Since my wife and I are now in the category of ‘grand friends’, we see the schools of our grandchildren from time to time, and are made most welcome there. Today’s primary schools seem to have a strong sense of community, and quite a few parents, mostly mums, give an afternoon or a day as teachers’ helpers. We went to the Friday assembly of our Frankston grand-daughter last week, and I was at once taken back to my own primary education, at Ainslie Primary School in Canberra, in the 1940s.
The first contrast was the traffic jam around the Melbourne school, and the impossibility of parking close. Lots of cars crawled by, some dropping kids off, others trying to find a spot, with through traffic just trying to get past the obstruction. There are five of us, grand-daughter in her school uniform, her baby sister in a stroller, mum and us. We make our way to the large assembly hall to find chairs already set up for people like us, eighty or so of them. We are by no means the only family members present. The kids file in and sit on the floor; they will sit there for the next 45 minutes, cheerful and in good order.
In 1945 our assemblies were out in the open, for Ainslie School had no hall, though it has one now. They were short in duration, we stood throughout, and were summoned to it by the air-raid siren (we had air-raid trenches along the side of the sporting field, too). Then we filed off to our classrooms. There was no traffic jam, because most of us walked to school. My father, a teacher himself, rode off to his high school on his bike. Few had cars, and petrol rationing was in force anyway. Mums might walk with the younger ones, and pick them up after school. I remember my own Mum doing that for me a few times when I was in first class.
Back to Frankston in 2016. I notice that there seems to be a band at the front, the musicians getting their collective sound right, and some other kids dressed in gear suitable for the dance floor or a session of The Voice or Australia Has Talent. There is a momentary glitch with the microphone, then it all begins, and the contrasts come thick and fast. We start with a welcome to country, and I observe the Aboriginal flag on the wall along side the national flag. I am told that there are few indigenous people in the school’s zone, and I wonder whether the welcome to country and Aboriginal flag are school initiatives or a rule fashioned by the Victorian Government.
Then comes the national anthem, with the band, mostly sixth class kids, I would guess, providing a somewhat jazzed-up accompaniment. Then a kind of pledge, the kids chanting in unison. Then some stuff about carbon footprints, and how we should reduce them. There were green people and enviro leaders. I’d like to be more specific, but the microphones and speakers did not work well for those of us close to the back wall of what was a cavernous assembly hall, that accommodated 700 or so with ease.
What did we do back in 1945? I don’t remember our singing anything, though my memory may be faulty. If we did, it would have been ‘God Save the King’. I know we didn’t recite a pledge, and I think the reason was that Canberra was run by the Curtin/Chifley Labor Government, which disapproved of such statements, at least the honouring the king and empire bits. We had no band or music program, though I think there was a microphone, fixed on its stand, that the headmaster used, not the several hand-help mikes used by the singers who entertained us in Frankston. They weren’t bad, either. The band’s rhythm section was up to the task of accompanying them.
I think my lot would have been paralysed with stage fright had we been asked to recite or sing in front of 700 people. But today’s kids have had the benefit of much oral education and performance, and it shows in their much great savoir faire, compared to us.
The body of the Assembly’s program was the celebration of good work of all kinds science, maths, sport, library, the selection of the group going to Japan later in the year, and the work of Prep kids in the Lego Club, the last accompanied by a small slide show. Everyone was applauded, some more than others, of course. Special mention was made of a boy who photographed the moon with a smart phone through his father’s telescope. The big photos were visible to us even in the back row. Every now and then the band and some more singers or dancers provided some variety.
It was all over in 45 minutes, and the kids filed out. What was remarkable to me, throughout, was the good behaviour of the boys and girls. The teachers rarely had to intervene, and the noise level from the students was well down. They were part of it, enjoying it, and appreciating the success of those singled out. The school has a bunch of captains, not just for boys and girls, as in my day. There are captains for sport, language (Japanese), library, energy, for the four houses (we had four houses too), and for other activities. Leadership and responsibility are available in many forms. A good school to go to, I thought.
Mine was, too, but it was much more authoritarian. The cane was used on boy troublemakers. I don’t remember anything happening to girls, but they were always much more orderly and polite. The desired noise level in our classroom waste at nil, unless the teacher was speaking or we were answering questions. To be seen talking to a classmate in class was a signal for strong disapproval, and lines (‘I must not talk in class’ written out fifty times, after school, before you were allowed to leave). If our teacher thought there was too much noise, he would say ‘Hands on heads!’, and we would comply. Then he would tell us again to be silent while we worked. I thought it no coincidence that the air-raid siren sounded the All Clear to tell us that school was over for the day.
Things have changed a great deal since then, and for the better. Yes, the curriculum has broadened out, and most students spend 12, 13 or 14 years in pre-school, primary and secondary education, compared with the nine that were common in my day. Those who go on to university, about 60 per cent of the high-school leavers compared to 2 per cent in my day, will probably do more than one degree, too. Formal education can now take twenty years. People complain about standards, but they need to remember that those of us in the A classes in high schools sixty years ago were a tiny proportion of the whole school population.
I wasn’t deeply impressed at the Assembly with the carbon-footprint stuff, though I am told it was related to World Environment Day. Even so, the energy captains are there to ensure that classrooms have their lights turned off at lunch time. Now you can approve of that as a combat against waste, or disapprove on the ground it is yet another example of the global warming scare. I’m not sure about the welcome to country, either, since that little event was invented quite recently, and whose country one is in is sometimes a matter for fierce debate among the indigenous people themselves.
But my over-riding impression was of a good school, and of a bunch of kids who seem to be growing up well. And that made me feel good about the future. I am an optimist anyway, but what I saw and heard reinforced my optimism.