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Clash of Opinions on Standards at Cheltenham State School

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Pupils of Cheltenham State School, c1890. Courtesy Eric Longmuir.

Mr Ninnes, head teacher of the Cheltenham School, took the opportunity at a school concert to address the parents of his pupils and remind them of the importance of their sons and daughters being regular attendees at school. He was appointed head teacher in 1886 following the interim service of Mr McLean who took charge of the school for three months on the retirement of Walter Meeres, the first head teacher. Ninnes went on to make remarks that reflected badly on the school’s academic standards and, by implication, the work of Meeres, its head teacher from 1866 to 1886

The concert, in aid of the prize fund, was held in the new Protestant Alliance Friendly Society Hall on Schnapper Point Road, (Nepean Highway) on March 17, 1887. [1] The audience was described in a press report as ‘fairly large’ and in the main ‘very attentive’ but there was an unruly element of ‘young men or overgrown boys’ sitting in the back row who endeavoured to annoy other people present with their whistling and stamping feet. They put on a performance which the reporter said, “could not be excelled even by the genuine larrikin of Melbourne and the suburbs.” During one period of interruption an annoyed Mr Ninnes asked one or two to leave, offering to refund the their admission money. [2]

In his address Mr Ninnes, in his own way, went on to annoy his audience. He said he was ashamed at the results achieved by the school, a level of performance that ranked with the lowest in the colony. The percentage pass rate he quoted was 50 per cent but he expected the school to do much better with the support of parents who ensured that their children attended regularly and frequently. Mr Ninnes had a vested interest in this matter because his total salary was influenced by the achievement of his students, a contentious issue at the time. After 1863 a system of ‘payment by results’ existed. The teacher was rewarded with a bonus over and above his fixed salary for every child who passed an examination administered by the district inspector. Standards to be achieved were set down. For example, in Fifth Class, students eleven to thirteen years old were expected to be able to read ‘fluently and with proper emphasis’ and to understand any ordinary book or newspaper, to write correctly from dictation, to write neatly in large round and small hands plus commercial forms of writing. They were to know simple proportion, practice and mental arithmetic. With grammar they were know etymology, derivations and parsing. In geography they were expected to have a thorough knowledge of the maps of Europe and Australia. [3]

The children who received prizes for regular attendance over the previous six months were:-

Fifth Class:
Girls: Maud Dwight, Annie Crawford, Annie Beasley, Angela Ginnochio, Isabella Mitchell, Mary Ann Sullivan, Mary E Ninnes, M Cowen Boys: Arthur Ross, William Mitchell, David Corstorpan.

Fourth Class:
Girls: Mary Richardson, Mary Spiers, Annie Hays Boys: Arthur Chandler, John Cowan, George Rose.

Third Class:
Girls: Eva Ockenden, Lavinia Ginnochio, Annie Chandler, Charlotte Spiers Boys: Charles Dwight, Arthur Dwight, Charles Corstorphan, Albert Fisher, James Beazeley, Robert Singleton.

Second Class:
Girls: Olive Ross, May Hicken, May Woff, Jane Mitchell, Mary Crossland, Lily Stevens Boys: Patrick O’Sullivan, Daniel Ninnes, Stanley Hayes, George Hayes, Frank Cramling, John Ezard, Henry Monk.

First Class:
75 books – Nearly everyone in first class obtained a book, although the attendance was not up to required standard.

The newspaper report of the school concert gained the attention of Walter Meeres, the retired head teacher and a resident of Cheltenham. Responding to that report and to information given to him by parents who attended the concert and perhaps wanting to stir up trouble, he wrote a letter to the Editor of the Brighton Southern Cross. Meeres, as the person in charge of the school over the preceding twenty years, believed what was said and written reflected in a negative way upon his professional ability and reputation. His letter was sharp, savage and demeaning of his successor at the school.

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Walter Meeres. Courtesy Betty Kuc.

Reflecting on the information he had about the concert Mr Meeres wrote, “That Mr Ninnes, the teacher, should think and talk largely of himself and the wonderful things he has accomplished could not surprise anyone, because we have had ample time and opportunity to become acquainted with his peculiarity in this respect…he seems to think that the cheapest and easiest way to exalt himself was by disparaging his predecessor…. he sought to entertain his audience by throwing dirt at me. He told the people he found the school one of the very lowest in the whole colony, and in various ways he endeavoured to impress upon them that under my management it had got into such a wretched state that but for the wonderful improvements he had effected, he could not stay here.” [4]

Walter Meeres went on to acknowledge that in the past there were occasions when the pass rate at Cheltenham School was low but drew attention to the performance level over the final three years of his service. The last examination, which Meeres claimed took place under unfavourable circumstances, resulted in a pass rate of 78 percent. The previous year was even better with a little more than 83 percent. The year before was between 72 and 73 percent. If this was not sufficient to refute Mr Ninnes claims, Walter Meeres chose to refer to the opinion of Mr McLean who took charge of the school for a short period prior to the arrival of Mr Ninnes. Mr McLean, he said, gave the school a ‘very good character” and Meeres believed Mr McLean was just as competent and well known as Mr Ninnes to provide such a judgment. Walter Meeres’ letter to the press concluded with the suggestion that “when Mr Ninnes next indulges his propensity to laud and magnify himself, he should endeavour to do so without disparaging others.”

Daniel Ninnes countered Walter Meeres in the next issue of the Brighton Southern Cross with an even longer letter where he attempted to correct a number of statements which he claimed were ‘void of truth’. His concern was the state of the school and what had to be done to improve the situation. He acknowledged that he spoke on the night of the concert of the irregularity of the attendance of the children and the fact that the school, as far as results were concerned, was one of the lowest in the colony. However, he explained that the parents were largely to blame for this situation as “no teacher could be expected to obtain the average results obtained in the State Schools of the colony with such irregularity of attendance.”

Regarding Meeres’ views about the relative experience of Mr McLean and Mr Ninnes to make judgments about the condition of the school, Ninnes pointed to his seventeen years of teaching with leadership responsibilities in six different schools. This contrasted with Mr McLean who Ninnes described as a young man who had been on the relieving staff of the Education Department for five years, taking charge of schools for periods of time ranging from one month to six months but never with a school of his own. It was only after leaving Cheltenham that he received his first permanent appointment.

Ninnes concluded his letter with advice to Walter Meeres, “Do not rush into print and accuse a person on mere hearsay or set down as facts what seem as such to someone else.” [5] The following week Walter Meeres replied withdrawing nothing from his earlier statements. He reiterated the excellent results achieved by pupils at the school in the last years of his head teachership and just prior to the arrival of Ninnes, and therefore the statement that the school was one of the lowest in the colony in terms of performance was false. The school’s results were documented in the annual reports issued by the Department and available from the Board of Advice and other teachers in the district. Regarding the relative abilities and experience of McLean and Ninnes, Walter Meeres was on softer ground. He acknowledged that McLean was a relieving teacher of about six years experience but during his service for a seven months period had charge of a school much larger than any school Mr Ninnes ever had. [6]

Walter Meeres concluded his letter to the editor, “I do not wish to become tiresome, so shall not again trespass upon your space, let Mr Ninnes say what he will. Trusting that I have not already wearied your readers.” This drew to a close a clash of egos and a storm in a teacup between two early head teachers of Cheltenham Primary School. Daniel Ninnes remained at Cheltenham for about seven years until his successor was appointed in 1893.

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An early photograph of pupils at Cheltenham State School, c1898. Courtesy Len Allnutt.

Author

Graham J Whitehead

Footnotes

  1. This hall was later known as the Soldiers’ Memorial Hall.
  2. Brighton Southern Cross April 2, 1887.
  3. Blake, L. J., (Ed) Vision and Realisation, 1973, Volume One, page 108.
  4. Brighton Southern Cross, April 2, 1887.
  5. Brighton Southern Cross, April 9, 1887.
  6. Brighton Southern Cross, April 16, 1887.

Article Cat. Did You Know?
Article Ref. 306

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