Roihuvuoren ala-aste

David Nichols, visiting schools in Finalnd, has provided us with a fine video record of what he did in North Tapiola at the weekend

The Designing Australian Schools research group is hosting Classroom to Campus: The Heritage of Modern Education, a workshop with two accompanying keynote lectures  at the University of Melbourne from 26th to the 28th November.

Bristol Aluminium Classroom, a prefabricated double classroom unit manufactured by the Bristol Aeroplane Company and imported for use in Victoria in 1951 and other Australian states around the same time. Source: Public Records Office of Victoria (PROV)

Classroom to Campus: The Heritage of Modern Education

Registration is now open for the Classroom to Campus symposium, to be held at the University of Melbourne between Monday 26th November and Wednesday 28th November. The event includes public lectures by leading conservation architects and experts on modernism, David Fixler and John Allan, and a plenary addresses by  school heritage expert Elain Harwood (English Heritage) as well as sessions on the following topics:

  • the cultural heritage of schools
  • the conservation and adaptation of school and university buildings and campuses
  • the designed landscape of twentieth century campuses
  • the process of identifying and documenting historically and architecturally significant places of education

To find out more and to register for the event please visit this webpage:  http://www.abp.unimelb.edu.au/heritage/classroom-campus

*Please note, if you register for the symposium you will automatically be registered for the evening keynote lectures.

The event is co-hosted by the ARC-funded research project Designing Australian Schools and the Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning through its New Prospects in Heritage and Conservation program. Support has also been provided by the Heritage Council of Victoria and Docomomo Australia.

Contact: Cameron Logan, clogan@unimelb.edu.au

Members of our research group have recently been discussing the idea that schools are, or should be, a privileged site for community activity. Throughout the twentieth century the idea of the school as an important place for gathering outside school hours arose again and again when school facilities were under discussion.

In Chicago in the 1910s and 1920s a community movement evolved from the settlement house social work of the preceding generation.  Planner and former school principal Clarence Perry argued that schools were the logical place to foster and formalise this movement and that schools could be used by ‘self-education’ groups in particular. Perry argued that providing access to school buildings for voluntary organisations would encourage social advancement for migrant groups but also foster assimilation to mainstream American norms of citizenship.

In Australia in the 1940s educational leaders also saw the value of utilising school facilities as community centres in non-school hours and saw them as agents of modernisation and community building. An Australian Council for Educational Research publication from 1948 explicitly addressed the issue:

“For the community activities of the neighbourhood unit the school is the natural headquarters. While schools will always be built primarily for children, they can also be made to serve the cultural development of the whole community.”

The author of the of the publication emphasised the importance of good design and the book contained illustrations such as the one below, depicting what I take to be ‘self-improvers’ at the recently completed, Walter Gropius -designed Impington Village College in England.

The ACER book argued that in rural areas the benefits of such a community function were manifest: “If the school is so equipped that it can be used as a community centre, parents will also enjoy these benefits, and a breaking down of insularity and local prejudices will almost certainly follow.” The illustrations highlighted the benefits of consolidating the old one room schoolhouses into modern, purpose-built schools.

During 2009 the Australian government created a school building project –  Building the Education Revolution(BER) – as the centrepiece of its economic stimulus package, which was designed to stave off the economic fallout of the global financial crisis. It explicitly mandated that schools that accept money for new buildings under the scheme must make the facilities available for community use:

“BER will deliver a range of additional benefits to the Australian community……School libraries and multipurpose halls built with funding from the Primary Schools for the 21st Century element of the BER  will be available at no, or low, cost for use by the community.”

Some members of our research group have taken a skeptical stance towards this reappearing aspiration for school facilities, viewing it more as an imaginary force that generates meanings and associations with  school than an actual locus for community formation. I have some sympathy with this view. But I encountered a newspaper report earlier this week that made me think differently about the issue.

In February 2009 schools in a series of rural communities outside Melbourne were destroyed by bush fires. In one town, Strathewen, where a number of people died and the school was completely destroyed, the school was so important to the community’s sense of itself that they reopened in temporary buildings within just four days of the devastation. The story is recounted here. This week’s story profiled the town’s longer term recovery, with its school now rebuilt, and examined the ways in which school contributes to the community’s sense of well-being and to the children’s recovery from the trauma associated with the events of February 2009. The reporter noted that ” Schools — often the heart of a community — play a crucial role in helping children and teenagers deal with crisis after a traumatic event arising from natural disasters, such as fires and floods.”

The emphasis in this story of Strathewan is not on how the school buildings build community outside school hours but on the ways in which the ordinary routines within normal school hours  sustain the fabric of community. Whether you get a warm fuzzy feeling inside when you hear the word community, or you feel like reaching for your guns, there is no question that schools do perform a powerful social function and that they connect people in neighborhood settings. But it is perhaps more as an anchor for routine and normality than as the conscious tool for self and community-improvement invoked by planners and policy makers. How this works in the city and the country respectively, an implicit difference for earlier generations, is something that requires further consideration and research.

Cameron Logan writes:

Reading one of Enid Blyton’s boarding house books,The Twins at St. Clare’s, to my daughter recently, I was struck by a passage  about a broken window in one of the school rooms. Having obviously been broken by one of the girls playing with a ball inside, the teacher Miss Roberts asks for the person who caused the damage to own up. But nobody does. 

“I am sorry to say that no one has owned up,” she said, “so I have had to report the matter  to Miss Theobold. She agrees with me that the window must be paid for by the whole class, as the culprit hasn’t owned up. The window is made of vita-glass, and will cost twenty shillings to mend.”

The familiar schoolroom situation in which collective punishment is meted out for the sins of an unidentified individual wasn’t what caught my attention. It was the fact that the window was made of Vita glass and that the author thought to include this detail. Vita glass was a widely publicised new product in the 1920s and 1930s that was said to admit beneficial ultraviolet sunlight into the building, where ordinary windows generally blocked this part of the spectrum.

Advertisement for Vita Glass, Architectural Review, 1935

In an article in ARQ about the product John Sadar suggests that Vitaglass gained what he describes as significant “mind share” in the interwar decades even though the product failed to establish the market share that might make it a commercial success. The claim seems to be borne out by Enid Blyton’s use of the detail in St. Clare’s.

Besides the reference to Vita glass  the reader mostly forms the impression that – fairly typically for an English girls’ boarding school in the period – the pupils at St. Clare’s are undertaking their schooling in a large, old house. The inclusion of the Vita glass detail, therefore, was not about the modernity of the facilities nor the visual quality of the light in the classroom. Rather it  is testament to the very widespread belief in the period that children’s health depended almost entirely on access to good quality sunlight. TB was such a pervasive health concern in the period that even the ‘jolly hockeysticks’ capers at St. Clare’s were surrounded by the  spectre of the white plague.

Page from Australian Council for Educational Research’s (ACER) 1948 pamphlet ‘School Buildings and Equipment’

Cameron Logan writes:

As noted in a recent post the ‘open classroom’ and ‘school without walls’ enjoyed burgeoning popularity around the world in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, the justifications for greater openness and connectivity in school planning were already well  recognised by educational progressives in the 1930s and 1940s. But as this page from a 1940s publication on school buildings shows, the potential problems and limitations of design strategies focused on linking and opening the separate areas of school were also well understood.

Perceptions of what is too noisy in a school have shifted over time and so have architectural strategies focused on sound, noise and acoustics. While the disposition of the different learning areas – their connections and spacing – are the most obvious way to manage noise, acoustic boards, floor coverings and other strategies have also all been prominent tools for schools and their architects grappling with this problem.

ImageDavid Nichols writes: The television soap opera Class of ’74, renamed for obvious reasons Class of ’75 in its second and final year, was the first foray made by Reg Grundy Productions into television drama and one of the earliest examples of the five-days-a-week primetime (as opposed to daytime) soap opera.

In many ways Class of ’74/’75 is a significant signpost for a peculiar era of anxiety not only for the future of education, but also for children’s rights and expectations in 1970s educational fora. Inspired by the sexually frank soap operas No. 96 and The Box, Grundys hoped to create a show filled with hot young things of two generations – students and younger teachers (one of the ongoing plotlines involved the love affair between a ‘hip’ Catholic priest and a female teacher).

The received wisdom – reinforced by Reg Grundy himself in his recent autobiography – is that Class of ’74 initially suffered at the hands of the censor, and that nervous programmers at pre-networked television caused difficulties for the show’s producers by opting to screen the show at different timeslots in different areas, thus preventing the program becoming too suggestive for a teen audience, and yet not frank enough for older viewers. Consequently, the program was reworked in its second year; sexual content was reduced and comedic elements amplified (new characters, students Dennis Braithwaite and Loretta Day, for instance, were two versions of the same character type: self-obsessed, whinging milquetoasts).

The brief for the unnamed author of Class of ’75# 2: Kidnap at Waratah High must, therefore, have resembled a pie chart wishlist of incompatible elements. The 117-page novella had to be raunchy, funny, engaging; it must include characters from Class of ’75, yet not depend on them too strongly for its narrative thrust. It must also include key features of Waratah High, as viewers imagined them, like the headmaster’s office. The book was most probably written in the period while the show transitioned across years; some characters were no doubt yet to be fully envisioned, for they appear in the book as mere ciphers. The three actors depicted on the book’s cover are Class of ’74 stars (one, Carla Hoogeveen, would later reappear in Class of ’75; another, Anne-Louise Lambert, left to make Picnic at Hanging Rock) and none of the characters they play appear in the story.

The author is, as mentioned, unidentified anywhere in the text (a 1976 pilot for another show, Jackson High, was written by Reg Watson and contains some similar elements – which may point to Watson as the book’s author, but more likely merely suggests the kidnap theme was one which Grundys felt had currency in the period). The author makes much of the the unusual (in the Australian context) innovation between Class of ’74 and Class of ’75 during which time the show’s featured school, Waratah High, inexplicably became a boarding school (only three schools in NSW presently have such status, though they are Agricultural Schools, which Waratah certainly is not. A further anomaly is that though Class of ’74/’75 was made in Sydney, Waratah is located for the purposes of this book in Victoria). Certainly, the author is familiar with British boarding school stories (and/or the experience of attending such an institution). Some of the lines attributed to Dennis Braithwaite (It’s unfair… I’m not expected to reach middle age and can’t do any sport because of my poorly conditions… I suffer terribly you know… I’ve even got a bad heart and there is a possible fact that, on top of suffering from malnutrition…’) (p. 12) resonate with Frank Richards’ infamous Billy Bunter from a half century before.

One unusual character who appears in the book (and may not have appeared in the show) is Professor Grimble. Apparently an absent-minded, elderly teacher, Grimble is in fact a criminal in cahoots with an equally bumbling crook named Clarry. (The two also hatch a plot to kidnap Price Weldon and though they are unsuccessful, they arguably escalate the drama by demanding, and receiving, his ransom). Grimble is, once again, a character more likely to be found in a 1920s English boy’s school romp than a 1970s Australian potboiler; his incapacity to properly focus on his criminal career make him a comic figure rather than a dramatic one in the league of Ferguson, who is prepared to kill to make a point.

Where Kidnap at Waratah High deviates from the classic school story is in its sex scenes. There are three in the book, and none of them involve any regular Class of ’75 character; all include the criminal at the heart of the book’s kidnap (Allan Ferguson). As he seeks revenge on the millionaire Terrence Weldon, Ferguson inveigles both Weldon’s daughter, Vicki, and a former prostitute, Betty, to unwittingly aid his plan to kidnap Weldon’s son, the logically-named Price. Both Vicki and Betty are in love with Ferguson, although more Vicki has more frequently used her seductive ways solely to upset her brother.

Detailing further ins and outs of Kidnap at Waratah High would only heap the arcane upon the esoteric. What is unusual and intriguing in terms of the perception or representation of the school in mid-70s Australia continues, however, to make this book and television series important.

Firstly, the almost 300 episodes of the Class series (the National Film and Sound Archive holds the bulk of these) suggest a time in which school itself, the volition of students and their desires to enter the world of adults, are a mainstream theme. Class of ’74/’75 can be seen as a manifestation of new interpretations of pedagogical relationships; of the school milieu; and of the ambitions and aspirations of Australian youth. Distinguishing classic dramatic tropes from actual contemporary themes is not always easy in analysing such works; the series, and the books, nonetheless clearly made a contribution to the ongoing perception of the school as a place of social friction and cultural expression.

Secondly, if we give mainstream representations of school life in Australia any value – which we should, if only because school students, and others, no doubt use such settings and treatments to gauge against reality – it should be recognised how strongly the Grundy formula, developed in the Class series, still has currency today in its last remnant legacy, Neighbours. This show, still popular in Europe and (to a lesser extent) Australia continues to promote a world view, of school and community, from the mid-1970s; (indeed, as a nod to earlier forays, the Neighbours world of Erinsborough adjoins the suburb of West Waratah). Erinsborough High, like Waratah High is egalitarian in spirit; snobbery, pretension and whingeing are not tolerated,  by students or staff. In both schools, students and staff negotiate relationships with each other; the principal’s authority is always questioned, but usually accepted as harsh but fair. In both schools, a desire to nurture a student’s creativity is almost always nurtured as a priority over wrote learning or similar older styles (except in storylines experimenting with scenarios which prove the rule). In short, school life presented via Erinsborough High on Neighbours is much the same as that which was broadcast to Australians in the mid-70s; Australians today are continuing to respond to this particular media depiction as, if dramatically heightened, also not entirely risibly unrealistic. Further investigation into such depictions is therefore undoubtedly warranted.

Basic background to Class of ’74 here

Read more about Erinsborough High here

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