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A brief history of Ashburton Primary School

Updated: May 18, 2022

A couple of years ago, back when Ashburton Primary School used to have a School Fair, I walked through the small history display. In among the war medals and photographs of shaggy haired kids in flared jeans standing pensively around a tree sapling, there was a two page document of single spaced, closely typed text telling the early history of Ashburton Primary School. It was old enough that I could tell it was typed on a typewriter. I could even see where some of the letters had been corrected with Tippex and over-typed slightly above the rest of the word. Always fascinated by such documents, I took out my smartphone and took photographs of it for later perusal.

This week, ‘later perusal’ arrived. Unfortunately, I was reminded how the last Ashburton School Fair was two smartphones and a whole computer ago, so despite desperately digging through the bowels of my hard drive, I came up empty handed.

The good news is that the lovely librarians of Camberwell Library managed to find me a history of Ashburton Primary School from 1928 – 1978; the same book updated to 1998, a history of Solway Primary School 1952 – 1972; and a little on St Michael’s Primary School buried in a history of the St Michael’s Parish.

Now according to the booking system, you have to give them five business days to walk to the basement and collect them but these kind people cheerfully emailed me 30 minutes later to say they’re ready. But you are not allowed to borrow them. No, I don’t know why either. Unfortunately this meant I was robbed of the thrill of discovering I’m the first person to look at them since 1998 as none of these books have one of those pieces of thin paper taped in the back with a rolling date stamped on them. Fortunately, I now own yet another smartphone with a pretty decent camera on it so here is what I learned...

The early years

In 1922, Ashburton was a rural community of orchards, market gardens and dairy farms. There were 34 houses, two small grocery shops and a blacksmith’s shop. Back then, Ashburton was known around Melbourne’s more established eastern suburbs as a day-tripper location for picnics in the picturesque Ashburton Forest. The area was served by a steam train known as the Deepdene or Ashy ‘Dasher’ that took passengers to Ashburton Station, one of the last remnants of the defunct Outer Circle Line. Today, the train station still stands, but the last remnants of the Forest disappeared by the 1950s.

In those days, to get to the nearest school, the children of the area had to walk to Glen Iris Primary School on Glen Iris Road. The walk was exactly as grandfathers told their whinging grandchildren it was: a long slog through mud and dust. By the end of 1922, Ashburton was ear-marked for sub-division and the District Inspector recommended that a school site be obtained in Ashburton.

From the outset, local parents were a core lobbying group for the new school. By 1924, 33 families, including those with local street names like Stocks and Ward, had registered their intention to send children to the new school. The land on the corner of Carool and Fakenham Roads was purchased quickly in October 1924. Unfortunately, it took another four years before the school itself welcomed 116 students on 28 May 1928. It was officially opened in November that year (pictured here). For probably the only time in nearly a century of continual occupation, not all the nine classrooms were immediately in use. Within four years, school enrolments had doubled to 236.

Covid-19 was not the first disease to close down Ashburton Primary School. In the 1930s, epidemics of Diphtheria and Polio closed the school for long periods. The children received lessons by mail in conjunction with wireless broadcasts. Travel was restricted and permits required to travel to the city.

The children had lessons in all sorts of things. In Year 6, students studied mental arithmetic, spelling, dictation, transcription, reading and discussion, grammar, Latin, Greek, singing, drawing, handcrafts, history, geography, nature study, and music. There was even a boys’ drum band and a gardening club.

Over the years, several structures and buildings came and went. Photographs from the 1930s show a pathway leading through a much admired rose-covered pergola to the front entrance of the school. This was replaced after World War II with the war memorial and accompanying garden (pictured here). In 1932, parents built a tower to house a donated bell that signalled the start and end of the school day. This was replaced by a siren in 1949. The bell was sold to the (now defunct) Ashburton Church of England in 1949 and the bell tower removed.

Skyrocketing enrolments and overcrowding

The end of World War II saw significant development in the local area and a rush of young married couples moving into Ashburton, including in the housing estate built near Alamein station. This placed immense pressure on the school and its capacity to accommodate local children. The War also caused a massive shortage of building supplies and materials, hampering efforts to alleviate the growing over-crowding problem.

By 1946, two months after construction had begun on two new rooms; urgent requests were made to the government to build two more. Eventually, in desperation, a pavilion was moved from Camberwell South Primary School and converted into a classroom. Then the school erected old Army huts converted into classrooms. This made little difference.

Throughout 1948-49, Grade 2 students were transported by bus daily to Camberwell South Primary as there was no room for them at the school. Enrolments grew to 713 students (current enrolments as of 2020 are around 583) and peaked at 821 by 1950.

Some short-lived relief came with the opening of Alamein State School in 1950 and the (forced) transfer of students from the south side of Ashburton and Alamein housing commission to the new school. However, the school was constantly trying to play catch-up to the pressure on enrolments. Visits from inspectors prompted pushes to purchase more land and build new classrooms.

By 1954, the school population was 815 students housed in 14 rooms in the main building and three outside classrooms. The outside classrooms had no electricity until 1958.

There is a silence in the Ashburton Primary School record throughout the 1960s. Presumably enrolments began to decline to a more comfortable level as it is clear that by the 1969, Ashburton’s post-war baby boom was over. Enrolments dropped to around 400 and the two temporary Army Huts – now twenty years old – were demolished. Despite being able to accommodate its children more comfortably, the school was now 50 years old and in desperate need of renovation.

Renovation drama

In 1974, the first major renovation works began. The intention was to manage (unsuccessfully it would turn out) the School’s problem with drainage. The quadrangle behind the main building was laid down and sealed; the metal drinking fountains and troughs installed (pictured here); the ceilings in the main building were replaced; and the exterior fully painted. A new adventure playground was also installed in the prep area (now replaced). In 1979, the school installed module buildings for an art/craft room and a library.

The 1980s ticked along and the first portable classrooms on the current Grade 3-4 site were installed. As the picture here shows, these looked like they’d blow away in a strong wind. Technology arrived in 1981 in the form of (I quote), ‘overhead projectors’. In 1984, the school gained its first hall/multi-purpose room with kitchen and the canteen moved in. This lasted a mere decade before being deemed in need of an upgrade. By the end of the decade, enrolments were on the up again and the school’s facilities were in need of another upgrade.

1990s: reforms, renovations, technology

In 1992, the election of Jeff Kennett brought in sweeping reforms to Victoria’s education system. Parents were now allowed to choose the school their children could attend. Alamein State School had a rough reputation and parents began switching their kids to Ashburton. A year later Alamein closed and Ashburton and Solway primary schools absorbed the remaining children, causing enrolments to rise again.

Another Kennett change was for schools to take more responsibility for budgeting and appointing staff. The School nominated Facilities, Computer Education, Sport and Physical Education as its priorities for the upcoming years. The now defunct Reading Recovery Program for Year One students was also implemented.

A big boost came in 1994 with a grant of $439,000 used to relocate three of the school’s portable classrooms, install two ‘relocatables’ (isn’t that another word for portable?), remodel the downstairs of the main building as office and storage space, repaint walls and re-cover floors, and the building of the rotunda, pictured here. A separate project began to replace the school hall building to the one that stands today.

By the end of the 1990s, technology had expanded to calculators and computers (Apple IIEs purchased from Ashwood Secondary School) used by all pupils. By 1998, children could research projects with aids like ‘CD Roms’ [sic]. Ahh, the nineties, good times.

Sport, Sport and more Sport

Ashburton’s traditional community emphasis on team sport extended to the primary school. Children formed school teams for basketball, softball, football and rounders from the 1930s. However, overcrowding meant land for the school oval was not purchased until 1958 and sport was undertaken at Ashburton Park up the road. By 1965, sufficient land was acquired to extend the school oval, lay out cricket pitches, running tracks and host interschool sports. Children also participated in swimming carnivals at the Camberwell Southern Swimming Pool (now the Ashburton Pool and Recreation Centre).

All the emphasis on sport seemed to pay off as by the 1990s, Ashburton Primary School had won the Glen Iris District Sports Association shield for athletics on 23 consecutive occasions and won seven out of the past ten athletics championships.

Mothers Club and Parent Association

Parents provided loyal and active support to Ashburton Primary School from its inception. The Mothers Club formed in July 1928, two months after the school accepted its first enrolments. They raised money for equipment for the school through card nights, dances, picnics, raffles, fancy dress parties, and socials for teenagers. In the early years, the Mothers Club organised flower shows and fairs to celebrate Empire Day (pictured here). Presumably these wound down when people realised the Empire was in decline. The Mothers Club also raised money for bushfire relief and the war effort. Its members also ran a tuck shop, a uniform shop, established a school bus service and worked hard to advocate for safer road crossings for the children.

In 1975, the Mothers Club became the Parents’ Association. Its mission moved towards providing social contact for parents, keeping them informed of activities within the school, and to raise funds to enrich their children’s school life. This continued past the 1998 update on the school but had all but disappeared by the time my first kid joined the school in 2017.

Efforts to restart it are currently underway.

Gardens and trees

In 1946, one of Ashburton’s teachers, Mr Dyson began the tradition of Arbour Day at the school. This global secular day is dedicated to the planting of trees every year. Mr Dyson was responsible for organising the planting of many of the trees that surround the school property today. By 1978, the tradition of Arbour Day continued (see pensively standing around tree picture here) but unfortunately seemed to have disappeared by the 1998 update.

1946 also saw Ashburton Primary School win the first of two coveted Best School Garden prizes awarded annually from the Australian Natives Association (ANA). ‘Natives’ in this context meant young, white Australian-born men, not indigenous people. In 1953, Ashburton Primary School celebrated its 25th anniversary with its second ANA garden prize.

Into the 21st century

The official record on Ashburton Primary School ends in 1998.

Sadly, the School’s current website does not include a section on its rich history. What can be garnered from more recent news articles and other publications is a bit depressing. A review only emphasises what they School does not offer anymore or is no longer involved in. In a 2001 booklet from Ashburton Primary School children celebrating the new millennium, the kids all wrote about how much they enjoyed the Gardening Club, the School Fair, Pirate Day, and School Camps. These have all gone now, either permanently because of ... reasons... or Covid restrictions. The School’s Fair used to be considered one of the best in the district, it has not run since 2018.

The school continues to attract grant funding for its facilities but doesn’t always spend them in the wisest way, such as the wheelchair ramp that goes to a step (pictured here) and a concrete seating area exposed to the baking sun most of the year. In 2014, the School received a $900,000 cash injection to spend as it saw fit. This went to building the Prep, Year 1 and Year 2 classrooms. Unfortunately, five years later, the Year 2 classroom and the Library were damaged by flooding. A 2018 grant upgraded the senior playground area.

On the positive side, in recent years, efforts to improve the cleanliness of the school’s grounds have made a considerable difference to its aesthetic. When my kids started, the school was the living embodiment of Ashburton’s nickname of ‘Trashburton’. Originally coined to reflect the lower socio-demographics of the area, the school acquired it for the copious amounts of litter everywhere. This has been reduced considerably by in-school efforts to reduce lunch-related litter.

There is still catch-up to be had with the school’s aging facilities. The Year 3s are still in portable classrooms that leak and overheat. The gardens, especially the vegetable garden plot, are not reticulated so tend to dry out and die over summer. Trees have not been cared for or maintained and some have fallen during recent storms, causing damage.

There are positive signs of improvement. Earlier in 2021, the School community received the news of a $600,000 grant to upgrade and resurface the netball courts. In December, the school received another grant to install shade sails in the plaza area over the school holidays.

This is all good news but the work needed to rebuild the school’s long history of community spirit needs to begin too.

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