Speech by The Hon Jenny Macklin MP

Centenary of Wangaratta High School

Location: Wangaratta, Victoria

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I want to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Yorta Yorta people. I also acknowledge the tribal peoples of the Pangerang and pay my respects to all elders past and present, and any who are here today.

Thank you for inviting me here today and thanks Mr O’Callaghan for that wonderful welcome. I’m afraid old habits die hard – you will always be Mr O’Callaghan to me – a consummate English and History teacher who nurtured an insatiable appetite for learning within a rigorous intellectual framework. It is marvellous to be back at Wangaratta High. Although I have to say in ‘my day’ we weren’t accommodated in such an impressive senior school building. I’m told it’s only been operating for a month; that it has impeccable five star environmental credentials. This is another stage in the redevelopment of the campus replacing the 1960s classrooms with state of the art learning facilities including environmentally sustainable materials, underground heat exchanges, solar energy and storm water storage. So it’s great to be here in this wonderful new building.

Although I am reminded of a similar gathering in 1967 in what was the new the school Assembly Hall. It was bursting at the seams for speech night which also marked the retirement of the principal Mr English. I understand there was some concern on the night – two weeks earlier the local radio station had received a call saying a bomb had been planted in the hall. Luckily speech night continued uneventfully.

Of course what we see today is very different from the school’s humble beginnings when it opened its doors as an agricultural high school to 18 students. It was one of five agricultural high schools opened in 1909 – four years after the opening of Melbourne High School. To get a sense of the context:

  • In 1909 the population of Australia was around four million
  • King Edward VII was on the throne
  • Andrew Fisher’s Labor Government was ousted by Alfred Deakin’s Fusion Party; and
  • Victoria became the last state to grant women the right to vote.

So it was against this backdrop that Wangaratta Agricultural High School accepted its first students at two sites. One on the 20 acre farm reserve donated by the Council and home to the male students. The other devoted to academic studies and, I’m advised, mostly attended by girls.

From its very first year the school did far more than just teach its students – although it did an excellent job at that. It began a tradition of encouraging and supporting each student to be their best. To help each of them develop intellectually and socially to reach their full potential. And in doing so, give back to their local community.

This tradition of excellence, the expectation of high standards began strongly when the first Dux of the school, Austin Mahoney, topped the State in French, trained as a teacher, enlisted to fight in March 1915 and sailed to France on the troop ship Euripides two months later.

In October 1916 Captain Mahony was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. Two years later, almost to the day, he was killed in battle – 36 days before the armistice was declared.

In 1973 my sister Cathy was also dux of the school. She didn’t receive the Military Cross but went on to study pharmacy and music. I mention Austin Mahoney and my sister not just because they were distinguished students here at Wangaratta High. But also because, in many ways, they exemplify the school’s century-old traditions. Its history and its legacy. Providing excellence in teaching to ten decades of country Victorian children; imbuing in them a great sense of integrity and responsibility. And perhaps most importantly, encouraging young men and women to believe that if they set their minds and hearts to it – they can do anything.

This was certainly what the school gave me. Although I have to confess to you all that I wasn’t quite so confident on my first day at school. It’s a first day memory I share with long-serving, and much-admired principal Mr Lyn Barr. Not that we started on the same day of course.

Lyn recalls his first day in his contribution to the commemorative centenary book. “In 1948 I commenced my secondary education with some trepidation at Wangaratta High School…” I felt much the same although Lyn was apparently much more composed.

I vividly remember the day in 1966 when we moved from Cohuna to Wangaratta – my parents, sister Cathy and me. I can tell you for a country kid this was a big deal. When I walked through the gates of Wangaratta High that first morning, it seemed overwhelmingly huge. It seemed overwhelming huge and, as a first former at the bottom of the heap, I had an immediate sense of my unimportance in the greater scheme of things.

But as the years went by this school instilled many things in me. Not least learning every song from the musical West Side Story – a wonderfully useful accomplishment which remains with me to this day! Life then was as close to idyllic as you could get – riding my bike to school with my mates, playing hockey and tennis at the weekends. Although when we rode our bikes we were expected to wear our hats and the headmistress roamed the town on the lookout for girls who didn’t.

That said, this is a school which year after year produces a cohort of strong, confident, independent young women – forging careers in a range of professions and vocations. This doesn’t surprise me. It was the same when I was here. My teachers encouraged me all the way.

Miss Mary Harris – who was strict, even scary – but the best Maths teacher you could ever have. She was a great teacher but did not approve of girls in the 1960s wanting to wear their uniforms as short as possible. Another teacher who is here today Miss Barbara Donovan – whose advice has stayed with me all my life. “Never rest on your laurels,” she wisely advised me.

And of course Mr O’Callaghan, my Year 12 English teacher. I clearly remember his advice when I returned from Japan after a year on a Rotary exchange scholarship – a life-changing experience for a girl from Wangaratta. Changing the way I thought about myself and the world; expanding my horizons; teaching me that if we meet and get to know one another there is no room for intolerance. When I arrived back to finish Year 12 I was slightly chubbier – and immediately nicknamed Rice Bowl – the young people at this school have always had that great Australian knack of bringing you back down to earth.

And that’s when I remember Mr O’Callaghan telling me, after a year of speaking Japanese, that I had to start “thinking in English again.” I can’t imagine having better teachers. Encouraging, inspiring and dedicated. Their years of service testament to their belief in the school and all it stands for. Committed to giving the young people of Wangaratta a springboard into the wider world. People like Mr O’Callaghan who taught here for 22 years. My principal Mr Jack Cullen who was here from 1969 to 1980. Mr Lyn Barr class of ’54 who returned to be principal from 1982 to 1991.

Who remembers the miracle of the first ball point pen and how they made ink monitors obsolete. Who remembers classrooms with canvas sliding windows with no flyscreens that had two positions – open in summer and closed in winter. And students fainting in the sun during assembly before the Hall was built.

Some things have changed. Buildings, classrooms, uniforms, the huge range of academic and vocational choices available now. But a lot remains the same. The pursuit of academic excellence continues – a century ago Austin Mahoney topped the state in French. Today you achieve a 100 per cent completion rate for VCE with scores consistently above the state average. The school’s technical education centre offers wide-ranging vocational training and apprenticeship choices – from agriculture to automotive technology, engineering, IT and fashion textiles. And on the sports field. Still producing champions across all codes – in football, skiing, swimming. And it’s great to see my old hockey team here today. Just last year Wangaratta High’s own Belinda Hocking made it to the final of the 200 metres women’s backstroke at the Olympics in Beijing.

Wangaratta High is, as it was from the very beginning, a school that continues to be at the very heart of its community.

A school that is the pride of its city. A school with a century of tradition. A school with a strong foundation built on those great qualities of compassion, tolerance, fairness and wisdom. A school which has long pursued excellence. And will, I’m sure, excel through the next hundred years.

Contact: Jessica Walker 0430 166633