Perth Modern School

What’s In a Name? The history of Perth Normal School and Perth Modern

It’s amazing the things you can learn from unexpected places and people. Writers always need to be ready for their next inspiration, because you never know when it will happen.

In 2019 I was shopping for tea-towels – not something I do regularly – and started chatting to the lady behind the counter. The tea-towels were gifts for my daughters’ teachers, and so the conversation moved from teachers to schools, and then we then got to chatting about a school she worked at in New Zealand. She mentioned the name of the school – Papakura Normal School.

I had heard this term before – in researching my novel I had come across Perth Normal School, which was in operation around the turn of the 20th Century. I had always noted the unusual name, but hadn’t investigated any further.

The woman explained that in New Zealand a ‘Normal’ school is one closely linked with the teacher training colleges, and while an average state school might have one or two trainee teachers, the Normal Schools, of which there are more than twenty in New Zealand, are considered the primary training grounds, and where most of the trainee teachers are based.

We laughed about this; if these were the ‘normal’ schools, then by default, all other schools were ‘abnormal,’ but then she mentioned that the name actually came from a French word.

I came home (with my bag of tea-towels) and went straight into research mode.

The concept of Normal Schools actually come from the French idea of ‘ecole normale’ (literally school normal) which was to establish specific schools in which the best practice of teaching was ‘normalised’ for student teachers. They have been around since the 16th century and you can find Normal Schools in the US and Canada, across Europe and also in Australia and New Zealand, including Perth Normal School at the turn of the 20th century.

There isn’t a lot of information about Perth Normal School, but that’s probably because it only existed for four years, from 1907 to 1910. It provides a two year high school program specifically designed for students wishing to train as teachers. If their grades were sufficient, they could then proceed to the Claremont Training College which was the tertiary training facility for teachers from 1902 to 1981.

Prior to 1907,  the pathway to becoming a teacher was a little more patchy. Students would first become a ‘monitor’ with classes at both Fremantle Princess May and Perth Technical School.

A monitor was typically aged between 14 and 18 years who had reached the maximum of education afforded by their own school, and was basically a system where the older and more experienced students helped the younger students. This was a paid role and the annual salary depended upon which examination the student had passed. In 1906 a male monitor who had passed the Junior Certificate would be paid £30, and a female would get £20. If they had passed the Senior Certificate, they would get £56/£40.

By 1904 the monitor classes had been combined at Queen’s Hall in Perth, and then in 1906 moved into new buildings in James Street under the name Perth Central School for Monitors. Finally, in 1907 the school was restructured and renamed Perth Normal School. This formalised and centralised the process, and while it was generally agreed it would lead to better qualified monitors and teachers, there were also those who believed it would dissuade students from outside Perth (in particular from the Goldfields) from pursuing a career as a monitor/teacher, as it required them to move to Perth for the two year program for very little allowance.

If, after the two year program a student’s grade were not sufficient to earn them a place at the Training College, they could stay on as monitors. Their annual salary would increase with experience, although females would always earn approximately 70% of the male salary. To put it in perspective though, a (male) monitor in 1909 could expect to earn only £50 where a (male) student who had passed the teachers B Certificate, would earn £150.

Perth Normal School was closed after only four years at the end of 1910, and unlike many other countries where older schools still retain the term ‘Normal’ in their title to show the historical significance of the role they played in teacher training, most traces of the Perth institution has long disappeared.

What I only learned recently, and thanks to the detective efforts of the ‘Ask A Librarian Service’ at the State Library, was that Perth Normal School and its entire student body of 200 students was simply re-opened in 1911 as a much more well-known educational institution: Perth Modern School, although at the time it was simply called Modern School.

Today ‘Mod’ is known as one of Western Australia’s best public high schools, fully selective and catering only to students who pass strict academic entrance exams. It has produced Rhodes Scholars, Prime Ministers, Governors and more.

When it opened more than a century ago, with its 200 students, there were only eight other high schools in Perth and all were single-sex (five for boys, three for girls). The ‘modern’ philosophy that the school took its name from was two-fold.

First, it was considered the first public co-educational high school in the state accommodating both male and female students*. Second, it would not allow any authoritative corporal punishment that was both common and expected in schools at the time. This very modern school, would instead expect students to manage themselves with self-discipline, not by teachers administering the cane and paddle. At the time, Mod was ground-breaking in its attitude to learning, a truly modern establishment.

Over time the focus on teacher training lessened, to the point today where it is an almost forgotten and unknown aspect of the school’s long history.

It goes to show that the unusual names we hear on a daily basis, often have a deep historical basis that have become forgotten over time, and it’s just those chance conversations, in random places that shed enlightenment.

Where have you found your most unexpected inspiration?

*Although Perth Normal School during its brief tenure was also co-educational.

 

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