From a standing start: How an education entrepreneur built a school

Dr Lyn Bishop fought battles on all fronts to establish Sheldon College. Her entrepreneurial approach to education created a successful independent school in just 20 years, and here she details the challenges and obstacles she overcame along the way.

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In February 1997, 110 students and six teachers gathered at the Pine Lodge Equestrian Centre to open a school that would be known as Sheldon College. When she made the decision to build the school, Dr Lyn Bishop had no funding and considerable opposition from many different quarters. Twenty years on, however, it’s a highly successful independent school.

“Approvals hadn’t come through for us to open on our desired site in Taylor Road,” says Bishop, the school’s Principal and Chief Executive Officer.

For the first four months of its existence, she and her staff set the school up every Sunday in the Pine Lodge Carriage Room and pulled it down again every Friday afternoon to make way for weekend functions.

“We will forever be grateful to Lorette Wigan, the owner of Pine Lodge, who agreed to let us use their facilities until we had a permanent home,” Bishop says.

Today, Sheldon College has 1,500 students, 260 staff and a reputation for outstanding academic, cultural and sporting outcomes. Major achievements include four consecutive wins in the Australian Space Design Competition and being chosen to perform in the Beijing Olympic Orchestra in 2008. Yet, when Bishop resigned from her senior role with Education Queensland, she had nothing but a vision – of the school she wanted to create.

“It was a very big decision because I was moving into completely unknown and highly competitive territory, with no financial backing and no support from any church, business or financier,” she says.

Life savings to the rescue

Bishop’s initial search for funding proved fruitless.

“I wasn’t a very attractive prospect,” she explains. “Private schools can, and do, go belly up, and of course there’s no return on investment from a not-for-profit organisation.

“My husband and I had no choice but to draw on our life savings to cover costs such as demographic and feasibility studies and market research. When no bank was prepared to back me financially in the initial stages, I had to approach family and friends to get them to act as guarantors – to be prepared to put their homes on the line to support me in my entrepreneurial endeavours.”

Her next challenge was to locate an affordable 55 acres of land in a metropolitan area.

“When we eventually found a suitable property, we ended up paying well above market rates,” she says. “But we still had battles to fight on every front. Neighbours didn’t want a school on their doorstep, local authorities opposed the clearing of land; there was bitter opposition from other schools in the district and, early on, our first bank withdrew its support. Fortunately, NAB came to our rescue by agreeing to fund the ongoing development of the college and for that I will be eternally grateful.”

NAB’s experience in the education sector dates back to its inception.

“Our oldest school client has banked with us for over 150 years,” says Damien Hoffman, Director of Education & Community Business at NAB. “Then, 10 years ago, we established a specialised education division with a dedicated banking team so we could best deliver tailored services, insights and expertise to the sector.”

Looking beyond the familiar

As a non-denominational school, Sheldon College operates as a non-systemic, independent institution.

“It therefore becomes vitally important that we manage our finances efficiently and effectively,” Bishop says. “It’s in our best interests to make sure our strategic business units within the college remain profitable in order to enable us to provide first-class facilities and resources for our students. We constantly look beyond familiar paradigms and abandon any efforts that don’t get results.”

Like all schools, Sheldon operates in a highly complex, digitised environment.

“Technology is changing the learning environment and also the expectations of parents and the wider community,” Hoffman says. “The way schools engage can affect their reputation and their future enrolments so they must be nimble and responsive enough to communicate effectively.

“But perhaps the biggest challenge is educating students for an unknown future – preparing them for jobs that don’t yet exist.”

Strategic partnerships with business, industry and the community help Sheldon College maintain a cutting-edge curriculum.

“We’ve also joined the Redland Chamber of Commerce so we have an opportunity to network with local business and government agencies as a means of assessing future needs,” Bishop says.

Putting the children first

Throughout her 32 years with Education Queensland, Bishop rose quickly through the ranks.

“The problem was that every promotion took me further away from working with children, and my love of children is the reason I came into education in the first instance,” she says. “I also became frustrated with working within the educational bureaucracy because it provided fewer opportunities to work firsthand with teachers and students.”

Since then, Bishop’s entrepreneurial and professional approach to education has been widely recognised. In 1999, she was the first person in the sector to be named Professional Manager of the Year by the Australian Institute of Management. In 2002 she was Ernst & Young’s Queensland Entrepreneur of the Year and Australian Entrepreneur of the Year for a Not-for-Profit Organisation. In 2003, she also received a Centenary Medal for Services to Education.

“I believe a good leader has to have the courage of their convictions, to be prepared to go out on a limb at times and take chances and accept the responsibility,” she says. “Sometimes you have to ask forgiveness after the event rather than seek permission first. If you have the drive, enthusiasm and absolute faith in what you’re doing, nothing can stand in your way.”