‘Education and the Empire: How I remember my early school days’

Dec 14, 2019
Remember when milk was handed out at school? Source: Getty Images

The martial strains of ‘Colonel Bogey’s March’ rang out and I was instantly transported to the school playground where we early Baby Boomers would practice our marching overseen by our returned servicemen teachers. I suppose the practice came in handy for the boys who became regular soldiers or conscripts in the Vietnam War.

Music was a great way of inculcating the values of Empire. In ‘Singing Together’ those of us in New South Wales on Tuesday afternoon would learn traditional and patriotic songs. ‘Do ye ken John Peel?’, ‘Dashing away with the smoothing iron’, ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. We would also sing Australian bush ballads such as ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’. Our teacher would patrol, whacking the cane down on the desk of any student not singing or singing too robustly. This was well before relief from face-to-face teaching when classes were usually over 40.

On Fridays, before recess and the distribution of free milk, we would learn folk dancing. Of this I remember nothing except my partner, Harry, later became mayor.

Australia Day occurred in the long holidays and I remember no commemoration of it. Our national days were Anzac Day and Empire Day. Our grandfathers had fought in the first world war, fathers had not long returned from the second. The grief and trauma of the wars was still felt in every family. Our male teachers knew war firsthand. My grandfather was typical of many in that he rarely spoke of his experiences. Nevertheless, Anzac Day was a solemn and serious day. I have friends who dreaded it as distressed their fathers so much.

Empire Day was a lot jollier with a half holiday and Bonfire night. At school in the morning there would be a special assembly. I remember representing Trinidad in a pageant when I was seven years old and giving the Empire Day speech aged 14. We pledged our loyalty to our young and beautiful queen, stood for the National Anthem before the movies, and saluted the flag.

Our reading reflected our British background. The Famous Five, Biggles and boarding school stories were very popular. In poetry we were taught lyrical descriptions of unfamiliar landscapes. We devoured stories and that reflected our experience. The Billabong stories and Ethel Turner were enjoyed along with Canadian author LM Montgomery, whose attitude to England was similar to our own. I must pay tribute here to the NSW School Magazine, which came out once a month and was carefully tailored to young Australians. Louisa Alcott was also popular.

My father had a collection of Australian poets, which he read to us. I still have them. There was no ‘Young Adult’ fiction as such so in junior high school we read cadet editions of books such as The Dam Busters and The Cruel Sea. In the summer holidays I read my grandfather’s edition of The Cruel Sea and understood why we had been given a bowdlerised version.

Gaps were appearing in this outpost of Empire with the post-war immigration, which my family has since married into. At Maclean, I remember a new boy, from Germany. We were fascinated to have the old enemy in our midst. And, at the weekend, the Italian cane cutters would come into town and laugh with the local children. As my mother explained, they were probably missing their own. When we moved to the inner city, the Greek milk bar owners showed us many kindnesses and my classmates had, to me, unusual surnames.

I write this just to reflect how the world has changed. I don’t think that was a better system although the thorough grounding we got in basics has been valuable to a lot of us. The Australia I grew up in has changed and the challenges the education system faces are a lot different. I can only hope we are doing our best as a society to meet them.

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