My Best Lesson

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Back in 1979 I was head of a little bush school at a place called Scaddan in Western Australia. It was about 55 kilometres north of Esperance - a port named after a French ship which had arrived with settlers back in 1829 and so concerned the British that they immediately rushed in numbers of convicts and soldiers to settle the area. So this was the 150th anniversary of the founding of Western Australia.

Scaddan was one of six little bush schools all out in the middle of nowhere - Salmon Gums, Grass Patch, Munglingup, Jerdacuttup, Cascades and Scaddan - and we decided to celebrate Western Australia Day all together, with our big secondary school in Esperance.

First the heads of the schools came together to plan. That was just great because it gave us an opportunity to pool our resources and for our 40 or so children to see what a big school was like. The students from the big school really looked after them nicely and at the end of every day we had an assembly at which everyone got a certificate.

There was a different theme for every day of the week. Monday was a Bank Holiday so we weren't there but Tuesday was Friendship and Flowers Day with the children working together to plant flowers in pots, make paper flowers, write poems.

Wednesday was Arbor Day - the day of the trees. There is a big salinity problem in the Scaddan area. The early settlers cleared all the land with the result that the water table rose and the mineral salts rendered the land infertile. Planting trees is one way to tackle the problem.

The department of agriculture helped us with the trees and advice on how to look after them. The children planted them round the school and later they wrote poems and hung them on a "poetree".

Thursday was the Day of the Arts. The great thing in those little country communities is the wealth of people only too happy to come in to school and and work with the children. So we had mums and grandmas and the occasional dad and grandad at every table - knitting, crocheting, doing tapestry or patchwork, beating metal, blowing eggs.

In those little country schools the mothers - it is mainly mothers - do proactively try to get involved and if you don't take them up on it pretty soon, they'll be back saying "Have you forgotten me?" In England I find that the mothers don't have so much confidence.

Friday was the Day of Sport and it was a real beaut day! We played softball, football, netball - all on tabloid (junior scale) pitches - for about 30 minutes a game. We mixed the children up so that it wasn't one school against another and the emphasis was on the social rather than the competitive element. And of course there was no shortage of adults to help organise or referee or act as marker.

Then on the Saturday we had a real country thing - a Settlers' Day - with the afternoon spent on old-time sports. Everybody dressed as a pioneer. You could buy patterns and some people looked fantastic. Others just went along to the local "op shop" (a charity or secondhand shop) and found something there.

There was tossing the wheatsheaf over the rugby posts for the men and tossing the rolling pin for the women.

We had wheelbarrow races, egg and spoon races, hoop races and family races. And we had a greased pig.

I've never seen or heard anything like that before. This poor little pig was covered in grease and all the kids rushed screaming after it, trying to catch it while it ran squealing all over the place. Animal liberationists would have been horrified but the pig survived and nobody managed to catch it.

Then later in the afternoon we had a bush dance. That's probably a carry-over from the early Irish settlers because there were lots of reels, jigs and barn dances. We had a fiddler and a piano accordion, and something like a broomstick with lots of bottle tops attached that made a real beaut noise when you banged it on the ground.

And after that we cooked damper - sort of flour dough wrapped round a stick and baked in the coals - because no Oz event worth its salt happens without damper!

It was a great way to celebrate and to finish off. But what really came through was that the community was such a rich resource of talent and energy and support. And I don't think the children could have had any better demonstration of that fact.

Steve Ding is deputy principal of the 450-pupil Banksia Park Primary School, Perth, in Western Australia. He is currently on a teacher exchange at Meopham Primary School in Kent

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