For some years now Bev and I have been ‘Grandfriends’, invited to the primary schools of our grandchildren for special occasions. Yesterday’s occasion was a visit to inspect the ‘learning journeys’ of two of them, and the experience brought back a basketful of memories, because the school they go to is the one I went to, as long ago as 1943. That was a very different time.
School began with a summons from the air-raid siren, an assembly outside, and marching off to class to band music over the PA system. I don’t think they can do that any more, if only because the assembly area is now ‘decorated’ with portables. School finished with the sound of the ‘all clear’ from the siren. We had slit-trench air-raid shelters under the trees that bordered the main sporting field, but they were not used even in practice. The danger had passed.
This school (Ainslie Primary, in Canberra) possesses a fine main building in subdued art deco style. Like so many older state schools across our country, its grounds have been disfigured by portables and new structures that have no relationship at all to what is a fine piece of architecture. Yes, I know about the pressure of rapidly increasing enrolments, but I still lament the loss of beauty and coherence.
What has impressed me over the years about the schooling our grandchildren receive is its wide range, and its cheerful informality. I like the way the kids form and learn in groups. I like the animated hubbub. I like the creativity that is everywhere. I like the way the teachers move round the room, available but not omnipresent. I wish I could have had some of that in my day.
Silence was the rule unless you were asked a question. If the teacher thought there was too much noise he would command ‘Hands on heads!’ and everything would stop until we were released to work, this time more quietly. I don’t recall much except drills, mentals, spelling and composition – oh, and practising handwriting. We had some art and music (singing), but nothing like what I see today, where so much of teaching and learning is couched in an aesthetic context. Today’s kids write poems as well as learn them.
Discipline ruled OK in the 1940s, and the cane was the instrument of coercion. Yes, I got my share of it. One of my classmates, Tony Bell, got more than his fair share of it, and came to school with his own ‘cane kit’ inside a tobacco tin: ointment, cotton wool and a pale liquid in a tiny bottle. He swore by it, and when we both received the cane he generously offered it to me. It didn’t seem very effective at the time.
Our grandkids love the school, and like their teachers, who seem to get on well with parents, too. Perhaps the most striking change is the sheer diversity of the kids themselves. There they are, white, pink, yellow, brown and black, most with perfectly Australian accents, getting on well with one another. In our day Ainslie was a classic WASP school, since the area’s Catholic kids went to the Catholic school only a few hundred yards away, and the immigrants had not yet arrived.
Every time I go to one of our government schools I feel encouraged about the future of our country. I wish we devoted more investment to the sector; I wish we paid teachers more, and invested more in their preparation; I wish we respected the architecture of what is already there when we add new school buildings.
But I think that what is being done is terrific.