A Brief History of St Michaels Parish School
Updated: May 18, 2022
The 1920s heralded significant social changes in Melbourne. Before then, Victoria’s Protestant majority – represented by English settlers and their descendants – tended to be landowners, people who worked in the city, larger business-owners, that kind of thing. The Catholics, often represented by the large minority (25%) of Irish and their descendants, were more firmly entrenched in the working classes. They were often marginalised and treated as second class citizens by the Protestant majority. Fortunately, after World War I united Australians for the first time, the heavy and antagonistic divide between the Protestants and Catholics of Victoria slowly began to erode.
Catholics in Ashburton
Unfortunately, census records of the exact demographic makeup of Melbourne were not kept back then, so I can only make generalisations of how these changes manifested in Ashburton. However, by taking the dominance of Protestant-delineated churches as a guide, the suburb’s demographic weighed heavily in their favour.
Everyone tended to keep to their own people but there appeared to be civility between the various religious groupings. It is on record that all the different faiths shared the Ashburton Hall (where the Shell Service Station is now) for their services before they built their own churches in the 1930s. The Baptists built their church first (in an afternoon!), then the Methodists built the more solid brick church on Ashburn Grove that remains standing today. The Presbyterians’ Church near High Street and Cyril Street came some years later and the Baptists replaced their church more permanently also.
The Catholics also began planning their church in the 1930s and by extension, the school that would become St Michaels. At the time, the Ashburton Catholic community was relatively small. Only 72 parishioners attended the first Mass at Ashburton Hall on 11 December 1927. The Ashburton Catholic community originally belonged to Glen Iris Parish (now known at St Rochs) and its families made important sporting and social contributions to the development of this Parish.
By August 1932, the Ashburton Catholic community began seeking donations for the building of their own church. Most significant was the anonymous donation of land on the east side of the railway line, right on the fringe of Ashburton Forest. The donor had invited Father Loughnan of St Roch’s to fence off as much land as he wanted. Loughnan fenced off a quarter of an acre – the size of a normal house block. After his death, the donor was revealed to be Michael Mornane, who owned all the land east of High Street that would become the Alamein Housing Commission estate.
Remarkably, given the entire country was in the grip of the Great Depression, the new Church was completed in only three months. In a reflection of the changing times, many of the local donors were not Catholic. The new Church was formally named St Michaels and opened by Archbishop Mannix on 5 March 1933. The nearest building was the Methodist Church down the hill in Ashburn Grove. On the other side were the tall trees of the Ashburton Forest, while the market gardens rolled along High Street towards Warrigal Road.
St Michaels Parish School opens
The School came after World War II, in 1946. By then the Forest was almost gone and the market gardens had given way to neat housing plots. Work on the Alamein Housing Estate was also well under way.
Father Loughnan tasked Miss Sheila Evans (pictured here) with the job of setting up the school. Evans was a teacher with the Victorian Education Department who had trained for two years at Ashburton Primary and spent three years in charge of a one-teacher rural school. This made her well-qualified to manage a broad age range of children.
In the first year of the school, Miss Evans had 23 pupils across Prep, Grade 1 and Grade 2 (pictured below). The classroom was in the High Street section of the church and a group of enthusiastic parents organised school furniture. Evans supplied the teaching aids herself. Sanitation was primitive: simply a ‘dunny can’ shared by the boys, girls and teacher.
The arrival of Father Ryan as Parish Priest in 1947 brought Evans’ departure and the first nuns into the school: Mother Finton and Sister Dorothea. They lived in a convent in Windsor and travelled every day by the tram to Burke Road, then by bus to Ashburton. By 1947, the school catered to 100 students up to Grade 4. Ten years later, enrolments exploded to 415.
Much like with Ashburton Primary School, the rapid increase in enrolments caused significant problems. In the first instance, the big difference between the two schools was St Michaels did not receive funding from the Victorian Government. Yet it was still required to pay teachers along the newly implemented salary scales. By 1955, the school received only £800 from the Catholic Church and it was barely sufficient to pay one teacher. To cover the shortfall, parents were asked to pay at least two shillings per week for each child at school; and three shillings if only one.
Secondly, the large number of enrolments quickly consumed the space available to teach them. Children were squished into two upstairs rooms, with the rest using the actual church and the balcony on the first floor. So Father Connellan sought permission from Archbishop Mannix (who seemed to be living forever at this point) to build a new school. He received a loan of £44,000 from the Church’s newly-formed Schools Provident Fund, devised specifically for this purpose.
Within twelve months, the main school building was underway: eight classrooms, a domestic arts centre, tuck shop, nuns’ and teachers’ room, store-room, cleaner’s room and new toilet block. Much of the labour was donated by parishioners free of charge. The total cost of the (admittedly ugly) building was £55,732.
Thirdly, the school’s children divided themselves along socio-demographic lines. Susan and Diane Walsh, who lived in a Housing Commission house near Alamein, attended St Michaels School in the 1950s. They would be harassed and abused by kids from Alamein State School for being Catholic. At the same time, St Michaels parents on the north side of High Street did not want their children mixing with the Housing Commission kids. Diane also reported that the school and church committees marginalised the Housing Commission fathers from being involved.
During the 1960s and 70s, the school population of 231 consisted of 54 children of parents who did not speak English. Many of the students suffered from social and economic disadvantage. The Catholic and State School teenagers did a lot of fighting and the Housing Estate area near the school developed a reputation for violence. Susan Walsh remembered there was a gang led by one of her school colleagues who would hold people up when they got off the train at Alamein.
To try and divert the young peoples’ energy into healthier pursuits, St Michaels joined forces with (the now defunct) Alamein State School to pool resources and create activities, especially around sport, to challenge and motivate disadvantaged students. By 1976, the project had received enthusiastic backing from the City of Camberwell, Catholic Education Office, Commonwealth Schools Commission and the Craig Centre.
Under the Australian Constitution, only the states and territories have the authority to regulate, register and deliver schooling. Like all Catholic schools in Australia in the 1960s, St Michaels began to benefit from the Whitlam Government’s decision to provide capital funding to non-government schools for the first time. Capital funding for science laboratories came first in 1964, then in 1970 federal legislation provided non-government schools with a flat rate of federal government money per student. Then in 1973, the Whitlam Government implemented the ‘needs-based’ model of federal funding for all non-government schools still in place today. This laid the ground-work for a market-based system of schooling for government, Catholic and independent schools.
With the benefit of extra resources, under the 1980s Principal Maureen Minack, the school began establishing a reputation for its small class-sizes, flexible and interesting teaching programmes. More government funding allowed the employment of specialised teaching staff. The 1990s saw more emphasis on sport and fund-raising activities.
Toby Sullivan, the 2008 Associate Director of the Melbourne Comedy Festival, attended St Michaels at this time. He told The Age, ‘Mary Finn was my primary-school teacher who showed me how much fun showbiz could be through the revelatory power of the primary school sketch revue.’ Like every 1980s and 90s child, they learned the Time Warp from Rocky Horror Picture Show.
St Michaels in the 21st century
Unfortunately, the documented history of St Michaels ends in the mid-1990s. A few searches of newspapers articles came up with some developments in the 21st century.
Over the years since Whitlam’s reform of the school funding system, the trend has been for a higher increase in federal funds for non-government schools over government schools. In 2016, the state government provided over $440 million funding to Catholic schools. This was provided in addition to federal government funding to supplement the fee-based model. As a result, the Catholic school sector now relies heavily on government funding to subsidise its fees.
Unlike state and independent schools, this funding does not go directly to each Catholic school. Instead, it is administered through the Catholic Education Commission of Victoria (CECV). The CECV relies on a model that - among other things - takes into account a school’s ‘capacity to contribute’ based on the school’s socio-economic scores. According to the MySchool website, in 2020, St Michael’s had a significantly higher score of socio-education advantage (1165) than average (1000) reflecting the significant socio-demographic change that has occurred in Ashburton since the 1990s. In 2016, the CECV rejected criticism from the Federal Government and advocacy groups about a lack of transparency and accountability within its allocation of $2.1 billion of government funds.
In short, St Michaels is today reliant on the CECV for its allocation of Government funding and this will be reflected in the fees it sets each year and its capacity to deliver its learning programs.
In 2016, St Michael's parents nominated teacher Christian Williams for the Global Teacher Prize from the Varkey Foundation. Williams was already Victoria's 2015 Teacher of the Year and a finalist for Young Australian of the Year. He was honoured as one of the world's 40 best educators out of 8,000 from 148 countries. He had only become a teacher four years earlier.
Beloved by his students for his willingness to go above and beyond to inspire his students, Williams' teaching career began after a congenital heart condition forced him to give up a promising international sporting career. He told the Herald Sun:
“We get too swept up in ticking boxes, and check-listing curriculum, I like to take a different approach."
He ran yoga classes at recess, chess tournaments before school, created classroom coffee shops and ran Skype chats for students about time machines with physics professors. “I try to make sure my kids’ dreams come true. I hated school myself and don’t want my kids to have that experience.”
St Michaels Fun Fair
In pre-Covid times, the St Michaels Fun Fair was the school’s major fundraiser. A highly enjoyable community event, among its traditional cake and second-hand toy stalls, the Fair also attracted innovation. In 2017, parent David Thek ran a stall repairing and restoring unloved bicycles and selling them to attendees.
The funds raised at St Michael’s Fun Fairs contributed to the first comprehensive expansion of the School’s teaching spaces since the 1950s. Some of the old classrooms were demolished but the protective enclosure of the area along High Street remained.
Garry Thompson (former Boroondara Council Mayor) was the managing director of the school’s architect Y2 Architecture in 2018. ‘The Learning Centre was built around a ‘treehouse’ concept, as opposed to the old building’s ‘egg-crate’ arrangement of separate classrooms off a central corridor,’ Thompson told The Age in 2018. The idea was to provide the sense of enjoyment and escape that a treehouse provides through studio-style learning spaces, irregular-shaped windows, and campfire-like spaces for creating radio and television programs.
The revitalisation of St Michaels Parish School helped refresh the High Street and signalled Ashburton’s move away from a sleepy, village-like neighbourhood to a vital and innovative future.
 "An Australian Catholic Parish: The Story of Saint Michael's Ashburton," Available at Camberwell Library and the State Library of Victoria.  Ibid.  For more on Susan and Diane Walsh’s stories, see Alamein Community Committee, The Alameiners: From Mud to Palaces : Stories from the Early Residents of the Alamein Estate (Alamein Community Committee, 2004). Available at Ashburton Library  Smith, Bridie, "My School Report," The Age, 7 April 2008.  Crafti, Stephen, "St Michael's Treehouses of Learning," The Age, 14 April 2018.  "Wheely Great Fun," Progress Leader, Glen Iris, 28 November 2017.