Schools are places that hold special meaning. Peers travel years through them as one. We are forever linked by the shared experiences of school — binding us via that place and that time. It is a formative period.
Do you remember going to school working bees? Maybe you still are? As children it was where we witnessed our grown-ups ‘pitching-in’. Now, we’re more likely to be on the tools. Through barrelling dirt, paving paths and sharing a cuppa we built life-long connections. There was a genuine authenticity in these interactions. And if my school were gone today, I think I’d lose part of my self-identity. When schools are removed, consolidated or face tragedy, we experience a sense of placelessness.
The process of schooling is more than just progressing through the grades. We learn how to navigate our social world. We learn our culture’s hidden curriculum. We adopt the community’s values and norms as our own.
“Schools are a place of pride."
Schools are a place of pride. Teachers move to the area and often build their lives in their new community. They enrich the lives of our students and the region.
Few topics cause an emotional stir quite like school closures. Across Gippsland, small schools have risen and fallen in line with technological advancements, soldier settlements, land use changes and government policies. Since the1950s, transport services, improved roads and the desire to expand the school curriculum have seen hundreds of school closures. The Cain/Kirner and Kennett governments escalated the rate of closures under what is remembered as a cost-cutting agenda.
Long ago, one-teacher schools were built to respond to the needs of settlers and large farming families. A ‘No More than 5 Miles’ policy saw small schools dotted across the Gippsland landscape. One-teacher or half-time schools were established in remote areas like Wilsons Promontory, Ensay and Willung. These small schools and their teachers were a vital part of our rural life. Families fought to have schools established in their area. Farmers would offer pieces of land or a building for rent to encourage the Education Department to send a teacher.
“These small schools and their teachers were a vital part of our rural life."
Many schools have succumbed to bushfires over the years. The Clifton Creek Primary School community felt unimaginable devastation after it was caught in last summer’s blaze. The school would have celebrated its 110th anniversary this year. That it will be rebuilt in consultation with the school community was welcomed with relief.
Rationally, we know the ongoing existence of small town schools is a numbers game. And while they leave an indelible mark on those of us who attended them long after their final bell has rung out in the district, you can’t help but wonder if Gippsland’s communities were richer when they were still there.
Jennifer Young is an educator who has worked as an outdoor education teacher, leading teacher and assistant principal from Sale to Newborough to Foster. She is now studying a Masters of Educational Leadership while raising two little children by Corner Inlet.