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Going to school in the 1940s and '50s in Queensland

What was it like to attend a typical small school in country Queensland 70 or 80 years ago? Well, firstly, the children were called pupils, not students. State Schools did not require their pupils to wear school uniforms, hats or shoes, although some Catholic and private schools did. The person in charge of the school was the Head Teacher, who also taught the Grade Seven class except in very large schools. The building was probably built of wood, with weatherboards outside and tongue-and-groove timber for interior walls. Most schools were elevated 8 to 10 feet (2˝ to 3 metres) on stumps to provide a rudimentary play area underneath, which was usually concreted. The rough-hewn stumps would be painted with tar to deter white ants, and regular checking of stumps, walls, toilets and even toilet seats for termites was part of the Head Teacher’s job. 

Part of the underneath area would be enclosed using corrugated iron sheeting. Upstairs, the floorboards were bare, with years of dust between the cracks. Windows were usually of the casement type, well-known for sticking and being hard to open. Above most windows and doors were hinged fanlights to assist ventilation. 

The colour scheme for the interior walls was usually dark brown from the floor to a height of about three feet six inches (1.07 metres), and cream above that to the ceiling. Between the brown and the cream was a one-inch wide (25 mm) black band. Ceilings were white. Exterior walls were painted ‘stone’ (a dirty cream colour) as were most other wooden government buildings such as railway stations and post offices, with guttering and handrails dark brown. 

The desks in the classrooms were seven feet six inches (2.29 metres) long and each could accommodate five pupils. The children sat on a long, flat bench (called a form) of the same length, which had no back. In each pupil’s place there was a slot to hold a slate or pad, a groove to hold a pen or pencil, and a circular hole for the ink well. Underneath was a narrow shelf to hold books and other belongings, but it was never wide enough, and any bumping of the desk often led to heaps of books on the floor.. 

In the classroom there would be up to eight (in some cases more) long desks and forms to accommodate maybe forty pupils, with aisles along the side walls and down the centre.

At the front of the room would be the teacher’s table with a solid, wooden chair. There we would find two large blackboards, almost square in shape, fixed to the wall. Sometimes an extra blackboard would stand on an easel as well. A wooden cupboard with doors, known as a ‘press’, held all the class books and teaching materials. There was usually no other shelving. 

There would be one or two framed colour prints on display, and possibly a photograph of the King and Queen. There would often be a wall map or two, and maybe some teaching charts. A large wind-up clock, probably marked ‘Herga and Co., Brisbane’, ticked high up on a side wall. In colder country areas, there would be found in a front corner a wood-burning room heater or pot-bellied stove for use on wintry days. 

Apart from one or two examples, there would be very little children’s work on view, if any. Most Head Teachers liked the classrooms to be neat and uncluttered, and always insisted on tidiness above all else. The tops of presses had to be bare, although a vase of flowers was permitted to be placed there. 

The teacher would keep a set of charts mounted together on a board. This would be hung on the easel, and the appropriate chart flipped over when required. These were used for rote learning of spellings, sounds of letters, tables, school rules and good manners, as well as other things.

There were no fans, electric heaters, nor carpets on the floors. Linoleum on some floors such as the Head Teacher's Office was considered a luxury. Electric lights in classrooms were the exception rather than the rule, although one classroom in each school had a single light bulb in it for School Committee meetings, if electricity were available. At that time, though, many country schools had no electricity nor telephone whatever, and even in the mid-1960s the present writer was appointed to a country school where the only electrical appliance was a grey console radiogram, powered by a rechargeable six-volt car battery. Having the battery recharged involved a 50 mile round trip along bush fire-breaks and dirt roads to the nearest town.

In the 1930s, most children walked to school or rode horses. Often, all the children in a family came to school on the one horse. The animals would spend the day in a fenced-off part of the school ground usually called the ‘horse paddock’. A common excuse offered by a child who was late for school would be “I couldn’t catch my horse.” Your writer walked three miles to and from school every school-day in the convivial company of two boys who lived close by. In the late 1940s, children began to ride to school on bicycles, and in the 1960s bus services to schools became common.


What did we learn?

The main subjects taught were English, Arithmetic, History and Geography. English included reading, recitation, spelling, dictation, writing compositions or essays, punctuation, synthesis, analysis, parsing, derivation, and hand-writing practice in a copy book. Arithmetic included tables, notation, mental arithmetic, written arithmetic, mensuration and geometry. 

Each class had a single teacher who taught all subjects. An exception was often made for music, for if a teacher on the staff were talented in this art and could play the school piano (if there was one), then that teacher could likely find himself or herself (but usually it was 'herself') taking music lessons for some other classes than her own. Extra lessons in history, geography and singing were provided by the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s broadcasts to schools, so each school was supplied with a large, grey, console radiogram commonly called the ‘grey ghost’. Each classroom usually had a large grey extension speaker supplied, while the console was kept in the Head Teacher’s office and plugged into a wall audio socket when required. This radiogram also played 78 r.p.m. records of music used to teach the children various simple folk dances such as the ‘German Clap’ and ‘Shoemaker’s Dance’. 

Art lessons usually consisted of doing a drawing on heavy grey paper, using ‘Reeves Greyhound’ coloured pastels. Modelling of simple items, such as a basket of fruit, was done using plasticine. Girls attended a sewing lesson each week, while older boys learned such crafts as carpentry or fretwork. 20-minute lessons in physical education, known as ‘drill’, were held daily.

Some schools taught natural science, and built up small museums of dead creatures bottled in formalin, shells, mineral samples, different types of wood, bones etc. Other schools used this time to run Project Clubs, in which the children planted pineapples, fruit, vegetables, pine trees, or bred poultry or pigs. The State Education Act stipulated that half-an-hour each week be set aside by all classes and devoted to the reading of Bible lessons by the teacher from set books, and another half-an-hour for Religious Instruction, taught by visiting clergy. 


School days ..... 

In the 1940s, children began school at the start of the year in which they turned five, and there were seven main grades, beginning in Grade One. This was not always the case. Before 1930, there had been six Classes in primary schooling. When a new syllabus was introduced in 1930, a preparatory grade of 1˝  years was introduced, followed by Grades 1 to 7.

In 1938 the single preparatory grade was extended to two years of four semesters, Preparatory One (Prep One) to Prep Four. In their third year the pupils entered Grade One. The Prep grades were abolished in 1952, and primary schooling was organised into eight years, after which pupils moved to secondary school, where there were four year levels: Sub-Junior, Junior, Sub-Senior and Senior. In the early 1960s the Grade Eight class level was moved from primary to secondary schools throughout the State.

The school year was divided into three terms, separated by the six-week Christmas holidays (seven weeks if your school was west of the 150 degree line of longitude), the one-week May holidays, and the two-week August holidays, which were timed to allow children to attend the Royal National Association’s Show in Brisbane.

Highlights of the year included Anzac Day (April 25, when the children received blue silk badges), Empire Day (May 24, a patriotic card was received), Arbor Day (in September, trees would be planted), Guy Fawkes’ Night (November 5, cracker night), the annual féte, the occasional school dance or fancy dress ball, sports days, and of course the Breaking-Up Picnic before the Christmas holidays. 

Daily school routine was much simpler than we see today. There were no aides, instrumental music teachers, physical education teachers, foreign language teachers, learning support teachers, teacher-librarians, guidance officers, administrative officers or groundsmen provided. Parent helpers were rare and not generally encouraged. Each class had the one teacher for the whole day, with maybe a singing lesson taken by a musically-talented staff teacher once or twice per week. The children sat at their desks for the whole of each session, for group work was unheard of. Working with a friend was often called ‘cheating’! 

Children only left their seats to take work to the teacher’s table to be marked, or to go to the toilet, for to leave your place meant pushing past other children at the same desk, thereby disturbing them. If a child at the other end of your desk began rubbing something out, then all the children in that row had to contend with a rapidly vibrating desk. Sometimes, part of a class would move onto a veranda, go downstairs or sit under a shady tree, to chant tables or to listen to a story. 

In those days, it was believed that children learned by listening. The teacher was regarded as a fount of knowledge, whose job it was to pour information into the heads of the pupils, generally by lecturing from the blackboard, the children listening passively in rows facing the front. This ‘chalk and talk’ method of teaching is still an effective way of presenting some lessons today, but its weakness is that it assumes that all the children are of equal intelligence and receptivity. The teacher talks to the group at an average level, having to put to one side the needs of the brighter and slower pupils, and the requirements of different learning styles. 

Today educationists believe that children learn by doing, so the pupils in our classrooms are allowed a much more active role in acquiring their knowledge. Teaching programs are organised to cover a wide range of learning styles and abilities. Whether the new methods produce results as good as the old is debatable. 


The 3 R's:  Reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic 

In their first weeks of schooling in Prep One, the pupils learned what the letters of the alphabet looked like and the sounds they made. The children would chant, “ ‘a’ like an apple on a twig; ‘a’ says ‘a’. ‘b’ like a bat and ball; ‘b’ says ‘b’; ‘c’ like a cake with a bit taken out; ‘c’ says ‘c’; etc.” They would also learn to count and write numbers to nine.

The first pages in the Prep 1 reading book

Writing would be done on a wooden-framed slate, using a slate pencil. All children were asked to bring to school every day a rag and a small tobacco tin containing a sponge in a mixture of water and disinfectant. The sponge was used to wipe the slate clean, and the rag to dry it. Some children found that it was faster to erase small mistakes with a quick rub from a licked finger. Pupils felt that they had come up in the world when they progressed from slates to pads and pencils in their third year.. 

The style of printing used in the early grades was based on two shapes - the circle and the straight line. When children began to learn running writing, the first exercises were in filling up the slate with dozens of ‘fishhooks’ and ‘pothooks’. In Grade Three the pupils were issued with copy books, which were used twice weekly in half-hour lessons to improve the standard of handwriting. 

The cursive writing style used at the time was called ‘Copperplate’. It came into use at about the time split steel nibs were invented for use with ink pens. In Copperplate writing, capital letters such as B, C, E, F, G, H, K, L, M, N, P etc. all have a little stroke at the beginning. This was to start the flow of ink down the pen nib. Numerals such as 2, 3 and 7 also had this feature.

Sample Grade 5 copy book page 

In the younger grades, copy books were done in pencil, but older children used pen and ink. The ink powder needed to be mixed with water before the lesson, and placed in a bottle with a rubber tube on top for filling the individual ink wells. The boys who were given this task usually finished up with their hands stained with ink for the rest of the day. When a pupil dipped a pen into the ink in preparation for some neat writing, quite often as not the pen would come out of the ink well with a sodden blob of blotting paper or a dead fly impaled on the tip.  

In an attempt to dissuade their classmates from placing such objects in their ink wells, some pupils would bring from home a glass stopper from a Worcestershire sauce bottle, which made a convenient lid for their ink well. All exercises in the copy book were marked by the teacher. Children tried very hard to do neat work, for they knew that attaining nine marks out of ten was rewarded with a highly-prized Merit Stamp. If a child achieved ten out of ten, a perfect copy, then the reward was a Special Merit, and this was something of which a child could be really proud. 

There was one reading book provided per child for each grade level, and every class worked systematically through the book, lesson by lesson, so that the book was finished by December. Selected poems were learned by heart for recitation. There were similar books for Arithmetic, Mensuration, Geometry, History and Geography. In 1952, these latter two subjects were combined to form a Social Studies syllabus, with a large and well-illustrated prescriptive text book for each year level from Grade Four up. Each month, school children looked forward to the arrival of ‘The School Paper’, a slim magazine containing stories, poems and puzzles, price one penny. Three different magazines were published monthly to cover the seven grade levels. 


The dreaded homework! 

Homework in Grades Four to Seven was generally set out to a strict routine - at the writer's school, Monday was for English, Tuesday for Arithmetic, and on Wednesday afternoons there would be a Home Exercise to do, in which a page of the exercise book was headed up and dated in your best writing. The heading was underlined in red ink, and was followed by the set task. This book would be handed in next day and the page marked out of ten by the teacher. 

Thursdays generally saw some work on History or Geography, and at the weekend there was always a map to do in the special blank-page mapping book. The maps were drawn or traced in pencil by hand, and then gone over with ink, using a special mapping pen with a fine nib. Colouring pencils were used to show rivers, lakes and mountain ranges. 

Faint horizontal pencil lines would be drawn on which the place-names would be printed in ink, using a special sloping form of printing. A red ink border was always required around the map. On Monday mornings, the mapping books would be handed in and marked. The drawing of these maps made the pupils very familiar with the geographical features of their own and other countries, and of Australia’s place in the world as a growing, confident young nation.

Each child had a slim spelling book supplied, which showed them which spellings to learn each day. For example, Spelling Book 3 covered Grades 4 to 8 in 37 pages, with page 2 listing contractions such as "couldn't", and page 37 listing "Jones's 100 Spelling Demons" which was a list of tricky words such as "February" and "separate".


School Routine

The school day usually began at 9 am with "Parade". The children would line up in their classes, accompanied by their teachers. The Head Teacher would be out the front,, facing them. If the school were elevated, as most were, he would stand at the top of the stairs, facing the assembled classes, who would be standing "at ease" (hands clasped behind back, feet apart). The Head Teacher would bring them to "Attention" (feet brought together, hands by sides), and the School Band of fifes and drums would play the national anthem of "God Save the King/Queen". If there were no band, a gramophone record would be played on the "grey ghost". After the anthem, announcements would be made, and the children would march into school to musical accompaniment.

The first half-hour would be an interactive session between the teacher and pupils, covering news, morning talks, "show and tell", spellings, etc. The next hour would be more intensive, with exercises in arithmetic, mensuration and geometry. By 10:30 am the pupils needed a break, so many schools timetabled a 20-minute session of "Drill" at this time. Introduced during the First World War, the aim of "Drill" was to promote health and fitness through physical exercise. The class would march to an appropriate grassy site in the playground where they would assemble in ranks. The teacher would lead the class for ten minutes in calisthenics, and the final five or ten minutes would be spent in ball games such as Tunnel Ball and Under-and-Over. Medicine balls or basket balls were brought along for these games. Drill was popular with the children and led into the first break which was scheduled variously between 10:30 and 11 am..

There were two breaks in daily school routine, the first being at morning tea time. Known as "little lunch" or "elevenses", it was a time for a snack, drink and toilet break which lasted ten to fifteen minutes. Starting in 1950, the Commonwealth initiated a free milk scheme, through which every school child was provided each day with a small glass bottle of free milk, holding one-third of a pint. Thick cream could be found at the top two inches of the bottle. Most schools distributed these at morning tea, by which time the milk was rather warm. It was common to find that numerous bottles had had their silver foil tops pierced by birds, particularly magpies, who had learned that they also could enjoy a free drink of creamy milk at the same time and place each day. This program, which was advantageous to both the dairy farmers' finances and the pupils' health, was discontinued in 1973.

Generally, the mid-morning session between the two breaks was used in activities in English language such as grammar, analysis, parsing, correction of sentences, parts of speech, punctuation, copy books etc.

The second break lasted one hour and was known as "big lunch" - the children would eat sandwiches and fruit brought from home in brown paper bags, the sandwiches being wrapped in grease-proof paper. After ten or fifteen minutes eating time and chat, the playbell would ring and major games such as vigoro for the girls and cricket or soccer for the boys would be started on the playing fields, usually organised by the children themselves.

For younger pupils, most schools had a sandpit and maybe some swings, a slippery-slide and a see-saw. In the 1950s, galvanised steel climbing frames called "Jungle Gyms" and sets of "Monkey Bars" found their way into school play areas. Many children brought bags of marbles and would play games such as "holesies" with their mates, using various "dibs" such as "aggies", "cat's eyes" and "alleys". Sometimes they played for fun, other times for "keeps". For a few years after 1945, most schools in coastal areas had in their grounds the remnants of the slit trenches which had been dug to provide shelter for the pupils in case of wartime bomb attack. The children found them ideal for play or as cubby houses, suitably roofed with branches, until they were eventually worn down or filled in.

After about 35 or 40 minutes of play, "First Bell" would ring. Games would cease, equipment returned to the storeroom and the children would have a drink, visit the toilet if necessary and await the afternoon session. Most schools then rang a "Second Bell" and the children lined up for a shorter parade after "big lunch" and then marched into school accompanied by music. The parades were not an attempt to regiment the children, but were an ideal way to settle them down before the lessons began.

The afternoon session usually involved activities in history and geography (later "Social Studies"), mapping, natural science, music, art and craft, health, and Bible reading from a government-supplied book suitable for children. Once a week, approved clergy would visit the school for religious instruction. Occasionally there would be visits from the School Dentist and the School Nurse, the latter's arrival sometimes causing widespread alarm when the children became aware that she was giving everyone a 'Needle' (e.g. for tetanus, tuberculosis or polio). The school day usually ran for six hours, and was in the majority of schools from 9 am to 3 pm. (During wartime, when many male teachers had joined the armed forces and schools were severely understaffed, many schools had operated staggered hours, the junior pupils attending from 8.00 a.m. to 12 noon, and older pupils from 12.30 p.m. to 4.30 p.m.) 

Discipline was never a problem at schools in those days. Your writer never heard of a child being rude to a teacher or "answering back" at any time. Bullying of pupils by older or stronger children may have existed, but he never saw any examples. On rare occasions, boys would challenge each other for a fight after school in some vacant area nearby (never in the schoolgrounds). The word would get around and a large number of boys would turn up to watch, but mostly the antagonists would choose not to fight, to everyone's disappointment.

We knew that every Head Teacher kept a cane in his Office, and any serious transgressions by children (such as swearing or theft) would be rewarded with "six of the best" or, as we called it, "getting the cuts". There were strict regulations on the application of the cane, and it could not be used on young boys or any girls. Regulations required that the Head Teacher maintain a "Corporal Punishment Register" in which the particulars of any use of the cane had to be entered, including the date, the student's name, the offence, and the number of strokes administered up to a maximum of six, but usually only one. This Register was examined and signed by the School Inspector during his annual visits. Most Head Teachers were reluctant to cane any child, using it only as a last resort and then without excessive force. In the 1970s it quietly went out of use. Your writer was only caned on one occasion (for fighting), but held no hard feelings as he thought that the punishment was justified and worth it.  


In conclusion ....

I attended the Runcorn State School from 1948 to 1955, which was then surrounded by rural fruit and vegetable growing acreage on the outskirts of Brisbane. With its many farms, country atmosphere and dirt roads, it was quite unlike the small housing allotments of suburbia crowded with display homes, shops and bitumen streets that exist there today. My friends and I enjoyed the order and discipline of our primary school of that time, and felt that it gave us all a feeling of belonging, self-worth and respect for benevolent authority. We regarded our teachers not so much as friends, but as highly-respected leaders and helpers, with whom we were happy to co-operate for we knew that they had our best interests at heart. I have happy memories of all of them, particularly Miss Windsor, Miss Noela Guy, Mr Charles Blyth, Mr Bill Dick, Mr Clem Ferguson (the senior teacher known affectionately by the boys as "Fuggsie"), and the Head Teachers Mr Sugars and Mr Ross.

Later, I worked as a teacher and then Principal in ten country State Schools of different sizes in the Darling Downs, South-west, Wide Bay, Brisbane North and Sunshine Coast Education Regions for 42 years.   



Note:  The provision of teacher aides, library aides, remedial (learning support) teachers, instrumental music teachers, physical education teachers, foreign language teachers, teacher-librarians, guidance officers, administrative officers, janitor-groundsmen, carpeted floor coverings, electric fans and electric heaters in primary schools all had to wait until the election of Gough Whitlam's Federal Labor Government in December 1972. Between 1973 and 1975, Whitlam's Government supplied considerable amounts of money for schools to improve the services they provided for their students, and his Schools Commission made available grants to individual schools to fund innovative educational practices. Such generous funding of schools and other Federal instrumentalities was more than the country could afford, and the Government was reduced to seeking unconventional loans from various other countries. Scandals arose, and Mr Whitlam was sacked by the Governor-General Sir John Kerr in November 1975. In the subsequent federal election, Kerr's actions were confirmed by the voters of Australia, and Malcolm Fraser of the Liberal Party won office. By then the improvements in schools and staffing had become popular, and were irreversible. Mr Fraser was the Prime Minister of Australia for the next seven years, until the Labor Party regained office in 1983, under Prime Minister Bob Hawke.


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