The primary school then and now

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.

 

Join the discussion 63 Comments

  • JimboR says:

    “I am told that there are few indigenous people in the school’s zone”

    I can’t speak for the school zone, but there 1011 indigenous people in the city of Frankston according to the 2011 census, 35% of whom are under the age of 15.

    • David says:

      Yes well, Don has a bit of a “set” against all things aboriginal. His skepticism towards Welcome to country ceremony is ridiculous.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Why? It was invented twenty or so years ago in Western Australia when indigenous visitors from elsewhere (Canada, I think) asked what the welcome they would receive would be like so they knew how to respond. It has become a widespread custom, and I have no real objection to it, but it seemed a bit out of place in that primary school.

        I spent a score of years on the ACT Reconciliation Council, and have widespread friends who are indigenous. But I do believe that I am as entitled as anyone else to express my views about policies that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and will be publishing an essay soon about the proposed referendum on ‘recognition’ in the Constitution.

        • JimboR says:

          The Boonerwrung folk say they’ve long had a welcoming ceremony, complete with some rules the visitors had to agree to:

          http://www.boonwurrung.org/

          Don, what did your granddaughter think of this aspect of the assembly? I’m guessing she probably wasn’t as troubled by it as you appear to be.

          • spangled drongo says:

            “The Boonerwrung folk say they’ve long had a welcoming ceremony,”

            Any evidence for that, Jimbo?

          • spangled drongo says:

            As Jimbo’s teacher no doubt often said; “no answer, was the stern reply”.

            If you progressives want to keep inventing aboriginal sacred traditions you need to lift your game. Or better still, give it away altogether. Even the aboriginals don’t take it seriously. They just do it for the money.

          • margaret says:

            Why not have a beer with Duncan … reflect on how great our culture is with the mates in the pub

          • margaret says:

            “When John Batman arrived in Port Phillip in 1835, he approached local Indigenous leaders with a contract, to ‘buy’ their land. His negotiations were successful, and he walked away with 240,000 hectares of prime farming terrain – almost all of the Kulin nation’s ancestral land.

            However, this transaction was not as straightforward as it appears.”
            http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/colonial-melbourne/pioneers/batmans-treaty

          • Don Aitkin says:

            It is not, even accepting the claim, like the standard acknowledgment of country I was talking about. Other traditions are various. What we have now is something contrived, and seemingly mandatory.

          • margaret says:

            There’s a difference between welcome to country ceremony and acknowledgement of country and the latter can be fairly perfunctory.
            “At a meeting, speech or formal occasion the speaker can begin their proceedings by offering an Acknowledgement of Country. Unlike a Welcome to Country, it can be performed by a non- Indigenous person.”
            “As journalist Martin Flanagan reflects: “I am not going to pretend that every Welcome to Country ceremony I’ve attended has been brilliantly alive to me. But that would be true of a lot of, if not nearly all, official ceremonies I attend. I also think there is an onus on non-Indigenous people who acknowledge country in the course of their public utterances to do it as well as they can.””

        • Don Aitkin says:

          According to Ernie Dingo, he and Richard Walley invented it in the mid 1970s when a group of visiting Pacific Islanders and Maoris refused to perform at an event in Perth unless they were welcomed, as would be the case in their couture. So Dr Wally talked to his elders and made up up something that felt right. You can read about it here:

          http://www.theaustralian.com.au/archive/in-depth/ernie-dingo-claims-the-first-welcome/story-e6frgd9f-1225841577128

        • David says:

          Don,

          Margaret is spot on when she says it does not matter how or when the “Welcome to country” ceremony evolved. Pre-invasion, Aboriginal settlement consisted of many tribes (200+?) which were culturally decimated. Aboriginal culture has since had to adapt and evolve. But it does not make it any less relevant. You set yourself up as some arbiter of all things “aboriginal”; this tradition is not old enough or this person’s skin is too fair. So what of the Aboriginal flag do you object to that too? It was only invented in 1971.

          Your generation sang “God save the King”. I could ask, is there a God? Does he/she have a preference for the sovereign of the UK? He did die in 1952, after all. Teaching children “God save the King” or introducing them to a “Welcome to Country” ceremony are both rituals that provide a sense of place and community to Australia’s school kids. I prefer “Welcome to country” because it is friendly and inclusive of ALL children. Certainly more scientifically accurate than inculcating a belief in some British God.

          Your comments on this ceremony are mean and petty!

          • Don Aitkin says:

            David, your comment is too disjointed to reply to. Read Mulvaney’s great work, and reflect on the large number of languages, no tribes but small family groups, at least three waves of settlement over thousands of years, and different cultures. Yes, there are common elements. I see no need for an aboriginal flag at the official level. There is one nation and it has one flag. Were that flag to be changed I would get used to it, but see no need to change it.

            You might like to alter your pulpit tone by using formations like “I think your comments on the ceremony are mean and petty’.

      • spangled drongo says:

        Maybe Don realises that it is all a big act.

        Got any evidence that it used to occur when aboriginals were in a wild state, Dave?

        Or are you just fullervit too?

        • margaret says:

          Whether welcome ceremonies were part of aboriginal culture is not the point – the point of them is to acknowledge that Australia was taken as a terra nullius right by colonisers and we now acknowledge that the land was actually inhabited by First Nations.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Margaret, when aboriginals had no concept of the “land” as we know it and various tribes that were often their enemies used that same land when they weren’t there [they went walkabout regularly] terra nullius is a fair description of the situation back then. They understood food production by that land but they were not territorial in the true sense as say Pacific Islanders and other tribes in other countries were.

            And what do you know about “first nations” WRT aboriginals? There were many tribes of aboriginal migrants over many millennia.

          • margaret says:

            Oh dear.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Oh dear indeed. They were obviously different races. Even you might be able to remember the pigmy aboriginals that were forced to live in the one place every other aboriginal tribe has shunned. The tick, leach and parasite infested rainforest of north Qld. These days this tribe is almost never mentioned but they were even on the movies when I was a kid. They were possibly the only territorial aboriginals in the country but it wasn’t their idea. That’s the story of all pigmy races but I’ll bet they were very thankful when they were released from that hell courtesy of white settlement.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Margaret, that is a fair point. But as Ernie Dingo says, these welcome -to-country statements should not be made mandatory, or descend into ritual. Have one if you feel that it is right in all the circumstances, but don’t force them on people.

            I had some success in the ACT in getting the word ‘custodians’ to replace ‘owners’, since Aboriginal relationships to the land they lived on seemed to me better captured that way. They certainly didn’t have a concept of ‘ownership’ like ours.

          • NameGlenM says:

            I think I’ll go and have a beer.

          • margaret says:

            Tandarrum
            An Aboriginal term meaning the exchange of gifts in return for safe passage over a person’s land. Tandarrum doesn’t involve the permanent sale of land but temporary use.

          • JimboR says:

            The suggestion that Ernie Dingo speaks for all indigenous people (or would even know anything about the customs and traditions of the Boonerwrung people) is about as plausible as suggesting Don Aitkins speaks for all Anglo-Saxons.

          • margaret says:

            Yes custodians is a much better word – indigenous peoples don’t make land grabs for ownership. They’re already there.

          • margaret says:

            I recommend the films Charlie’s Country, Another Country and Ten Canoes, all featuring David Gulpilil.
            Recommended reading Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe and The Biggest Estate on Earth by Bill Gammage.

          • The Proctologist says:

            Margaret, was not Terra Nullius invaded by the first settlers, that is, the Aboriginals. I am happy to be labelled an invader as long as the numbers are correct and in order. I am partt of the second invaders.

            Terra Nillius is:

            Terra nullius (/?t?r?.n??la??s/, plural terrae nullius) is a Latin expression deriving from Roman law meaning “nobody’s land”, which is used in international law to describe territory which has never been subject to the sovereignty of any state, or over which any prior sovereign has expressly or implicitly relinquished …

            This makes the Aboriginals the first invaders.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        David, this is a classic ad hominem rant, without argument or explanation.

        • David says:

          Don
          Sometimes the thread of the argument can become lost on this blog. To recap. I said your “skepticism towards Welcome to country ceremony is ridiculous.” You asked me “why”. So I provided the following argument.

          • spangled drongo says:

            David thinks it is just fine to invent a bit of convenient aboriginal culture such as a welcome to country ceremony to help with recognition and reconciliation.

            The use of the aboriginal flag is also a modern invention which simply helps to prove the truth of the terra nullius situation.

            Singing “God save the King” did actually happen and has for centuries past.

            That’s what’s known as the real world. David seems to have difficulty getting it.

            If we are all free to reinvent the truth WRG historic culture, R&R will be a long time coming.

          • David says:

            So Spang do you and Don object to Advance Australia Fair being sung as school assembly as it only became our national anthem in 1984.

            And what of the Australian flag? Do you object to that too? The Australian Blue Ensign only became our official flag in 1954?

            So here you are, with a flag that is 70 years old and an anthem that is 40 years old, trying to match it for tradition and authenticity, with a culture dates back 60,000 years. You are coming up just a little short Spang.

          • spangled drongo says:

            The more you rant Dave the sillier you get.

            So a young, emerging country has a young emerging flag and anthem?

            Who’d’ve thought?

            As opposed to aboriginals after “60,000” years not having either and needing progressives to bring them up to date.

            A pity you and other progressives never lived with myalls. It would have improved your education no end.

          • margaret says:

            Deborah Cheetham refused to sing “for we are young and free” at an AFL grand final.
            “Setting aside for a moment 70,000 years of Indigenous cultures, 114 years on from Federation and 227 years into colonisation, at the very least, those words don’t reflect who we are. As Australians, can we aspire to be young forever? If we are ever to mature we simply cannot cling to this desperate premise.”
            Judith Durham and Kutcha Edwards penned these alternative lyrics to our national anthem.
            Clunky I think but what can you do with our less than stirring dirge.
            Australia, celebrate as one, with peace and harmony.
            Our precious water, soil and sun, grant life for you and me.
            Our land abounds in nature’s gifts to love, respect and share,
            And honouring the Dreaming, advance Australia fair.
            With joyful hearts then let us sing, advance Australia fair.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Ah! 70,000 years now!

            Smack! smack!

          • spangled drongo says:

            Do you really believe that Deborah Cheetham who is at most 25% aboriginal truly believes she is not as free as you or me?

            Or do you feel that she is desperately wanting to return to that part of her ancestry culture and is somehow prevented?

          • margaret says:

            “We know we cannot live in the past, but the past lives in us.” Charles Perkins

          • spangled drongo says:

            But when the real world catches up with you don’t blame the real world.

          • spangled drongo says:

            Or expect a free ride from it.

            Do you really think that your own and other cultures have not suffered a similar fate at some stage?

            And what do you think might have happened then?

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Zones are quite small, and there are several primary schools in the Frankston area.

    • JimboR says:

      Don, how did you or your source measure the number? What does “few” mean in this context, two, three?

      • Don Aitkin says:

        The kid’s parents are the source, and they are occupied with that school and the community kindergartens that feed into the primary schools. Your question verges on the rude, but I will add that they said there were many more closer to the Frankston central business district.

      • JimboR says:

        So do they have access to the enrolment database, or is their assessment based on skin colour? Don, surely your encounter with Shane Mortimer taught you that skin colour is not a reliable indicator of indigenous ancestry.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Jimbo, you need to know that Mr Mortimer withdrew his case just before he was to be in court. He has taught nobody, as far as I am aware, about the relationship of skin colour to indigenous ancestry.

      • JimboR says:

        The proposition that a welcome to country should only be held if the indigenous head count in the audience exceeds some arbitrary threshold is at best dubious. The proposition that one should only be held if the number of people in the audience who _look_ indigenous (presumably measured by yet another arbitrary threshold) exceeds the threshold, verges on the offensive.

        • margaret says:

          About five years ago I attended a workshop in a regional city where welcome to country prefaced the introduction of the course. Everyone attending the course and the trainer, ‘appeared’ to be white. At that stage of my awareness or lack of, I found some incongruity in this – (Don has said there is incongruity in most things) – but had no objection to the brief statement of recognition that we were on land that had been ‘owned’ by its original occupants.
          Little did I know then, that there are many indigenous people living and working in that town but you won’t necessarily know that by their skin colour. Hopefully some of them were actually attending the very useful course on children’s literacy.

          • JimboR says:

            Yes, fair point Margaret. But Don should know better after his encounter with Shane Mortimer. He certainly can’t use the unaware excuse.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Whose proposition is this? Not mine, certainly.

  • NameGlenM says:

    I was amused by your reflections.I come from aline of pedagogues that are filled with anecdotes from the past.Once,my grandfather,at the age of 105 was overlooked for centenary celebrations at a rural school in North NSW ;all past headmasters being honoured of course,but Charles would not be there as all had presumed him deceased!

  • spangled drongo says:

    Thanks for the memories, Don.

    My cheesen’kisses and I turn up at these school dos, for our grandchildren, and they come across as pretty slick, well rehearsed marketing in the non-state schools they attend.

    A distant world away from my WW2 state school ed where the teachers were mostly middle aged WW1 vet men.

    But what a great education we got. Blow by blow details of the Wells of Beer Sheba etc where the Aust soldiers were the first westerners into the holy land since the Crusades, and similar stories.

    I remember my Latin teacher in 1950 telling us that his generation had made a mess of the first half of the 20th C and it was up to us to do a bit better in the 2nd half. Maybe we did.

  • Alan Gould says:

    It is that “hands on heads” that sparked a memory for me, Don, a measure still used in the primary schools i recall from the ’50’s.
    I began at a Quaker school in Lisburn, Northern Ireland circa 1954, and it was only when I hitch-hiked through troubled Ulster 20 years later that I saw why my Army father had chosen the Quakers over the two alternatives available. There followed a series of Primary schools in Britain and Germany.
    I recall boys sometimes bringing grass snakes to school in their pockets, a non-venomous serpent up to about 18 inches long. i recall one boy so vehemently against a day-at-school he had to be dragged, howling, by his big brother and friend, and would spend the day at his desk with his head in his hands sobbing inconsolably; I have a vague memory his name was John Iron.
    By Germany, our phantasmagoria was all military, and we wore the same infantry and parchute helmets the garrison soldiers wore. The problem was to get a piece of camouflage netting to stretch over them, but found that a square from the cricket nets could be cut from the surplus on the ground and go unnoticed. There was a morning hymn and prayer at assembly, perhaps the Nat Anthem was sung on ‘Commonwealth day’ but nothing slavish like the obeisances you describe for 2016.
    Talking of snakes, a mate of mine was a teacher at Alice Springs for an interval. Walking into the playground one morning, he saw a cluster of kids in a distance, and clusters usually spell trouble to the teacher. He went over and saw an Aboriginal youngster playing with a smallish tiger snake, handling it and being abetted by the watchers. “The snake could have killed him,” commented my mate.
    “What did you do?” I asked.
    “Confiscated his snake, of course!”

  • margaret says:

    Urbenville Public School 1959 – “I honour my God, I serve my Queen, I salute the flag”, and off we marched into class.
    It wasn’t the first school I attended, I think there were 3 before then. A rolling stone gathers no moss. Fortunately I was smart enough to get a scholarship for secondary school – the flip side being I had to live away from my family from age 11 and live with grandparents and an aunt.

    • margaret says:

      There were a few aboriginal kids at Urbenville public school, probably in every class. We didn’t really notice skin colours, or maybe we noticed but didn’t discriminate.
      The enrolment was tiny – maybe less than 100. The spacious grounds to play in were incredible. My granddaughter’s Primary school has 800 students. I think it’s a pity.

      • margaret says:

        I rather wish that both Ross and Bobo would return to this scene … as alike as chalk and cheese but I thought their comments provoked thought.

        • margaret says:

          But at least David has been allowed back from the naughty corner and Jimbo’s comments are C21st.

          • spangled drongo says:

            “and Jimbo’s comments are C21st.””

            As in far removed from historical fact?

            Wouldn’t argue with that.

  • dlb says:

    What a coincidence, my old primary school hit the big time in the last few days with an article about it in “The Australian” newspaper. Prior to this it would be lucky to get a few words in the local rag. The article relates how the school is now requiring five year old students have an iPad in class. Naturally some of the parents were unhappy with this and judging by the comments, so were many of the readers of the Oz.

    Reminds me of a time in the sixties when the same school introduced “New Maths” to the syllabus and gave five year olds Cuisenaire rods to learn mathematics. I was a bit old for rods but unfortunately my sister copped this latest fad. Perhaps they might have proved useful to children with analytical minds, but my sister being a creative soul built houses out of the coloured bits of wood. I don’t think she quite ever caught up with maths after that failed start.

    Anyway it was probably the start of my scepticism to fads and fashions. I also remember from about grade three we used to get a visit from the man from the Commonwealth Bank, who used to hand out rulers and pencils to students and teachers. Most of the kids thought what a great idea the bank was where if you put money in you would get more back in a years time. To me this and Santa Claus didn’t make much sense, I’m afraid I must have been a born sceptic.

    Oh yes, the Commonwealth Bank rulers in those days were a useful aid in class discipline, probably a sackable offence today.

  • margaret says:

    Bill Shorten’s on fire tonight.

  • Albert says:

    I remember it well. Victorian primary school, not far from Frankston. Every Monday morning in the 1940s ” I love God and my country, I honour the flag and ‘chiefly’ obey my parents, teachers and the laws” it wasn’t until much later that I learned it should be “cheerfully obey my parents etc” Actually life has taught me that my parents were chiefly right. Not sure about the rest.

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