My country primary school, No. 731, survived two world wars, a depression and two wildly destructive bushfires but it could not survive the fall in population that has beset many rural communities since the 1960s.
Every year a couple of country schools quietly close their doors in late December and don't reopen in early February. Cressy Primary School, my old school, closed in 2010. Since then, another eight country primary schools in Victoria have closed their doors and this year two more, Drummartin (north of Bendigo) and Piangil (near Mildura), did not reopen for the new school year.
When country schools close, it's a door closing on both history and hope. Schools are a community connection point and, generally, are essential for wooing new families to a town.
When country schools close, it's a door closing on both history and hope. Schools are a community connection point and, generally, are essential for wooing new families to a town. While the Department of Education and Training says closures are not necessarily permanent, in a town like Cressy, without public transport and tree-changer appeal, there is no obvious population surge that will force a reopening.
And there is something of an unspoken reproach in closure, as if the school was no good and the town was abandoned. But that was not my experience; I can't pretend I loved growing up in a tiny country town – and the demise of country towns is a demography study in itself – but I did love the school and what I learnt.
My children attended a primary school in an affluent inner-city area; it was well resourced, well located and well supported – yet parents always seemed to be moaning and wanting more. More of something, everything. By contrast, Cressy Primary had virtually nothing - or at least nothing out of the ordinary. No specialist teachers, no groovy parents, no fascinating excursions, no mind-blowing fundraisers, no extras at all, really.
Yet I'm not convinced my children's schooling was better than mine.
I was at Cressy Primary in the late 1960s, a lifetime ago, and some of the memories have faded but many of the people and passions I encountered there remain with me.
Cressy had been founded by a Frenchman in the late 1830s, and its school population had ebbed and flowed during its 130-year history but by the time I arrived in the mid-1960s enrolments had soared above 100. It was a population swollen by the baby boom then occurring around Australia but particularly by children from the postwar soldier settlement area at Barunah, near Shelford, who were bussed 20 kilometres to and from school.
This growing student body was taught in a pretty, four-classroom, weatherboard school set in large grounds. Composite grades were the norm, so I began my education in the same room as my brother who was, by then, in grade 1. We spent most of our primary schooling in the same classroom, as did many other families' siblings and cousins. Many of my classmates were the children and grandchildren of former students.
As the school population grew, classes filled every nook and cranny – my grade 2 year was spent in a closed-off hallway with a portable blackboard. Miss Gaylard didn't seem to mind the setting and neither did we.
Grade 3 was even better – every morning we had to walk a few hundred metres to a tiny, century-old former church which had been lent to the overcrowded school. There we were taught by Mr Millane who was a great teacher with a very short fuse. If students were talking while he wrote on the blackboard, he would spin around, duster in hand, and fire the chalk-filled missile at the usual suspects.
It seems a bit over the top now but seemed perfectly normal then. He drilled us in the times tables and inspired us to try hard. I loved him.
Grade 4 we were in the hands of Mr Gnat who, like all the Cressy teachers before him and after him, used music every day.
Country primary school teachers had to teach everything – maths, English, science and nature, health, history, geography, sport, art and music. And while there was a timetable, they seemed to manage it themselves. So, if music or exercise or a nature walk was needed to manage a group of scratchy kids, we would have it. All the tough stuff was done in the morning while we were fresh; all the relaxing stuff or outdoor stuff was in the afternoon.
Strangely, of all the subjects and learning I ingested during seven years, it is the music I remember most. Music and song were used to calm us, excite us or to drill us in marching. Singing was used to develop and encourage our memories – "a frog went walking on a summer's day ahum, ahum" – and to teach us the discipline of music with recorder. I don't think a day went by without our grade singing, often in rounds.
Mr Gnat, a young teacher in his 20s, used music to introduce us to a world beyond sheep and wheat. He was, like us, stuck in the middle of nowhere but he taught us to sing Yellow Submarine and Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da – songs written by four young guys who were living a 60s life far beyond Cressy. I don't remember what Mr Gnat looked like, or what else he taught me, but I do remember singing about Desmond and Molly Jones. The lyrics of these songs remain in my memory bank.
When I think of my children's primary school, I think of the land of plenty – of camps, excursions, incursions, projects, swimming lessons, and excitements aplenty – but music was always a rationed joy confined to a half hour here and there on a packed timetable.
My education at Cressy seemed to be mostly maths, English and music – with a bit of paper clipping, french knitting and papier mache for art. The can-do teachers managed our behaviour and energy by jogs, jumps and exercises. We didn't do camps or excursions – except one smelly day at the Colac butter and cheese factories – and there was no regular inter-school sport, let alone after-school activities.
We did, however, have an annual sports day and another grander version with other nearby schools. These days always ended with a marching competition – to Sousa's grand sounds – for which we were drilled for weeks.
Towards the end of my primary school years, Cressy Primary seemed to step up a notch. Local schools began "group day" which allowed all the tiny outlying schools – with six, eight or 10 students – to come to our school for "cultural enrichment". We were the "big smoke" for these kids.
These days generally involved a lot of group music and movement – mostly the Mexican hat dance and the Virginia Reel. I guess the school had music, loud speakers and lots of space...so the Virginia Reel it was.
And we even had swimming lessons. A local farming family offered the school the use of a small, shallow lake on their farm so the students could learn to swim. The farmer kindly built two change rooms out of hay bales and we all went out there and swam in the shallow, muddy water. I got my 25-metre certificate by moving my arms, in an approximation of the Australian crawl, while walking along the bottom.
I suppose it sounds an inauspicious start to both swimming and learning but I well remember the joy of feeling I was on my way: the wonder of flashcards and the times tables, listening to Peter and the Wolf on hot summer days and everyone crowding in to watch the moon landing while my brother, who later became a scientist, tried to get all the non-interested kids (including me) to shoosh.
The point is: it was enough. Cressy Primary is no more but it should be remembered for the joy of good teachers, the power of music and the truth that many things can make a good education, especially when children want.
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