Clifton Hill Primary School
, as it was officially known until the late 1990s
, was founded in 1891
at 193 Spensley Street, Clifton Hill
, an innner suburb of Melbourne
. State School
no. 3141 was a classic red-brick Victorian schoolhouse
, indistinguishable inside or out from thousands of others.
In the 1970s the school completely burned down, and students were housed at nearby Victoria Park and Gold Street Primary Schools while it was being rebuilt. In many ways the fire was considered a blessing as the old building was rapidly deteriorating, and the new buildings, although not as attractive, are modern and spacious.
From its reconstruction Spensley Street resolved to be a different kind of school. The demographic of the local area had been changing ever since the end of World War II, with the working classes1 gradually giving way to young middle class university-educated idealists interested in less conventional ideas about education and with the spare time and cash to implement them.
Hence the decision was made to experiment with classes of mixed ages. The new school was divided into four large "areas", each of these in turn able to be segregated into seperate classrooms by folding dividers. Areas 1 and 2 were made up of three classes, each with an even mix of grades prep to two, whilst the classes in areas 3 and 4 were composed of grades 3 to 6. The idea was for the gifted younger children to get ahead by observing the activities of their elders, who in turn would be learning to tolerate difference. Sensibly, we were divided into age streams for Art, Music, Drama, PE and Italian, the language we were taught from grade 1 onwards.
I must say that this system did seem to work as intended. There was certainly a sense of co-operation and peace amongst those of different age groups and abilities which does not seem to have been present at the primary schools of friends of mine. The rivalry between Areas 3 and 4 was another matter, leading to such historic events as the crabapple wars and much scuffling. The only problem was that in grade six there was not enough challenging work to prepare us for high-school, and all we did really was fuck around and take care of the younger children.
The focus of the school was on developing "well rounded" students, hence the focus on specialist subjects. We were encouraged to read heavily and pursue our own interests to a certian extent. To this end, the reports issued at the end of each term did not feature letter grades but instead detailed and thoughtful commentry by each of the children's teachers. Also, mentally handicapped children were not segregated from the "normal" students but rather participated in classes with everyone else.
Spensley Street is not and has never been as "alternative" or "progressive" as Steiner schools and the like. The ideals behind the school are simply to recognise and value difference whilst still providing a decent all-round education for each child. The school's logo is an S with the images of a heart, book, star and dove.
In 1991 the school celebrated its centenary, confident of the future due to a reputation as one of Victoria's best primary schools, public or private. Unfortunately, heavy funding cuts during the reign of Jeff Kennett were to follow. Music, drama, PE and other specialist teachers were laid off. The administration attempted to cover for this by having the classroom teachers work even harder to fill the roles formerly. Naturally, teaching standards fell as class sizes jumped from an average of 19 to 28 in just a few years, since the Kennett government's mass closure of schools meant there were thousands of schoolchildren needing somewhere to go.
The school remains relatively progressive in its ideals, in these days when increased testing of students seems to be officially in favour. Funding cuts have naturally taken their toll. As well as this, the area has undergone further gentrification, pushing the politics of the local inhabitants just that little bit closer to the right.
A fete is held each October in the school grounds, and not a bad one at that. The food especially is worth attending for, with a wide selection of sweet things, barbequed meat and Indian food (though there are few Indians). The fete is also a good place for spotting old schoolmates, who (until about the age of 16) will undoubtedly be found under a tree with a sixpack of VB and a mix bowl in tow. The school relies on these occasions to raise cash - woe to the schools in poorer areas who cannot even hope to raise that much.
Man, we had some sophisticated rules for handball going - unique to the school. I've forgotten them, but recall a smattering of terms so if any other ex-SSPSer wants to collaborate that would be cool.
The school has a website: http://www.yarranet.net.au/spensley/spensley.htm
1. Clifton Hill was never as working class as Collingwood or Abbotsford, being as the name implies located on a hill and therefore immune from the flooding of the Yarra.