Perth Modern School

What’s In a Name?

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.

I was shopping for tea-towels – not something I do regularly – and naturally, 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 are where most of the trainee teachers are based.

We laughed about this; if these were the ‘normal’ schools, then by reasoning, 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 the 16th century and you can find Normal Schools in the US and Canada, across Europe and also in Australia and New Zealand.

These days there are dedicated tertiary colleges and training institutions for those wishing to become teachers, but many older schools across the globe still retain the term ‘Normal’ in their title to show the historical significance of the role they played in teacher training.

It led me to research the meaning behind another of Perth’s educational institutions – Perth Modern School. Today ‘Mod’ is known as one of the states best 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.

Despite its name, Perth Modern is actually very old. It opened more than a century ago, in 1911, with just over 200 students. At the time, 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 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.

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?