He hopes to extend the program to other areas, with satellite programs around the country and even internationally. But, for now, he’s a one-man band showing an extraordinary level of commitment to create new pathways and opportunities for his students. “We only take year 11 and 12 students, but this year we trialled some junior kids and the older kids mentored them.”

Matt currently has 20 students, including seven female students, who all work together in one classroom, with Matt as their teacher for all subjects.

“It’s like a big family, everyone’s really supportive. The boys really support the girls in the water, calling them into waves out in the surf,” says Zane.

“You see the relationships start to build,” says Matt.

At the core of the CooeeGC educational philosophy is an awareness that the world is changing at a rapid pace and traditional schooling doesn’t always prepare students well for the kind of world and workforce they are going to step into.

For Zane, it’s meant that school is now a pleasure, and he can see a future he can work towards. “It’s what you want to be doing, I feel like I’m not wasting time. Cooee’s definitely helped me find who I want to be. I was a bit lost but I’m finding my way now.”

To find out more about CeeooGC.

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