Record of NSW school life could be richer

The collection of photographs and documents detailing NSW public schools, students and teachers held by NSW State Archives would be larger had more material not been lost, thrown out, kept by schools or in private hands.

In a presentation during the recent Unity! Strength! Justice! 100 Years of the NSW Teachers Federation exhibition, state archivist John Cann said he believed many schools still held archival material that, by rights, should have been collected by the Department and then stored at the archives. Others had just thrown the records out.

Under the present law, recordkeeping in NSW public schools is governed by the State Records Act 1998 and the Department of Education’s internal policies. Under the Act schools are required to:

  • create full and accurate records of their business
  • keep records for as long as needed to provide evidence of the business conducted and to meet legal or other obligations
  • destroy records only when they are authorised for destruction
  • transfer permanently, valuable records to NSW State Archives and Records.

“A law was made that stated schools had to keep the records under the Public Instruction Act but it wasn’t until 1960 that they made a law that you have to keep them for the archives,” Mr Cann said. “So you’ve got that lag time from 1880 to 1960 when there was no expectation that you had to keep the records, you would keep them until you were finished with them and throw them away.

However, the NSW State Archive collection still holds a rich vein of material ranging from the number of chamber pots in a school’s toilet block to punishment books that record students who were caned, why and when.

“There are some real gems among them,” he said. “I was going through a school file and came across palm cards for a debate, in what appeared to be a girl’s hand.

“It makes me feel proud that there’s a girl somewhere — a woman now or old woman, possibly even dead —but her palm cards will live on forever because … we don’t cull, we don’t throw things away.”

Included are photos of school buildings taken over the years by the Schools History Department, that sometimes include a glimpse of the children of the day and their teachers, inadvertently included in the frame.

An inspector’s report for Kingsvale Provisional School from 1901 states: “Your attention is called to the following details from the inspector’s report: ‘Third-class program is incomplete, organisation is tolerable but fair, pupils required to be trained to be prompt, accurate and confident. Government needs more rousing power.”

Does that mean rousing on the kids as in discipline? “I think it might!” Mr Cann said. “You can see these reports used to be brutal.”

In reply the teacher wrote to explain herself: “In explanation of the inefficient state of school at the time the inspection on the 6th instant, I respectfully beg to report that the defects in the efficiency of the school pointed out in your memorandum hereto attached, were caused chiefly by my being very ill from indigestion for the period prior to the regular inspection.”

The teacher had a note this time!

Some things never change

The trials of Kingsvale teacher Miss Tierney are preserved for all time in the NSW State Archives.

“I beg to draw your attention to the matter in which Miss B. Tierney, the teacher at Kingsvale School, is treating my children,” a letter of complaint starts.

“I had to write the local inspector on account of her harsh treatment of them as she caned and jeered at them for the most trivial offence and even went so far as to make them kneel on the floor and beg her pardon.”

Miss Tierney responded with: “I have reason to reply to Miss Northwood’s complaint as follows. I have never made a distinction between her children and any thus attending the school nor have I treated them in any way that umbrage could be taken at.

“On the contrary, I have often excused them for answering me back and giving me impudence. I herewith enclose a statement from the punishment book showing the occasions Miss Northwood’s children had been caned.”

A couple of months later, another complaint is lodged by a student.

“I am eight years old and I am a pupil attending Kingsvale Provisional School. I remember on one occasion Miss Tierney sneering and jeering at my brother. I remember that Miss Tierney called me a bold brazen-faced girl and that she could see badness in my face a mile off.

“The last punishment I received was for getting over the wire netting enclosing the school garden. Miss Tierney told the scholars not to get over the wire netting, another girl was chasing me.”

Two months further on, the Department had the final say.

“On the conduct of the above named teacher has been satisfactory and I am able to report she has showed aptitude for office as to warrant conformation of her appointment as a teacher.”

Mr Cann said the archives were a source of historic information not only about schools but also for schools. He showed a selection from the more than 60km of archive boxes stored in a nuclear-proof bunker in Kingswood, western Sydney.

— Scott Coomber