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What school was like in South Australia in the 1950s and 60s

I WAS invited recently to my grandson’s school to talk to the class about what school was like when I was growing up in the 1950s. I worried about it momentarily, after all, I don’t think I have ever done a presentation for a room full of eight year olds, and I didn’t really know what they expected, but it turned out OK (I think).

What caught the children’s attention most was that we never had computers, the internet, iPads, iPhones or any digital devices and back then, if you were naughty at school, you got the cane.

“Did you have to be really naughty?” asked one, “Did it hurt?” was the next question, “How many times did they hit you?”. The boys seemed to want to pursue the topic more than the girls, “Why did you get into trouble?” and “Where did you get hit?”. They wanted all the gory details. I was reluctant to be too specific about the sort of punishment we Baby Boomers copped as kids. It was the sort of treatment that would now constitute a criminal offence.

Here’s how we did it before the internet, iPhones and iPads

Back in the day though it was considered an important tool to maintain discipline, and discipline and the fear of the Almighty were the two things the Dominican Sisters belted into us without fear or favour. Education came in a poor third.

But the nuns weren’t the only teachers of the era guilty of dishing out harsh corporal punishment. Private, Catholic and state schools all adhered to a code of disciplinary standards which they maintained with brutal efficiency.

On the Australia Remember When Facebook page recently the subject attracted almost 400 comments from readers including Wanda Bentley who wrote; “Barbaric didn’t begin to describe the nuns. Canes, thick leather straps, 36” blackboard rulers, they came equipped — boys, girls, everyone copped it. Migrant kids were especially targeted and I went through primary school believing I was a dunce. Of course we dare not tell our god-fearing parents who would have sided with the nuns”.

Heather O’Neill agreed, “Totally awful. My husband tells me most nuns and the Christian Brothers were sadistic. But he says he just accepted it as a child. My public schooling was much kinder but not free of the cane.”

Not everyone had the same opinion or shared the same experience. Susan Johnson said “I don’t agree about the nuns. I don’t know about the Brothers but not all nuns were sadistic. I only met one in my entire schooling who I would say was sadistic and she just hated the boys. Most of the nuns were kind and gentle.Ascot Park Infant School students Robert and Terry, both 5, on their first day of school in 1960.

And to be fair, for some, school was a pleasant experience. Kathleen Watkins recorded; “My years at a public school were wonderful! Caring teachers who could teach at infants, primary and then my years at high school were inspiring. Poetry, science, French, music, needlework and Shakespeare! Never forgotten! Thanks to the wonderful teachers.”

Without a digital device anywhere. Kids playing in the school grounds at lunchtime in the 1960s

The other subject that really fascinated the children was no computers, internet, mobile phones or digital devices.

Come to think of it, I’m intrigued myself about what life was like in those pre-computer, pre-mobile days. Thinking back, I can’t recall that it was all that different, but it must have been a lot slower.

How did we find information before Google? We looked things up in books and encyclopedias or went to the library. If we wanted to travel somewhere and weren’t sure of how to get there, we used a street directory. To call someone, we memorised their phone number, found it in the Teledex or looked it up in the phone book.

It wasn’t until the ’60s and ’70s that people could afford a telephone at home so until then we used public phones in red telephone boxes that were sprinkled throughout the city and suburbs, often smelt like urine and occasionally didn’t work. We always had some small change in case we ever needed to make an emergency call. People read books (a lot still do, thank God) and quite often communicated with each other by speaking out loud instead of emailing and texting.

Some folks just stared into space while travelling on public transport or in a lift instead of desperately scrolling through their emails.

To communicate to a relative or friend in another city, state or overseas we would sit down and write a letter with pen and paper.

This could take maybe an hour or two, then we would place the letter in an envelope, put a stamp on it and drop it in the mailbox. Delivery could take three or four days within Australia or several weeks to an overseas destination.

Before the internet, newspapers and the evening TV news were our primary means of learning about the events of the day.

We read the newspapers in the morning, which was all yesterday’s news and the 6pm bulletin on the telly brought us up to date with what had happened throughout the day, sometimes to within a few hours. It’s remarkable to think how far we have travelled in the past fifty years, how much we have changed and the kind of world our grandchildren and their children will inherit.

As I looked out over that sea of young, inquisitive and innocent faces I couldn’t help but wonder if in maybe fifty or sixty years from now, one of them will be standing in front of a room of young children, trying to explain what the internet was and contemplating how much the world had changed in the past fifty years.

3 Responses to What school was like in South Australia in the 1950s and 60s

  1. June Miller October 21, 2017 at 10:06 am #

    I was a kid before TV even, and we used to sit around the radio every night, listening to the news and all our favourite serials

  2. Terry L February 15, 2018 at 5:21 pm #

    Every now and then I pull out an old album and there I am, 1949 Lower I, Alberton Infant School, proudly being photographed for my first school photo, front toothlessly grinning with my lunch stuck up my jumper, all of which making me look a bit like a carnival exhibit. A couple of years on and Upper IIA, now one of the big kids, progressing to the Big School up Broad Street a bit towards Port Road, where I was destined then to become a little kid again. Grade III, and life was simple. Learning to write cursively with a dip pen and ink – no mean feat for a left hooker – my work was often demonstrated as a “how not to do it” example. Times tables learned by rote, mental arithmetic “sums” to be done quickly, sitting up straight, holding the pen correctly, dreading doing anything wrong which would have you sent to the “Opportunity Class”. How cringeworthy is that nowadays – a class of underprivileged and sometimes “special needs” kids who through no fault of their own were deemed “backward”. I wonder how many went on to become industry leaders and university graduates. Mustn’t forget the photo of us proudly standing out the front of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital with what must have been hundredweight rolls of silver foil, collected over months from chocolate wrappers and the like. I wonder what they did with that? Grade VII and dux of the school – a big kid again, destined to be a little kid once more in High School. The photos stir so many memories, too many for here – but overall it was a stressless time, a wonderful time, when school was simple, learning was exciting, technology was totally absent, discipline was present, understood and accepted – and we regularly sang the Song of Australia!! (Check out Peter Dawson’s version on youtube).

  3. Deana S February 25, 2018 at 1:58 pm #

    I’m of a later generation than what Bob is referring to here, but perhaps I can tell you what my primary school years were like in the mid 1970s, and high school in the early 80s. Nothing sweet or charming to relate, and I’m still furious after all these years about the treatment we received. Murray Bridge North & High; school bullying rampant and unchecked by teachers and staff (my brother was abused so badly at MB north, he had to be pulled out and was subsequently enrolled in Fraser Park (primary). Additional things to describe about MB north – marching (what in hell was the purpose of that?), singing “God Save the Queen” at assembly (why? – when we had an Australian anthem), a headmaster who I suspected went back home to watch TV for the day after addressing morning school assembly. Poor quality, inadequate and inconsistent education (typical of the public school system), fetid facilities (I still remember that filthy toilet block in junior primary – it was so scary, you’d rather mess your pants than use it, and then the broken desks and chairs, and the sickly, unwatered trees in the yard). And my biggest gripes – weaker students overlooked and marginalised on the basis of perceived lack of ability (“special” class groups – where they also put the aboriginals) – this practice was maintained even in the high school, and the lack of compassionate, caring teachers – most of them were cold, dismissive and abusive hacks. Two of them I would dearly love to name publicly, but verbal abuse of kids by teachers was common. The abuse was over the top in some instances – I had my experiences, but I also still recall a deputy headmaster directing a group of boys to “stretch” one particular boy in the schoolyard (the kid was held aloft by four other boys, one per limb and they were ordered to pull on each limb – to stretch him apart; this for a crime I don’t exactly know of, but I suspect he was accused of being a “poofter”. MB high no better in most respects – I was driven to tears and despair, and was terrified by the bullying, as were several others.
    But I’m told both schools became much worse in subsequent years. It is interesting to read the comments on “Adelaide Remember When” from those who recall earlier times with fondness. However, not all was well, really.

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