June 2007 Newsletter - John Lewis YHS 1954

John Lewis YHS 1954 wrote: “Richard wrote that Headmaster "...Ellis didn't administer corporal punishments himself...", and then goes on to say how his deputy Ernie Herman [sic] acted for him in this regard. Well, I am sorry to have to destroy Richard's benign image of the Headmaster. I copped six from Ellis [three on each hand] after being sent to him by Mrs McLaren for not enjoying one of her music classes enough, or maybe for enjoying it too much. I forget which. Also, I think 'Underpants' Ernie's surname was Homan [not Herman]. I remember that the appropriately named history teacher 'Slogger' Mitchell liberally dispensed his own corporal punishments independent of Ellis and Homan, and also frequently acted as agent in this regard for his French teaching wife.“
In another email, John enquires after teacher, Miss Williams, now Muriel Feehan. He writes: “I never knew her name was Muriel. She was a well organised teacher and drove a fancy new Ford Customline which she parked on the road outside our classroom. When it was new, she would often go to the window to make sure it was still there and OK.
I well remember her rehearsing her grade six class for the annual visit of the district inspector. Robert Lawton and I were the best oral readers in her class, so for days on end she would get us to read out and rehearse passages from 'The Drover's Wife' in the reader. We were just as bored by this as the rest of the class! When the inspector finally came, she casually asked Lawto then me to read the passages as though it was all spontaneous. He should have been impressed, as we all just about knew the story off by heart by that time.
The inspector did catch her out with a parsing exercise though. He wrote on the board, "I believe for every drop of rain that falls, a flower will grow". None of us could parse it for him, although Miss Williams did have us all pretty well clued up on grammar. On looking back, this sentence was a little bit too arty-farty for the sort of English we working class Yallourn boys were used to. I can't speak for the girls.
Anyway, Mrs Feehan was a very solid teacher and I would love to let her know my appreciation.
John recently contacted ex-class mate Ron Rawiller after 38 years. They talked about the streaming of students and the exaggerated importance given to maths/science during their time at YHS. “Interestingly, when I spoke to mild-mannered Ron Rawiller, he mentioned that after doing Matric twice, he felt the school had tried to put square pegs in round holes by 'forcing' him - and others - but mainly boys - to do maths/science. He was quite dirty on the lack of subject choices YHS offered him in this regard, though full of praise for other aspects of the school. I mention this to you, because it looks as though I am not the only one to have residual feelings about this and have had to redirect a life because of pretty ordinary school policies.” This prompted John to write the following article:

Square Pegs in Round Holes

In the 1940s and 1950s, students at Yallourn Primary School [YPS] and Yallourn High School [YHS] were streamed into classes on the basis of perceived ability and test results. The streaming of students was in vogue then; as early as 1910, a Victorian Minister of Public Instruction had explained the rationale for this practice:

Certain children had brains represented by A, others had brains represented by B, others had brains represented by C, others had brains represented by D, and so on through the whole alphabet…Those children who were intended for the higher grades of education and intended to take higher positions in life, must not be mixed up with those whose ability would never place them in the same positions of the others….

Streaming became fashionable and adopted by those head teachers and principals who wanted to be seen as at the forefront of modern thinking. At YPS in the mid-1940s we all began school in ‘bubs’, and those making good progress at the half year were moved into grade one for the remaining six months. Those students who were developing more slowly would spend the whole year in bubs before being promoted to grade one at year’s end. In this way, YPS [and other primary schools] streamed its students from their very first year at school. The streamed
classes continued over the years at YPS and by the time we reached grade six in 1953, there were two streamed classes of students at that level. The supposed A class was taken by Miss Williams and the B class was taught by Mr. Evans.

Our experience with streaming continued at high school. On entering YHS in 1954 we made up a form one intake of more than 200 students, coming not only from Yallourn, but also from primary schools in Morwell, Yallourn North and surrounding areas. We were tested and the supposed best students were streamed into 1A, the next were placed into 1B, and so on down to 1E – just as Sachse had previously recommended.

The research around streaming students in this way has turned up some serious educational and social negatives. For example, questions have been raised about the validity of the criteria used to make the initial student placements. It has also been found that once placed in a particular stream, it is difficult for a student to get out of it. – mobility between streams is usually minimal. There is also evidence which indicates that teachers have different attitudes to students in the different streams, teach in different ways and have different expectations of their students that can become self-fulfilling. In these ways students become locked into their streams and find it hard to display competencies, especially if placed in lower streams. However, much of the research about streaming occurred after the 1950s, so potential negative outcomes was not available for consideration during my school days.

By the time the streamed 200 plus YHS students of the 1954 intake entered their Matriculation year of 1959, there were only about 20 left. Many of the others had left for jobs and some were filtered out through the rigid internal examination system. Counting a few students who transferred in, about 22 presented for the final 1959 examinations - around six girls and sixteen boys.

The Matriculation results for our class in 1959 were a disaster. I am not sure of the detailed outcomes, but overall the boys did very badly, whilst the girls did much better. Just a handful of boys, maybe less than five, were successful, and two of those had transferred in. This was a disaster for almost everyone: the school’s academic record, the students who failed, their parents, our form six teachers and those teachers who had taught us so well in the more junior years. My own inglorious record was to fail five out five of the subjects I sat for.

It is interesting to ponder why the results of this carefully selected and nurtured group were so poor. Probably some of the aspects of streaming previously mentioned did not help. Neither did the laid back attitude of the students themselves. Many of us boys did very little study.

However, I think the main reason why the YHS 1959 Matriculation results were so poor is the very heavy emphasis given in those days to maths and science. Students in the A stream were socialised into thinking that the real subjects to study were the harder maths and sciences. The other subjects like commerce, biology, foreign languages, English literature, geography and history were for wimps. The boys in my form did not elect to study these subjects, except when they were compulsory, as for the Intermediate or Leaving certificates. I do not recall commerce ever being time-tabled as an option for the A stream.

Some of this focus on maths and science probably came from society itself – via the government [which was concerned about the Russian sputniks circling the earth] and through the media. We were encouraged to be interested in the sciences, as in the 1950s there was a great hope that it would manufacture a better world. Scientific advancement was all around us, and stimulated inquisitive minds. Yallourn households increasingly enjoyed the results of scientific progress in the form of refrigerators [instead of ice chests], TV and more affordable cars. However, the school’s culture as promoted through its teachers and curriculum arrangements also contributed to this overemphasis. Students who transferred into our form from other schools in the senior years sometimes elected to study history, English literature and a foreign language, and I can remember some of us puzzling why they would do this. Such was the strength of our local indoctrination and the glorification of the maths/sciences. There were some gender issues at play too, because none of the girls in our year opted for pure maths, calculus and applied, chemistry or physics, like the boys mainly did.

Of course, those students in our form that deep down actually wanted to study the harder maths and sciences, were suited to it and were motivated to pursue it as an avenue to further study and careers were well served by this emphasis. But not all of us were so suited or inclined. There was minimal [if any] career guidance for students at YHS in those days, and although those who failed so miserably in their final year must take some responsibility for the outcome, the fault was not entirely their own making.

Tellingly, many of the Matriculation class boys of 1959, after their initial failures, undertook later studies in other fields, did well, and had satisfying and rewarding careers. I reckon through its streaming practices and its exaggerated focus on maths/science, YHS had unfortunately put some square pegs in round holes.

1Arthur Sachse, in Victorian Parliamentary Debates, vol. 126, 3rd session, 1910, p. 2432.