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History of Schooling in Collingwood

A class photo at Cambridge Street Primary School, Collingwood, 1906. Photographer unknown. Yarra Libraries, CL PIC 189.
A class photo at Cambridge Street Primary School, Collingwood, 1906. Photographer unknown. Yarra Libraries, CL PIC 189.

The history of schooling in Collingwood is important to understanding the development of Collingwood College, which arose in the context of providing education in an inner urban area that had a mixed socioeconomic profile and a large public housing estate.

The earliest school in the area was established for Aboriginal children in the 1840s but the rapid influx of working-class families, many of them immigrants, resulted in a need for formal European style schools by the early 1850s. Until 1872 many of these early schools were either private or denominational, with a small number of government-run schools and an industrial school. Reflecting the overall poverty of the area, a number of ragged schools were also established in the 1860s.

The schooling system was under enormous pressure, not only due to shortage of space but also due to the lack of an overarching educational governing body to provide school buildings, set education standards or train teachers. Additionally, schools associated with Christian denominations were run on sectarian lines without a consistent curriculum and, along with privately run schools, sometimes by those with little education themselves. Children were not required to attend school, many worked from a young age to assist in the support of their families and attendance was reportedly low.

Government Inspector of Denominational schools in Melbourne, Hugh Childers, characterised the quality and effectiveness of the suburb’s educational institutions in 1857, along with middle-class moralising on its inhabitants. He commented on the poor quality of homes, the inhabitants’ neglect of their children’s education, the lack of education at home, the poor attendance of schools and the low quality of the private schools and their teachers.

In the 1860s social reformer and legislator, George Higinbotham, influenced by ideas circulating from Europe and Britain, believed that, the state should provide secular, compulsory education ‘in justice to the equal rights of the children of all classes free’. He believed that by making education free parents would be motivated to send them to school. The work of Higinbotham and other education reformers resulted in the 1872 Education Act, a comprehensive system that made schooling compulsory from the ages of 6 to 15 or matriculation (often at the age of 13) for at least 60 days per year. It also created an Education Department responsible for building new schools and training teachers.

This transformative legislation saw the construction of government schools in numerous areas of Melbourne, including several large new primary schools in Collingwood, which opened in the late 1870s and early 1880s. They included some of the largest schools in Victoria with up to 1500 enrolled students at some. As a poor inner urban area, with a rapidly expanding school age population, Collingwood’s schools struggled. Numbers were significantly higher than the schools had been built for and supplies such as inkwells, maps, books and even tables and chairs were in very short supply.

Even with the construction of new schools early in the twentieth century, for the next five decades the suburbs’ primary schools remained crowded and their aging facilities became increasingly unsuitable for modern schooling methods, as well as at times dangerous and unhealthy. In the first decades of that new century, state-run secondary schools were also established in the area; segregated by sex, they initially focussed on what were considered gender appropriate skills – a girl’s domestic arts school and the technical school for boys.

The suburb itself changed immensely following World War II, with many of the original working-class families realising increased prosperity and moving to the suburbs.  As a result of this, some of the area’s schools experienced decreasing student numbers and were not high up on the Department of Education’s list for major infrastructure works. Others, including the high school, remained overcrowded, with students coming from other suburbs to attend classes. Most of the primary and secondary facilities were in poor repair. The aging schools exhibited major problems such as peeling paint, leaking roofs resulting in flooding, poor electrical work and lack of facilities.

In the 1960s Collingwood, like many other inner urban areas in Melbourne and other cities, still remained a suburb with high levels of poverty. Inner urban reform was a major concern for local councils, government, town planners, educationalists, as well as the general public, and included the desire to reform living conditions and education. In Collingwood, this ultimately meant the demolition of large areas of older housing, some dating from the 1860s, and the construction of new highrise housing commission apartments in the late 1960s.

The Victorian Council of School Organizations held a seminar on problems of inner urban schools in 1967. Speakers highlighted the effect of substandard school infrastructure and educational provisions on the students living in poorer inner urban areas. This touched on the difficulty of breaking out of the circle of poverty, the ambivalence of some parents towards school education, and the material poverty of both homes and schools.

These concerns echoed those that had driven the initial formation of government schools in the late nineteenth century, as well as educational reforms in the early twentieth. Like earlier responses to the nineteenth century growth of the suburb, the conference saw the need for increased and better educational facilities for future generational growth, which was inevitable given the construction of nearby highrise public housing estates. Alongside this was concern for the inclusion and education of the increasing numbers of new migrants and children of migrants, many of whom did not speak English as a first language and for whom their new city presented both cultural and educational challenges.

Desire for reform in this period was also driven by philosophies about the need for new ways of education to reinforce the ties of community that were strongly felt in close-knit inner city suburbs, ties that many believed the demolition of older cottages and the construction of highrises threatened to break. This meant that new ideas for inner city schools called for community facilities and programs, both educative and recreational, including open spaces in school grounds and the consideration and inclusion of community and education programs for the many new immigrant families.

After lobbying by principals, local councillors and supportive and progressive department staff, the Department of Education promised a new school for the suburb, one that would cater for primary and high school students and would address the broader educational needs of Collingwood residents. It would provide facilities and education for the wider community, including ESL classes, special language courses in English, Italian and Greek, counselling facilities for both parents and students, a gymnasium and drama centre, plentiful open spaces and open plan classrooms that fitted with more modern ideas of schooling.

Its development was also partly assisted by the Federal Whitlam Labor government’s promise to inject substantial government spending into improving education and housing in inner urban areas to in order to combat issues of poverty and disenfranchisement. The Collingwood Education Centre was finally completed in 1975. Constructed on the site of one of the 1880s Vere Street School, as well as of numerous demolished nineteenth-century workers cottages, it was also directly adjacent to the recently completed highrise flats.

References & Further Reading

Tony Birch, ‘”These children have been born in an abyss”: slum photography in a Melbourne suburb’, Australian Historical Studies 123 (2004): 1–15

Collingwood College Website

Colllingwood History Committee, In those days: Collingwood remembered (Carringbush: Carringbush Regional Library in association with the City of Collingwood)

Karen T. Cummings, Bitter roots, sweet fruit: a history of schools in Collingwood, Abbotsford and Clifton Hill (Abbotsford: Collingwood Historical Society, 2008)

G. M. Hibbins, A short history of Collingwood (Abbotsford: Collingwood Historical Society, 1996)

The Victorian Council of School Organizations, The problems of inner-suburban schools: a report of a seminar conducted by the Victorian Council of School Organizations, September 1967 (Melbourne: VISCP, 1967)

John Young, The school on the flat: Collingwood College, 1882–2007 (Collingwood: Collingwood College, 2007)