The Queensland Years

Part 1 1985-1990: Scots PGC The Expansionary Years
Just before I arrived as Principal at what is now called THE SCOTS PGC COLLEGE Arthur Butler, then the Headmaster of Rockhampton Grammar, told me that Scots in Warwick was “a tidy little operation.” How wrong he was! Certainly, numbers were only about 350, of whom 75% were boarders, but within that number there were several sub-groups. First, the school was co-educational, but with a majority of boys. There was still lingering resentment about the amalgamation of the boys’ and girls’ colleges, which had occurred fifteen years earlier. The boys and girls retained their own uniforms and badges. Then a little over 10% of enrolments were overseas students from the following countries: Papua New Guinea, Malaysia, Hong Kong as well as a few from other Pacific islands. Added to that was a cohort of Aboriginal students, whose fees were largely paid through Austudy. Each group had its own needs and characteristics. It was to be expected that the college would pay homage to its Scottish legacy, but the number of portraits of Bonnie Prince Charlie scattered through the college seemed to be taking this a little too far. One by one they were quietly removed by a Sassenach.

I was also advised to have a good look for six months before I decided to make any changes, but there was one change which had to be made immediately. The girls, under the tutelage of the redoubtable Peggy Given wore their uniforms smartly and were never without their hats while in public. By contrast, the boys were somewhat careless in their dress. Cricket teams, for example, wore a mixture of whites, tracksuits and other non-white clothing. The boys had to be reminded that “uniform” meant uniform. Another change came later, namely, the name of the college. The official title of the school after amalgamation was The Scots and PGC Warwick Colleges. This name confused many parents, who assumed that two separate schools still operated. In two stages this was simplified to The Scots PGC College. The name is now fully capitalized. This may look neater, but is a grammatical absurdity.

Another distinctive feature of the college was that Years 11 and 12 were each larger than any of the junior years. This was due to the influx of overseas students and local students from “high-top” State Schools. In their boarding houses, the boys were grouped in years, which led to a large number of senior boys having no positions of responsibility. As soon as it was possible, this was changed to each house having a mixture of years, although Kingswood House was retained as a Year 8 haven. The two existing clans (equivalent to houses) each had a mixture of girls and boys. the boys being allocated regardless of which dormitory they occupied. For all that, it was clear that staff and students enjoyed a relaxed but respectful relationship. There was sufficient evidence of a family atmosphere to hope that this could be nurtured and strengthened.

Term 1 of 1985 turned out to be a difficult one. The bursar who had been appointed in the second half of 1984 was found to have embezzled about $40,000 with the result that no decisions requiring major funding could be taken until the accounts had been fully audited. Not long into Term 1, the Electrical Trade Union called a strike which resulted in blackouts for a fortnight. This is the last thing that you want in a boarding school. While power was restored after two weeks, the nasty dispute went on for months. It was fortunate that power had been restored before the flu epidemic struck. Emergency measures required separate dormitories to be allocated to those infected. At the Oxenham St campus, Kingswood House was used as an isolation ward. Sister Behrendorff was assisted by Richie Bonner,a past student and medical student, who tended to the patients each night. Some schools in Toowoomba closed for several weeks and one school principal became seriously ill. Because the Scots staff mostly avoided infection, we remained open, but parents were given the choice of collecting their children or leaving them in our care in our isolation wards. Our view was that to send them home would only serve to spread the flu across Queensland.

When all the students had left for home at the end of term, the term was not quite over. Ross McLellan, the Housemaster of Kingswood House, had conducted a search of the luggage of the Year 7 boys who attended Warwick East State School, but boarded at Scots PGC. He found several items of sports gear. Three boys had obtained keys to the sports store at Warwick East and at night had stolen these items. It was later discovered that they had also “borrowed” a bicycle from the storeroom at East to help them carry their loot. In true gangster fashion, they had then thrown it into the Condamine River. Two who were on their second chance were expelled and the third was suspended but allowed to continue at Scots. He completed Year 12 in due course. I had been informed in mid-afternoon and had about five hours to deal with the situation before I was due to leave for Sydney by bus. In that time, I had to inform the Chairman of Council of my decision and telephone three sets of parents. Needless to say, two sets of parents were most unhappy, as Scots PGC had been something of a last chance for these boys. Informing parents of the expulsion of their child was never easy, but in a couple of cases the parents were good enough to write to tell me that this forced them to face their problems and deal with them at home.

At the end of 1985 I had my only serious disagreement with Peggy Given. The visit of the Governor of Queensland, Sir Walter Campbell to the College required me to inform all staff and students of the protocols required for a vice-regal occasion. Peggy, an ardent feminist, refused to curtsey to Sir Walter, a family friend of long standing. In vain I argued that she would not be according that gesture to Wally, but to the Governor. The impasse remained until Sir Walter arrived at the PGC campus to open a new dormitory. I accompanied the Governor as he was introduced to each member of staff. We had not quite reached Peggy when he caught sight of her, bellowed, “Peggy” and rushed to embrace her. The rest of us had to obey protocol while the Wal and Peggy show rolled on.

Because of the size of Year 12 and the usual number of Year 10s leaving, it was necessary every year to find more than 130 new enrolments every year. To do this, we conducted a local story campaign. Whenever a student achieved something worthy the story was sent to the local paper where he or she lived – or at least that was the plan. Our publicity officer and I attended various events such as Agfest and visited Hong Kong, Malaysia and PNG. Just as I dreaded phone calls to tell me that a student would be leaving, I was delighted when a fresh enrolment form landed on my desk. One, in particular, intrigued me. It was an application from Vanuatu for a boy called Fraser Mackie. Nothing could be more Scottish. When Fraser arrived, instead of a strapping young redhead I saw a diminutive lad who could only be indigenous from a Pacific island. Fraser turned out to be a very clever soccer player and a popular member of the school. That reminds of an incident involving a Solomon Islander, whose nickname was Smokin’ Joe. One afternoon I came across him down by the riverbank in a cloud of cigarette smoke. As soon as he saw me he pulled his T-shirt over his head and ran off, exposing a broad band of very brown torso. I didn’t have to look far to find him.

One of the most significant events of my time at the college was the whole-school evaluation carried in 1988. This process required every group within the college from the students to the School Council to examine their own success in fulfilling their aims. At neither school where I oversaw this process did the governing bodies realise the full import of the exercise until they were handed the evaluation manual. Each group, including the Council, was required not only to judge their own performance but to make recommendations for improvement. A visiting committee of practicing teachers then spent a week at the school to judge the accuracy of the reports and in turn make recommendations. Those who prepared the school report were encouraged to avoid vague statements such as “improve communications” in favour of something like “start a daily bulletin” to be read in conjunction with roll call.” The recommendations concerning buildings and equipment were, over time, largely implemented. In 1990 $1,800,000 was spent on buildings, which included a boys’ dormitory, a new staff room, extensions to the administration block and renovation of the Assembly Hall. A classroom block, housing home science facilities and other classromms, costing $500,000 replaced an old timber building which was moved across the road. Perhaps more important than buildings were recommendations concerning the personal needs of the students. A survey showed that Year 8 boys, who moved from their own dormitory to the main campus were the least confident group in the school. A mentoring programme known as the Peer Support Programme was implemented. It aimed at encouraging senior students to act as mentors to juniors. The formal structure was to pair off each Year 8 student with a Year 11 student whose job it was to help the younger one. This idea was not unknown at the PGC campus. One period a week was set aside for the students to be divided into tutor groups where they could discuss matters of importance to them. The first cohort of those Year 8s had just reached Year 11 when I left the college. Sadly, the programme did not survive long after my departure. I believe that it would have been effective in reducing such bullying as existed in the school. The self-evaluation was also the catalyst for the formation of a Student Council, whose purview included community service, student welfare, discipline and entertainment.

The Visiting Committee also recommended that the college adopt a single badge and a common uniform. Various attempts that were made to combine the two badges failed, given the detail in each, to produce anything but a very fussy result. I decided to use the example of the coats of arms In British heraldry and based my design on two main symbols: the thistle for the girls and the Scottish lion for the boys, each given half of the shield. Superimposed was a small dark blue shield with the cross of St Andrew and the Southern Cross joining the two. This design was used as the logo for the 75th Anniversary celebrations in 1993 – as a kind of softening up process. The lion did not appear in the original Scots badge, but had been used by sporting teams as their emblem. In addition, the boys’ section of the college had used the Scottish flag with the red lion as their flag. There were still some past students with attachments to the old badges. Peggy Given, a former captain of PGC, might have been excused for being one of them. On the contrary, she once said to me, “If it’s the last thing you do, get a single badge.” On Speech Day, 1994 at my last official function, the student of longest standing and the youngest unveiled the new design. It was easy for my successor to introduce a navy blazer for all students.

In a boarding school, it is important to organize weekend activities to provide important experiences for the students. Of the college’s extra-curricular programme Basil Shaw, the author of the college history had this to say, “it is possible to take part in almost any sport if a few like-minded individuals can be identified.” Activities outside the normal run of team sports such as sailing, horse-riding, orienteering, canoeing and long-distance running were offered from time to time. A soccer team was organized at the request of overseas students, who were more used to this way of chasing a ball around a field. One significant change to the boys’ programme in 1989 was the return to Rugby Union from Rugby League. Membership of the Warwick Schools Sports Association provided an opportunity for our students to earn, as many did, a place in a Darling Downs team and from there to become a State representative. Additional opportunities were provided for girls when Scots PGC become a foundation member of the Independent Schools Association, which aimed at providing organized sport for girls, especially those in co-ed schools whose boys played in the T.A.S. competition. It would be remiss not to mention the clay target shooting team, which under the tutelage of the late Greg Newey, won the Winchester Shield for State-wide competition four times.

Excursions became more common, including visits to Toowoomba to see plays at the University of Southern Queensland and attendance at concerts by the musically inclined. In less prosperous times interstate and overseas trips were ruled to be inappropriate, but now Rugby sides regularly visited Armidale and even ventured as far as New Zealand. Not be outdone, the girls also undertook a hockey and netball tour of the Shaky Isles. In the 75th Anniversary year a group of cadets, pipers and drummers visited Scotland and England. During their visit to the depot of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, whose tartan they wore, our students met the Duke of Edinburgh.

The Cadet Unit, including its rifle-shooting team, was one of the college’s greatest successes. Both boys and girls were cadets. The unit passed a stern test when the final thirty minutes of the 1986 Passing out Parade was held In pouring rain and rumbling thunder without a single cadet flinching. A by-product of this event was that the leather fittings on the kilts gave way and a fund was launched to replace the pre-war kilts. At the 1991 Queensland Cadet Open Day the Unit was placed first out of 28 units. Having become an open unit, Scots PGC Cadet Unit (17 RCU) was fully funded by the government and membership was open to anyone in the community of the right age.

Front row: Karen Cook, Dougal Finlay, Major R. McGowan ACSM, Wayne Kajewski and Lee-Anne Sutherland

About 16 or 17 Warwick High students joined. Their request to carry the Warwick High flag at the Passing Out Parade was granted. It is no idle boast to say that under the masterful coaching of Reg McGowan, Scots PGC possessed the pre-eminent school small-bore rifle-shooting team in Queensland, if not Australia. Over the years, our team won a first, second and third place in the Ffennell Competition, which was open to cadet units from the UK and the former dominions. The winning team contained five boys and three girls. Scots PGC won the Governor-General’s Shield so often that the competition lapsed for want of other entries. Locally, the Bishop Kelly trophy was usually won by the college team. One of the highlights of the year was always the march into Warwick along the highway to the start point of the annual Anzac Day Parade and service. It has to be said that as fewer teachers became available for appointments as officers-of-cadets and the vacancies were filled by non-teachers, discipline at times lapsed in off-duty times during annual camp, a development which had to be addressed. The core of the problem was the Year 12 platoon, most of whom had no responsibilities. This platoon was split up and any Year 12 student who had not achieved at least the rank of corporal was discharged. This proved to be a beneficial change. After the next camp, the OC of another unit praised the unit on its improvement in tone and discipline.

The next five years would present many different challenges.

Ed: Part 2 of the Queensland years will be posted here on or about February 1.