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The little School that Could: a brief history of Solway Primary School

"No one actually knows where Solway is” (Julie Wilkinson, Principal 2007)

The idea for a school on the hill between Karnak Road and Taylor Street is almost a century old. It can be attributed to the foresight of an enterprising gentleman called Matthew Searl. Like many men of means in 1920s Melbourne, Searl had his finger in a number of financial pies. By profession, he was an ‘Auctioneer, Accountant etc’. Who knows what the ‘etc’ meant? But he was also a town councillor for the City of Malvern. In addition to those titles, Searl held a financial interest in the land Solway resides on today. Back then, it was called the Golf Links Estate and it had already been sub-divided, with a number of plots sold off by Matthew Searl himself.

Sub-division of Golf Links Estate (site of Solway PS)
Sub-division of Golf Links Estate

Mr Searl obviously had some influence with the local member of the Legislative Assembly, Mr Richard Linton. By leveraging his City of Malvern title, Mr Searl suggested to Mr Linton that he ‘encourage’ the Department of Education to purchase all the land for a school. In return, Mr Searl would, of course, personally benefit from this arrangement and help ‘persuade’ some of the land-owners to sell to the Government.

While this would be an outrageous conflict of interest today, back then, nobody batted an eyelid. As history would soon attest, Mr Searl did have a solid argument. He reasoned the area, called Darling East at the time, would soon be growing rapidly with young families who would be in need of a school. It was also close to the new railway line being constructed from Darling to Glen Waverley. Mr Searl urged the Government to take advantage of the potential of the area before the train line opened and land prices inevitably rose. So on 31 May 1927, the Department of Education approved the purchase of the land.

The Government Valuer, Mr Dykes, who was responsible for overseeing such land acquisitions, had no idea about any of these machinations. Much aggrieved by what had transpired, he nevertheless set about organising the purchase of the land. He quickly discovered that despite Mr Searl’s assurances, two of the land-owners were not at all keen to sell.

View from Solway of Glen Iris Valley 2022
View from Solway of Glen Iris Valley 2022

Mr Thompson of Armadale wrote to Mr Dykes that he had selected the block for its views over the Glen Iris Valley. ‘I am not a land speculator,’ he said. ‘I bought the block for the bona fide purpose of building a home on it as I [purpose] getting married in a few months.’ It was not his intention to ‘extract unduly favourable terms from the Department’ but surely the block was worth £300, not the proposed £250?

The other owner, R H A Farrall, wrote that he had no objections to selling the block for a school but the Department ‘should be prepared to pay sufficiently to make the turning over of the lot better than a sacrifice.’ Unable to offer any more for the two blocks, Mr Dykes proceeded with the rest of the acquisitions.

Dept of Education map of Darling East School
Dept of Education map of Darling East School

Eventually, the sale of the land to the Government went through with the exception of the Thompson and Farrall blocks (located where the basketball courts are today). Mr Searl moved on to other enterprises. The Council decided to call the school site Darling East State School. That was the last decision made for the next two decades. After that... nothing happened.

Parents unite: the Winton Road Educational Movement

The 1920s gave way to the 1930s and still no school emerged on the hill. By 1934, the vacant land, still known formally as the Golf Links Estate, was overrun with weeds. W R MacCelland wrote to the Education Department and sought permission to graze a few cows there in an effort to keep them down. Soon horses appeared on the land too, although there is no record of any permission for them.

The area previously known as Darling East was now beginning to develop as Ashburton South. But the Depression and World War II put a firm cap on any government expenditure on developing the school site. This meant that by the time the War ended and the population of the local area exploded, a primary school was desperately needed. As local residents always did when it was time to take on local or state government in Ashburton, an action group formed. They called themselves the Winton Road Educational Movement.

The WREM (as I will call them but they probably did not call themselves) circulated a petition and found that 478 children in the Darling East school zone were not served by existing schools. Much to WREM’s exasperation, a school for the new Housing Commission estate at Alamein had already opened (the long-defunct Alamein State School) but it was designated only for Commission residents. Since it was unthinkable for parents to drive their kids to school in those days, the Ashburton South children were forced to trek along busy and dangerous roads to Ashburton Primary. By the mid-1940s, Ashburton Primary was already bursting at the seams. In desperation, WREM even asked for Army huts to be erected on the proposed site in lieu of a school building, to no avail.

Original Darling East school building c.1950
Original school building c.1950

Eventually, the Government recognised the urgency of the situation. Tenders were called for the Darling East School. An ‘infant building’ and four hexagonal classrooms; staffroom and toilet; small office, boiler house and fuel store; and central heating were included. Since the two erroneous blocks of land at the top of the hill were still in private hands, the new building was proposed for the south of the block. The Government then managed to push through the compulsory acquisition of the old Thompson and Farrall blocks and the ‘rectangle’ of the school took shape.

Official opening of Darling East State School
Official opening of Darling East State School

Due to a widespread, post-War shortage of building materials, construction of the school did not begin until 1950. By then, the proposed four classrooms were nowhere near sufficient for the number of children seeking entry. WREM proposed adding on another four classrooms while the builders were there but the Government obviously did not pivot that quickly or easily back then either, so these were not forthcoming. By the time Darling East Primary opened on 2 October 1950, it was already over-populated. Within two years, the four extra classrooms materialised. Within three years, the school was again full.

Darling East to Solway

Postmark of Solway Post Office (now defunct)
Postmark of Solway Post Office

As the use of cars began to grow in the mid-1950s, WREM lobbied the government to acquire land on the east side of Taylor Street for school parking. The thriving shopping strip caused traffic to build up, potentially endangering the children. At the same time, the City of Camberwell decided to open a post office on Taylor Street. They called it ‘Solway’ (I can’t find a record why). Camberwell Council then proposed to the School Council that maybe they’d like to change the name of Darling East State School to Solway State School?

There was little enthusiasm for this idea. There was no love lost over the ‘Darling East’ name, since the area was never called that but there was no attachment to ‘Solway’ either. Among the members of the Council, the preference was to call the School ‘Marella’. This rather progressive suggestion was the local Wurundjeri word for ‘hill’. The School Council petitioned the parents and everyone agreed the school should be called ‘Marella’. The City of Camberwell ignored them and told the Department of Education to re-name the school Solway. It was known as Solway from then on.

The battle for improvements

A Solway class with parents in the 1950s
A Solway class with parents in the 1950s

From the outset, the tenacious parents of the Solway School Council battled to improve the school and its grounds. Erected in a mere eight months, the school buildings were not of good quality. Combined with the over-crowding problem, the buildings needed almost constant maintenance and repair. Moreover, the long years of neglect of the site meant blackberries ran rampant and grass grew out of control. As seen in the picture above, it turned out ‘building a school’ meant just that: there were no gardens, play equipment or even a shelter for the children outside. So the School Council lobbied the Government tirelessly for funding to improve the space for their children. They fundraised through concerts and square dances, raising money for fencing, carpets, a piano, basketball stands, and a cricket pitch. Camberwell Council provided shrubs and trees for the surrounds and parents helped maintain them during school holiday periods.

Solway in the 1960s

As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s, the school and its community took shape. Academically, Solway struggled, not helped by the enormous class sizes: 40 per class in 1961. So Mr K MacKenzie, the Head Teacher, implemented a system of standardised testing to help improve the children’s academic results. A big boost to this endeavour came in 1962, when enrolment numbers declined sufficiently to convert an empty classroom into a library.

Thanks to a highly dedicated PE teacher, Solway students were known in the district for excelling at sport. The school’s football team won the District Premiership in 1962 and in 1963 won the cricket, athletics and swimming premierships as well.

The arrival of Mr McHutchison as Head Teacher in 1965 caused the overhaul of the school’s implementation of the curriculum. Mr McHutchison emphasised mathematics, teacher training and the delegation of authority among staff. He also introduced House and Prefect systems to encourage responsibility and leadership in the children.

Despite these impressive developments, an inspection in 1965 revealed that the ‘oral expression’ of Solway children was severely lacking.

They were prone to ‘meaningless utterances’ making you like, wonder, like, what the inspector would, like, think of the way kids talk today, you know?

Living in the Seventies

By the 1970s, when the school’s only official history comes to an end, Solway was once again experiencing significant problems with its building and grounds. Enrolments had dropped to 240 and the school suffered from a large turnover of teachers. The outdated facilities, including the lack of a bathroom for female teachers, contributed to the school’s undesirability as a workplace. To bolster student morale, the principal Mr Oaten emphasised the retention of specialist teachers in art, music, and film-making.

Extract of a letter pleading for funding at Solway in 1976
One of the letters pleading for funding

Meanwhile, the School Council sent repeated letters to the Department of Education all but begging for funding to renovate the school buildings. Local Member for Burwood, Jeff Kennett, also lobbied hard for funding. Finally, at the end of 1977, the Department funded the re-painting and refurbishment of the exterior of the school for the first time since 1950.

Unfortunately, school enrolments continued to drop, causing a loss of funding, including all paid secretarial assistance. Somehow the school survived throughout the 1980s but there is a dearth of records about this period.

Solway: School of the Future

The next record available is the 1995 Annual Report. This revealed two old classrooms had now been replaced with ‘five high quality’ ones and the doubling in size and quality of staff facilities. Solway had undergone the first transformation that set it on its current path. Solway’s School Council sought a School of the Future label; emphasising computer studies, languages other than English (particularly Japanese), and improving student learning outcomes.

In the 1990s, the Kennett Government began slashing school budgets in an effort to save the Victorian economy. The Council created a dedicated Fundraising Committee. The Committee successfully pulled off the first Christmas Fair and it would become a fixture of the school for the coming years.

The Fire of 1996

The next year, the school was hit by a setback. On Friday, 8 November 1996, a fire destroyed two classrooms and severely damaged another two.

As noted in the Annual Report, the true community spirit of a proud school came to the fore. Parents, teachers and students scrubbed, washed and relocated as much as was salvageable to allow the school to resume operations on Monday morning. In some ways, the fire was a blessing. The Department of Education replaced the old damaged buildings and the school’s fundraising efforts successfully replaced damaged teaching aids.

A drop in parent participation

As the turn of the century approached, Solway’s leadership group convened a Student Welfare Committee to address concerns about bullying in the school. A student-wide survey revealed that while the majority of students felt happy and safe, at least a quarter of the male population did not. To address the problem, an extra staff member was put on recess and lunchtime duty, the library was made more accessible, and lunchtime activities of music, art and origami were implemented.

The School still relied on parents to help maintain the grounds. However, as the 1990s progressed, many parents began opting to offer a financial contribution rather than attend the regular maintenance working bees. More women were returning to the workforce leaving less time available for traditional school-based volunteering. The Solway Safety House program required a person to be home for 80 per cent of the time children were walking past houses. By the end of 1996, there were only 21 houses left in the program.

Peter Costello: Principal for the Day

The Solway flagpoles
The Solway flagpoles

By the 2000s, the arrival of Principal Julie Wilkinson meant Solway’s grounds and facilities benefitted considerably from State and Federal Government investment. To further help Solway’s fortunes, the independent Australian Council for Education Research appointed Higgins MP and Treasurer Peter Costello as Solway’s Principal for the Day in September 2007. The idea was to match local leaders with school principals and encourage the exchange of ideas and understandings about leadership environments. A local member since 1990, Mr Costello had already unveiled the playground shade sales, the erection of the school flagpoles, and would soon launch the school’s new synthetic turf sports oval.

The students peppered him with questions:

How much money do we have in Australia?"

"A lot," Mr Costello replied.

"What do you do in your office?"

"Answer the phone, write on my computer and sign lots of letters."

"When did you realise you had leadership qualities?"

"When I was made the ink monitor in primary school."

Mr Costello’s visit recognised Solway’s rising fortunes and forward-thinking leadership. This coincided with a new wave of families arriving in Ashburton. House prices started to rapidly rise and parents began expecting quality schools to match their investment in the area.

By 2011, Principal Wilkinson had secured a new $2 million library and learning centre to complete the much-needed upgrade of the school’s facilities.

Solway on the map: achieving Sustainability Certification

Always a community-minded school, in 2008 Solway joined the Resource Smart Australian Sustainable Schools Initiative. By July 2012, Solway received a 5 Star Sustainability Certification from Sustainability Victoria. Under Principal Wilkinson’s leadership, Solway became one of only 16 schools in Victoria to meet the sustainability requirements needed in biodiversity, waste, water and energy use. The accomplishment made Solway the clear winner of the Sustainable School of the Year in the Boroondara Sustainability Awards.

Solway was no longer a school nobody had heard of or knew anything about. By 2014, its sustainability credentials ensured it received another $2.6 million in government funding for its grounds and facilities. The next year, it again received its five-star certification by meeting even more stringent requirements.

“[Solway's] actual landfill generation in 2015 is still well below what it generated before starting on the program in 2008, even though its school population has nearly doubled," Ms Wilkinson told the Progress Leader in 2015.

After 14 years overseeing significant change at Solway, Julie Wilkinson left the school in June 2019. Solway’s new principal, Lyn Rodda took over and navigated Solway through the remote learning and lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic. Today, the school maintains its 5-star sustainability rating.

Forget just Ashburton, Solway Primary School now leads the state as forward-thinking school of the future.

Compiled with the assistance of records from the Public Records Office Victoria, including annual reports; Solway Primary School 1950-1982 (unknown author) available from the Local History section of Camberwell Library; and various news articles.

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1 Comment

Thanks for this blog Sarah, an excellent overview of the school's history, diligently researched and well written. I met you at the last life writing class and you mentioned this resource. I was very curious as my husband, now 73 , grew up at 53 Karnak Road and was educated at Solway. Now two of my grandaughters are attending Solway. Wonderful to see that from humble beginnings the school, in recent years, has taken a lead on sustainability, something which it is incumbent on us all to embrace. The principal has a holistic vision when it comes to education🌳🔎😀. Hear, hear to that!

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