St. Anne’s girls look back 50 years

Late last year the first ‘guinea pig class’ of St Anne’s Girls High School students met in Newcastle, 50 years after graduating as the first student output of the revolutionary Wyndham Education Scheme. Of the initial 66 students from the school’s first-ever Year 12, 26 ‘old girls’ attended the reunion along with three of the original teaching staff of six Sisters. Apologies were tendered from the other three Sisters, along with those of 12 classmates. Interest in getting together was very high as we’d only done so once before in the year 2000, and all of us very much enjoyed catching up and reminiscing!

St Anne’s Girls High School opened in 1966 in temporary ‘digs’ opposite the Tech College next to Throsby Creek in Tighes Hill. Meanwhile, a new purpose-built school was constructed adjacent to St Pius X (Boys) College in Adamstown, and we completed our second year there in 1967, during which time the school took on extra staff.

We were an integral part of a bold new development in state education rolled out in the 1960s, under Sir Harold Wyndham, Director-General of the Department of Education in NSW. Sweeping changes were made to secondary studies. The old Intermediate and Leaving Certificates were replaced with the School Certificate and Higher School Certificate, and the syllabuses for all subjects were overhauled.

The Wyndham Education Scheme began officially in 1962 with its first intake of students into what is now known as Year 7, and that beginning was not without its teething problems. The women at the reunion well remembered the ‘big blue Science text book.’ As one remarked, “It almost pulled our arms out of their sockets!”

The infamous Messel Science book was the size and weight of two house bricks, and a problem even before it arrived. The new syllabuses for the Wyndham Scheme, most notably those for English and Science, were compiled by university professors and in their careful deliberation of what to put in and what to leave out, they dithered overlong.

As a result, the text book for Science did not arrive in students’ hands until the end of 1964. When it finally made its appearance in science labs it was a beautiful thing to behold, much needed for those of us already two years into our Science course, and thereafter the bane of our lives. “We all ended up with one arm longer than the other,” women at the reunion agreed, a result of lugging the weighty thing back and forth from school.

Despite the professors’ careful deliberation on what to leave out of each syllabus, the combined course of studies for that first senior year of the Wyndham Scheme was a behemoth. Covering all elements of the various curricula was a struggle. Staff and students of St Anne’s tried their level best to cram it all in. Extra classes were scheduled and students groaned under the weight of work. Some spent as much time at home on schoolwork as they did during the school day, and still faced the HSC exam with whole English texts, for example, never read.

The Board of Senior Studies fortunately acknowledged in time that schools had not been able to cover the entire syllabus in some subjects and exam papers were adjusted accordingly. Questions were posed on material across the entire syllabus and students were allowed to elect which questions to answer, gratefully leaving out those on which they had never had a lesson or opened a book.

Those first two years of the Wyndham Scheme were fraught, riddled with bugs that needed ironing out, but “What an education we got!” the ‘old girls’ at the reunion universally affirmed. The Catholic Education Office initially brought together two teachers from three different orders of Sisters to be our mentors: Dominican, Mercy and Josephite Sisters. These dedicated women adjusted not only to a challenging syllabus but a new type of student. The Scheme, by adding an extra year to secondary studies in NSW, placed teachers in front of students who would normally be at university.

Young ladies of Year 12, though still in school uniform, were old enough to drive; to drink legally and join the armed services, which resulted in a notable shift in student-teacher rapport. Our engagement with teachers went beyond the classroom, making those senior years of high school particularly memorable. Our teachers became more than instructors, they became comrades and role models. They were singular women making their mark on the world and encouraging us to make ours.

We ‘guinea pig girls’ of St Anne’s pursued professions in all walks of life: teaching, law, business, science, medicine, farming and publishing to name a few. Not least of all we became homemakers, mothers and grandmothers. A quick count on the night of the reunion revealed the 26 women present had produced 75 children and 111 grandchildren. Our unique experience as St Anne’s students and pioneers of the Wyndham Scheme enriched our lives and continues to do so – and to enrich the lives of those around us.

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Kate Walker

Kate Walker is an Australian writer of fiction for children, young adults and adults. 

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