‘Rural school’, once in operation at various schools throughout inner Melbourne, was a concept devised to train student teachers destined for country postings how to teach multiple grades at once. To replicate what it would be like for teachers when they arrived at their country postings, these classes often included a family of siblings.
In 1899, schools inspector Frank Tate argued that teachers needed to be better prepared for country jobs, and recommended inspectors spend time and energy “helping teachers improve their methods of teaching and some means should be devised for assisting” untrained teachers to learn their jobs.
Errol Street (now North Melbourne) Primary School once doubled as a training academy, where a ‘rural school’ (also known as ‘bush school’ or ‘practising school’) ran classes separate to the other grades. As a commemorative booklet from 1934 notes:
It possesses a complete model of a rural school, which is situated in the school grounds, for the training of junior teachers to equip them with the best methods to be adopted when dealing with the education of children in country schools to which they are drafted when competent.
“It was that post-war period through the 1960s, when education became more progressive and experimental.”
Student Charles Reis (pictured above, back row) experienced the school as “a melting pot of cultural, economic and social diversity. My best friend got up at five o’clock every morning and helped his parents set up their produce – fresh fruit and vegies – stall at the market.”
Charles remembers the trainee teachers: “All these bright kids in their early twenties. They always seemed young, even to me, then. It was a time when education was changing, that post-war period through the 1960s, when the attitude and understanding of education became more progressive and experimental.
“As a child, I was riding that wave as the Baby Boom generation went into teaching with post-war ideals of freedom and self-expression and individual rights, that sense of encouraging freedom of thought and independent thought.”
One advantage of being in a composite class, he recalls, was that when you finished a task, the teacher had materials from the upper levels, so you could keep progressing at your own pace.
Teacher Mike Whiffen remembers the Errol Street demographic as a mix of children of academics and the working class. Mike was 27 in 1969. Only seven years out of Coburg Teachers College, he had already had several years of experience teaching in rural schools.
In his first year as a graduate, he was posted to a new school in Myrrhee, a small country town out of Wangaratta. He was its only teacher and there was no electricity in the area – Mike remembers the ‘switching on ceremony’ in 1963.
When he moved to Errol Street, it was Mike’s role to train teachers in the rural school program. He had his own class and oversaw two more rural classrooms. “I can’t remember exactly how the kids were chosen, but I remember that we didn’t have preps. And we still had external teachers for art and PE, unlike when I taught in actual rural schools.”
Mike, who talks fondly of the students and his fellow teachers, went on to become a principal, a businessman and, at one point, even a qualified chef. At 80, he doesn’t appear to be slowing down, having recently trained as a yoga teacher.
When asked for his secret, Mike believes in hanging out with positive people – but also having the organisational skills of a teacher. “You need to keep records,” he nods sagely. Clearly, this skill has served him well.
Further reading: Elaine Warne, Errol Street: The First Hundred Years 1857–1957. With thanks to Heather McKay at the North Melbourne Library.