> PMS > Spillman

[foundation of Perth Modern School]

Spillman, Ken 1985, Identity Prized: A History of Subiaco, UWAP for City of Subiaco: 152-4


By December 1907 funds had been allocated for the building of a government high school on a site near the Thomas Street School in Subiaco. Debate continued for some time, however, and it wasn’t until August 1909 that the contract was let and the date for the completion of the building set down for 30 March the following year. The new school was built on land which had formerly been part of Subiaco’s northern strip of Commonage, but which several years previously had been set aside for education purposes, and was marked on maps of the period as a ‘Technical School Site’. This choice of location, though not attributable to municipal government, would in the long term prove a considerable boon to the area and to its carefully nurtured image. Named ‘Perth Modern School’, the new school opened in February 1911, charging the comparatively minimal fee of £6 a year, and inaugurating a system of scholarships designed to encourage students of ability to attend regardless of the financial situation of their parents. Within two years of its opening, demand for placess was so great that entrance examinations were introduced, so forestalling the fulfilment of Andrews’ dream of a truly democratic institution, but at the same time creating a system wherein the advantages of ‘modern’ state education could be fully demonstrated with what amounted to an elite student body. Later in the century, many would concur with the opinion of one of the school’s early prefects: ‘It put it’s stamp not just on the locality of Subiaco, nor on the city, nor on the state, but far beyond.’ Perth Modern School was to pioneer in Western Australia two entirely new concepts in education. As one of the original pupils at the school would explain:
One new concept was co-education, boys and girls being taught together throughout their secondary course. Such a concept was unthinkable in the then existing secondary schools. .. The other revolutionary concept was that there was to be no corporal punishment, no detention, no arbitrary or authoritative discipline. The tone of the school and self discipline would make all such nineteenth century methods unnecessary ... I shall try to recollect what it was that created this tone. I remember that every member of the staff wore his or her university gown to all lessons, adding thereto the hood at important assemblies when they sat on the dais. Girl students were addressed as Miss with their surnames. Teachers spoke to students as their equals, that is, with respect.


F. G. Brown, the first headmaster at Modern School, stayed only eighteen months before being lured to New South Wales with an offer of more money; his successor, Joseph Parsons, lasted twenty-seven years, during which time the school and its exscholars achieved phenomenal success in almost every field of endeavour. Such was Parson’s commitment to the post that when granted long service leave he visited and reported on a number of ‘modern schools’ in the United Kingdom, implementing several of their ideas—amongst them school factions with boy and girl captains—on his return to Perth.

Despite its various successes, Perth Modern School was the victim of much snobbery at the hands of the private secondary schools which had so opposed its foundation. The rivalry existing between ‘Mod’ and the other schools was not the result of simple school pride, but reflected also a budding class consciousness and an aware-


ness that any clash between them was in fact a clash between two models of education. As one girl who represented Modern School in hockey later recalled:

We used to play against Girl’s High School, which then became Miss Parnell’s and now has become St Hilda’s . . . Could I really say they hated our guts? The games were very hard, the hockey sticks banged more than the balls. On one occasion I remember some of the girls—they were very ‘young ladyish’ otherwise, of course, the girls from Miss Parnell’s—went down the side saying “Come on High School! Come on High School! Show the charity kids you can beat them!” So we got our barrackers on the side lines, and they said “Perth Mod! Perth Mod! Teach the agricultural college girls where they get off! ”

Modern School students came from all over Perth and Western Australia, many staying with relatives or boarding as near to the school as possible. The family of one Albany girl who was awarded a scholarship to the school in 1913 bought a home at the corner of Subiaco Road and Hamilton Street, and discovered that many of their daughter’s new schoolmates had lodgings very close nearby. Others, of course, were originally Subiaco children; the daughter of at least one Subiaco Councillor, W. W. Morrison, attended the school, and one of her friends would later recall that groups of ‘Mod’ students were sometimes entertained on the Morrison’s boat at Crawley. Another local family, which had moved to Subiaco from South Australia in 1901, was fortunate in being able to send all of their four children to the school, one of whom, Karl Allen, became Western Australia’s first Rhodes Scholar. ...


... a former student of Perth Modern School would describe with great poignancy the morning when the school’s assembly was told of the outbreak of war. Her recollections capture well the drama of the occasion:

All the bells were ringing; most unusually we were called into the Assembly Hall. We all sat down there. The headmaster, Mr Parsons, declared that war had been declared. We were not to know what a great effect it was going to have on the lives, particularly on many of the older men students there, the boys as they were then. We were not to know that they were to fill the honour boards which have subsequently been unveiled in that hall. Many of them were to enlist because they were rising eighteen by the time they finished their course . .. The language master . . . put on the blackboard a view of the countries of Europe and what it would mean for them, and what the crowned heads of Europe were at the time . . . Yes, I remember the beginning of war very well, and I remember that before it ended several of my friends had enlisted. Some were to be irreparably injured, and others never to return.

For this woman and for the people of Subiaco, as indeed for so many people around the world, the ensuing years would be ‘a very traumatic period indeed’. There would not only be loss of life, but also, for the first time, doubts about the predestined pleasantness of the future.

Garry Gillard | New: 9 November, 2020 | Now: 21 April, 2022