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Matthew Barber

School starts at 6am in the ocean in an innovative school program which links students to employment opportunities, high-performance trainers and Gold Coast surfing icons.

Matthew Barber, who founded and runs CooeeGC—a first-of-its-kind surf-based school training program at Elanora State High School—is a finalist in state teaching awards.

CooeeGC students complete core subjects to attain their Queensland Certificate of Education, undertake Registered Training Organisation courses connected to the surfing industry, and start their day at 6am on Monday to Thursday with a surfing coach. Mr Barber said he founded the program—based on the notion of an echo, with students getting out what they put into the community—after becoming despondent at what he saw some teenagers had achieved after school.  “It is about post-school pathways,” Mr Barber says. “We are on the Gold Coast and I looked at the surfing industry, because most of CooeeGC is community-based, and because the surfing industry is so broad—it has got tourism, it has got hospitality, you have got all these tradies who have got surfboards in the back of their utes—so it can be as narrow or as broad as you want it to be.” Mr Barber went to the Department of Education with his idea of engaging and connecting students using the surfing industry and he was given one year to see if it worked. He then refinanced his home, “went to literally every school on the Gold Coast” to recruit students, and started connecting to community organisations. 

​“Ultimately you have got to be the change that you want to see,” Mr Barber said.  

Three years on, his students are fast-tracking into university through a Diploma of Business, or are working with tradies, surfboard makers, in hospitality and allied health.

His Year 11 and 12 students also volunteer for community organisations including the Starlight Foundation and Police Citizens Youth Club, undertake surf coaching with Clayton Neinaber, have mobility training with Salt Performance, have undertaken mentoring with Olympic snowboarder Alex Chumpy-Pullin and Olympic surfing high performance coach Nam Baldwin, and have worked on wellbeing and been mentored by former high performance Paralympic coach Brett Robinson.

“I link students up with people in the industry to get qualifications and experience. Employability skills come out of it too—I’ve got students that are turning up to the beach at a quarter to six in the morning for training, so there is a good chance that they are going to turn up to a job site and they are going to be prepared for the day. School should be a dress rehearsal for the real world,” Mr Barber said.

Mr Barber is a finalist in the Queensland College of Teachers Outstanding Contribution to School Community TEACHX Award for his extraordinary commitment to his students and his work to connect them with the surfing community. He said the CooeeGC program could be extended to other industries, including the Arts. 

As a finalist, Mr Barber received $500 for professional development. 

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