Snapshots, stories and significant moments in the evolution of education design from the post-war period to the 1980s.
When we consider the factors that influence school design, the interplay between educational, social and architectural values is clear. However the weight given to these three demands fluctuates throughout our education history, and most notably in the post-war period.
Inevitably the design of a school affects the teaching experience. Greater understanding of the complexities of teaching and learning led to modifications in the pre-war period. This progression was dramatically interrupted by mass migration to Australia in the 1950s. With demand for schooling exceeding available supply, the solution led to easily erected and cheap Light Timber Construction design – more commonly known as ‘chicken coops’.
Despite – or in spite of - the post-war limitations placed on teaching and school design, the educational experience began a process of significant change. A hitherto unheard of dialogue commenced between the Department and all education stakeholders, first leading to architectural changes and then to a major ‘re-think’ of school design, teaching and learning. By the 1980s classrooms were no longer faceless ‘coops’ but mobile, interactive learning spaces with curriculum designed to cater for the individual.
School reform reflected a stronger commitment to the quality of education as expressed through community values and progressive educational pedagogy. ‘Shaping State Education: Mass Migration to Major Reform’ covers a period of enormous change in state schooling that ends with an ongoing dialogue between educator, community and architect that continues to shape state education today.
Chapter 42: Pre-war Edo Deco
To contextualise the changing shape of state education after World War Two we need to briefly touch on progress made in the pre-war years.
The 1910 Education Act brought in two state funded secondary education options that catered for two different community sectors. High Schools catered for students wanting a general education or entry into university. Junior technical schools provided a pathway into the trades and/or further studies at Senior Technical Colleges, Colleges of Domestic Arts or Agricultural Colleges.
This two-tiered schooling system led to our second building revolution. If the first state education building revolution belonged to the Department’s first architect, Henry Bastow’s elementary school designs, then this next movement can safely be attributed to Director of Education, Frank Tate. It was a state-wide education overhaul with a particular emphasis on technical and high school education and changes were both architectural and curriculum based.
Tate wanted his secondary schools to be large, commanding, austere and classical with a nod towards grammar school and university design. Wherever possible they were to be double storied. After the 1910 Education Act one of the first secondary schools to open was Castlemaine High School.
Chapter 43: Feature School: MacRobertson Girls High School
State school architecture began to change in the 1920s. It was an exciting time for designers. Gone were the gothic windows and ornate structures of the past. Art Deco had arrived.
Art Deco was a distinctive style that had a powerful, solid presence: the perfect union of form and function and well suited to the Department at the time. MacRobertson Girls High School, which opened in 1934, became a trendsetter in ‘Deco Education’.
The design is an art deco delight by Norman Seabrook, influenced by the Dutch modernist Wilhem Dudok. The school set a benchmark in deco design with sharp linear forms contrasting with elegant curves, and wide vertical windows set with cream brick, crimson window frames and bight blue tiled windowsills. Specific activities were zoned, and interiors paid careful consideration to student traffic and classroom organisation.
Chapter 44: Feature School: Camberwell High School
Camberwell High School was the last state school to be built in the ‘pre-war’ art-deco style and was the only high school built during the Second World War. It was designed by Public Works architect, Percy Everett.
Camberwell High School remains a wonderful example of the dominant architectural design of the era with its large rectangular windows, bands of white and cream, symmetrical façade with reference to classical columns across the elevated front ‘portico’ and a deco interpretation of castle turrets along the roofline.
The school opened its doors in 1941.
Chapter 45: Industrial and Social Change
Towards the end of World War Two education began to take a position in the community that perhaps it had never occupied before. Education had always held an important place in the community, often as a training ground to serve the needs of industry and economic growth.
As in all eras before, pre-war schools responded to the economic needs of society. Schools built during the Great Depression for instance, were imbued with an industrial style modelling the potential strength in industrial growth. Many technical schools were opened during this era and this trend continued during the war years of the 1940s.
High Schools were also given an industrial facelift during the 30s – take note of Shepparton High School and Benalla High School on the montage included with this story. Other designs referenced academia with a modern take on the collegiate style of architecture. From the 1940s education began to respond to social change and social values.
This is seen as a defining period in developing a close relationship between society, community and education. The first example of this was an education training program to retrain our returning soldiers.
Chapter 46: Commonwealth Reconstruction and Training Scheme
“For returned soldiers to tramp the streets heart-brokenly seeking work in the country they fought for is a crime which shrieks to heaven...” - John Curtin, 1918 (Prime Minister 1941-1945)
Curtin remembered well the aftermath of World War One and the ensuing Great Depression of the 1930s. Soldiers had returned from war to a changed industrial climate and were ill-equipped to meet its challenges. As Prime Minister during World War Two he was determined not to see a repeat of this.
In the 1940s, the Curtin government introduced several key education initiatives. One was the Commonwealth Reconstruction and Training Scheme, providing scholarships (tuition and living allowance) for returning servicemen and women in areas such as science, agriculture, engineering, dentistry and medicine.
The scheme was a huge success, boosting the morale of soldiers during the difficult transition from regimental to civilian life. By the time the scheme concluded in 1951, 300,000 had taken advantage of the offer, making it perhaps the most significant movement in education responding to social change since the 1872 Education Act.
Chapter 47: Populate or Perish
With the end of World War Two in 1945 hundreds of thousands of displaced persons chose Australia as their new start in life. Immigration Minister Arthur Caldwell, who believed that Asian invasion was still a looming threat, actively promoted immigration, announcing that we needed to ‘populate or perish’.
His determined campaign was sold using images of modern housing and sunny beaches. Population numbers soared.
Between 1947 and 1954 Australia increased its population by 1.4 million people with almost 2/3 of these coming from migration. Victoria’s Station Pier welcomed Australia’s one-millionth migrant in 1955 and in that year the country almost reached 9 million people.
Strong growth offered the promise of economic prosperity for the nation, but it placed enormous pressure on a struggling education system. Several states, including Victoria couldn’t house or school the new arrivals.
Chapter 48: Migrant Reception Centres
The Australian Government established temporary accommodation centres for the post-war migrants. Reception Centres were to provide for ‘the general medical examination and x-ray of migrants, issue of necessary clothing, payment of social service benefits, interviews to determine employment potential, instruction in English and the Australian way of life generally’.
The largest and longest-lasting Reception Centre was at the former Bonegilla Army Camp near Wodonga, Victoria. Between 1947 and 1971 over 300,000 people were ‘processed’ through Bonegilla.
Interestingly, despite schooling become a state-wide issue due to the sudden increase in population numbers, children at reception centres were privy to education.
Chapter 49: Overcrowding
Migration and the post-war baby boom placed pressure on already overcrowded classrooms and over-worked teachers. New teachers needed to be trained in the specific requirements of non-English speaking students and the expanding urban landscape demanded hundreds of brand new schools.
Newspapers such as the Argus published numerous reports on the overcrowding in schools. Chief Inspector of Primary Schools Mr Pederick fuelled further hysteria by predicting that, with an expected increase of 23,000 school starters for the new school year in 1952, six year olds would have to be turned away.
He had exaggerated the number but not the situation. Thousands were either turned away or spent their first weeks of schooling in shelter sheds, huts or halls.
Chapter 50: “We will use halls or any vacant rooms we can lay our hands on.”
These words by Charles Scarff, Chief Inspector of Secondary Schools in Victoria in 1951 summed up the demands on education during this intense period of population expansion and development:
“The school accommodation problem was acute in all areas …. it was better to teach children in a blacksmith’s forge than not at all.” The Argus 1952
“The school already sends 200 pupils to other state schools, and crams another 47 children into a church nicknamed ‘the stable’. The doors of ‘The Stable’ are left open in all weathers to provide a minimum of light, and a class of 95 infants shares a room divided by a curtain.” The Argus 1953
“... about seventy kids were crowded into a hall and shared thirty-five kindergarten chairs. Very few spoke any English and the only water was from a tap over a copper in the kitchen attached to the hall.” Writer and retired teacher, Bill Hannan recalls St Albans Primary School in the 1950s.
Chapter 51: Feature Leader: Chief Inspector Charles Scarff
Charles Scarff was Chief Inspector of Secondary Schools in Victoria from 1943 to 1953. Prior to this he had a long and illustrious teaching career, commencing in 1906 and including headmaster of Mildura High School and Senior Assistant at the prestigious Melbourne Boys High School.
Scarff, strategic and vocal, led the charge to an updated, contemporary education system. His most significant curriculum contribution consisted of introducing a common curriculum in the lower years of secondary schooling. He was concerned that many students did not finish their secondary education, and the majority of students attended high school and not technical school, thus missing out on practical skills.
The common curriculum included standard academic subjects and a taste of practical and vocational subjects. When students reached Year 9 – or Form 3 as it was known then – they could refine their choices. This curriculum model is still used today.
Chapter 52: Short Term Solutions
“Despite the greatly increased sums devoted to the construction of school buildings, and acceleration of school construction, the department is still forced to lease halls and other suitable buildings to accommodate the school population.” Review of Education 1948-54: R.M. McDonnell, W.C. Radford, P.C. Staurenghi
Along with huge increases in student numbers and a shortage of funds, the department faced a post-war shortage of building supplies.
Any available building was put to use: a migrant hostel in Pascoe Vale, an army hut in Metropolitan Melbourne. 143 aluminium classrooms were erected throughout Victoria.
The demand for school buildings intensified, so in 1950 the Department of Education began importing prefabricated classrooms from England. 782 arrived over the next three years.
Chapter 53: Increasing Budget
Financial Years: 1947 - 1948
Primary School - $488,855
High Schools - $75,992
Technical Schools - $140,077
Total - $704,924
Financial Years: 1952 - 1953
Primary School - $2,015,085
High Schools - $473,883
Technical Schools - $303,171
Total - $2,792,139
Financial Years: 1954-55
Total School Expenditure - $5,000,000+
In just seven years the cost of supplying education to the growing population had increased from $705,000 to $5,161,000 – an increase of 700%.
Despite this significant injection of funds, classes continued to be taught in halls, huts and portable accommodation. However, things were about to change: The Light Timber Construction (LTC) was on its way.
Chapter 54: A Functional Design
“In order to provide buildings in the shortest practicable time it was deemed advisable to plan timber buildings of simple design and relatively easy construction.” Alfred E Shepherd, Minister for Education: Report of the Minister of Education 1953-54
The solution to the overcrowding issue came from the industrial design loving Public Works architect Percy Everett and Commissioner of Public Works, Samuel Merrifeld. Together they designed a simple and easily erected timber building officially known as Light Timber Construction (or LTC), known unofficially as ‘chicken coops’.
They were cheap mass-produced schools, with rooms completed to exactly the same internal specifications: blackboard to the front, display board at the back with a series of uniform windows on opposite walls.
The term ‘chicken coop’ was coined, referring to both the uniformity of the design with rows of high windows, and to the noise created when the bell rang and students changed rooms: a cacophony resembling a ‘million clucking hens’.
The classrooms were supposed to be multipurpose but in reality they only suited a very general curriculum and did not cater well for specific subject areas requiring hands-on activities and display areas.
Chapter 55: “Literally and Figuratively Colourless”
“There was, in short, nothing monumental about the design; no imposing entrance, no classical columns, no first or second floors, no sense of age or tradition, no interesting masses, no striking materials, no colour, no driveway, no quadrangles, no relegation of cars to hidden parks.” Bill Hannan: ‘The Best of Times’
The ‘chicken coop’ design had its supporters and detractors. Many teachers and architects deplored the prosaic nature of the design.
However many communities were proud of their new schools: students enjoyed clean lino flooring, wide corridors and landscaped gardens. There were windows – banks of them - and they opened to allow ventilation.
Principals and inspectors liked the airy openness and spatial organisation - an advantage when inspecting teaching methodology. Prominent architect Robin Boyd considered the ‘chicken coop’ style to “…answer the problem of greater space for lower cost honestly and sensibly, without any pretence of artistry or elegance. As such the state school style is satisfactory”.
He did conclude, however, that the design was “literally and figuratively colourless”.
Chapter 56: Featureless or Full of Features?
Post-war population growth across Australia led to a highly centralised, regulated school system with prescribed curricula, inspectors and enrolment zones. An ordered system of featureless school design suited these objectives.
Many in the community approved. Adults who had experienced pre-war education were more than happy to see both school design and teaching change. They didn’t see mediocrity or bland curricula; instead these new schools looked attractive, modern, and functional. They saw a progressive future for education.
“A few years ago school buildings were clusters of classrooms in which the pupils tended to be more or less passive listeners. Today, with libraries, workshops, auditoriums, art and music rooms and gymnasia, schools are becoming centres in which pupils learn by activity and experience.” The Argus 14.8.1954
Chapter 57: Design Leads the Way
Each classroom was built to a formula, dictating function and, to a large extent, teaching methods. General classrooms had a blackboard at front, display board at back, desks in rows.
The design of art, woodwork or needlework rooms followed the general classroom format, often two joined classrooms or portables, but were outfitted slightly differently to include extra storage and a wet area for art.
At the secondary level additional double classrooms were equipped with the needs of specialist subjects. Science rooms had a raised demonstration table at the front, benches with Bunsen burners, sinks at the side and some were equipped with a roll down blackboard.
Woodwork was for boys, needlework and cooking for girls. The sciences and math were available to both genders. After the hard won battle of the early 1900s to create credible domestic arts colleges, high and technical schools offered cookery rooms that were well equipped, although still housed in the double classroom arrangement.
Kitchens had stoves, a sink area, preparation and demonstration space and, in technical schools dining rooms with a domestic area for girls to practice their laundry and housekeeping skills. Primary and Secondary Schools had separate male and female staff rooms, a library, and at the secondary level, a gym, hall and tuck shop. There was also a quadrangle for school assemblies.
Chapter 58: Design for Effective Teaching
Maribyrnong High School was a ‘chicken coop’ school, hastily opened in 1958 after temporary housing at the Melbourne Showground. It was an austere building, where students remained in the one classroom and teachers changed places at the ring of the bell. This was meant to enable an easier timetable but it was tiring for teachers to have to carry all their requirements including books and displays from room to room.
There were other more serious issues, raised by history teacher, Jim Evans. He argued the system was counterproductive to teaching, which required visual stimuli, displays that provoked discussion and moveable desks that enabled group work. How could this be provided if the teacher had only seconds to set up a display, and the desks were large and heavy to move?
Even if displays were on permanent view, they were at the back of the room, behind rows of students all facing the blackboard at the front of the room. Evans advocated a simple solution based on moveable desks.
“It is possible with large classes to move the desks so that you have along one side wall four groups of six desks facing the same number on the other side. All pupils can see the front blackboard and also the back wall ...” Jim Evans: The Secondary Teacher, April 1964
Unfortunately desks were heavy and noisy to move around and so moving furniture was discouraged.
Chapter 59: The Urban Spread
“Melbourne was in danger of being an empty city surrounded by country schools.” Architect Robyn Boyd
With the population and housing boom, Melbourne’s urban landscape spread far and wide with new towns, shopping centres, schools and homes. In these new outer suburbs schools were large, sprawling spaces filled with libraries, halls, gymnasiums, specialised craft wings and classrooms all set amongst flowering gums, cricket pitches and football ovals.
The schools of the inner city of Melbourne, once the strength of secondary education began to look tired and dated and shifting demographics resulted in a decline of attendance in some areas. Industrial areas of Brunswick, Collingwood, Richmond, Prahran, Albert Park, South Melbourne and Port Melbourne continued to offer technical schools and girls’ schools but no high schools.
There continued to be a high school in Carlton and two in Fitzroy, alongside the City’s three prestigious state high schools: Melbourne High, MacRobertson Girls High, and University High. However it was the outer suburbs that grew our secondary education during this post-war building boom.
Chapter 60: Agitating for Change
Until the 1960s, teaching had been highly regulated but not necessarily highly qualified. With each new decade came different expectations, making teaching and teacher conditions a hotly debated issue.
Large class sizes were normal and both teaching quality and the teacher suffered. As Lorna Hannan wryly observed, “try teaching poetry in the last period on Friday to 50 year nines!” Teachers were unhappy with conditions, pay and the school environment, and they questioned their prescriptive style of delivery.
The dissatisfaction of secondary teachers coalesced into workplace agitation, and led to the strength of the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association. Former teacher, Diane Gardiner, recalls teaching in the late 1960s, when she and her female colleagues wanted to wear the latest, fashionable pantsuit. At that time, a woman could be sacked for wearing pants to work. The female staff united, all wearing pantsuits to school on the same day. Sacking all the female staff would have left the school in chaos, so the protest was effective.
With the assistance of the unions, rules began to change.
Chapter 61: The Portable LTC
“In practice, an entire generation of buildings attracted more derision than pride, more despair than hope. Grounds were dubbed ‘mud heaps’; makeshift sheds ‘prisons’; and buildings when they arrived ‘chicken coops’. … the main experience of teachers, students and local communities was of life in church halls, and one day in chicken coops.” Bill Hannan: The Best of Times
Builder AV Jennings - who became famous for a template approach to design - was employed to design new portable classrooms that would complement the Light Timber Construction used throughout the fifties. From 1961 and into the 1970s AV Jennings built 929 classrooms that were used across the education system.
This further reinforced the portable classroom as both a ‘style’ and ‘ongoing-short-term’ solution to the student accommodation problem. Their short-term status resulted in a lack of maintenance, and they quickly began to look dated and shabby.