The experiences of migrant children in the Catholic primary school in Victoria in the 1950s and 1960s


Creaser, Christine Mary. (2015) The experiences of migrant children in the Catholic primary school in Victoria in the 1950s and 1960s [Thesis].
AuthorsCreaser, Christine Mary
Qualification nameDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Very little research has been undertaken into the Catholic primary school as it existed in Melbourne in the 1950s and 1960s. At this time, all over Australia, the infrastructure (which included school buildings) had been allowed to decline in order to allow everything to be directed towards the war effort. The situation that children all over Australia faced in their schools comprised outdated buildings and very little resources. There were insufficient teachers as fewer had been trained during the Second World War, and conditions were a long way from ideal. This was also the situation in government schools, but in Catholic schools it was much worse because there was no government funding to help to re-establish class rooms and provide needed resources. The end of the War brought the soldiers back to Australia resulting in a marked rise in the birth rate, which in turn brought a large increase in the numbers of children needing to begin school from the 1950s onward. Add to this situation, the arrival, from the late 1940s of thousands of refugees and displaced persons from Europe, the large number of whom were non-English speaking. More than fifty per cent of these migrants professed an association with the Catholic Church and were thereby in need of a Catholic education for their children. At the same time, the numbers of women entering the religious life was growing much more slowly than the numbers of children needing a Catholic education. The sum total of all these factors occurring simultaneously resulted in huge class sizes, insufficient quantities and quality of teaching resources, inadequate school buildings, either because of their age in inner city areas or because in new, outer suburban suburbs, there were no schools and such things as church halls or temporary buildings had to be used. Such was the need for teachers, that teacher training was often hastened so that classes would have a teacher. On top of all this, no provision was made for the teaching of English to those children whose first language was not English. None of the teachers, either in Catholic schools or government schools, had any idea of how to go about this and all expected the children to pick it up as they went along. Teachers coped as best they could to manage the situations in which they found themselves. This chaotic situation is what prompted the researcher to undertake a study to try to understand what the migrant children, in particular, experienced in order to gain an education. From such an oral history project, it was hoped: to gain some understanding of the situation in the Catholic education system at the time of peak migration in the 1950s and 1960s together with the changes which occurred at this time, and; to try to understand the situation under which the teaching Religious were working; to try to understand the experiences of the migrant children who were undertaking their primary school education at that time. Because there were so many migrant groups arriving in Australia at that time, the task of studying representative samples of all of them is far too large for a study of this kind, so a decision needed to be made as to which ethnic groups should be part of the project. The Italian was the largest group, but there has been a volume of study already undertaken about them. The next largest group was the Greek, but as they follow Orthodox beliefs, they were unlikely to be looking for a Catholic education for their children. The next two groups, both much smaller than the Greeks and the Italians, were about the same size. These were the Polish and the Maltese and it was decided that both groups could be studied and perhaps it could be determined not only what life had been like for them in a new country where the way of life was so different to what they had experienced in their home country and where they could not understand the language, but if they had experienced their transitions to Australia in the same way. An oral history project was decided as being the best way to gather the information needed, allowing the interviewees to tell their stories without being confined to the boundaries of a questionnaire. This would allow interviewees to describe events and situations of which the researcher was not aware. Investigations were undertaken to determine what the backgrounds were to each ethnic group’s lives in their respective countries of origin. What the situation was like in Australia at that time was also investigated. The researcher needed to know in what physical conditions the immigrants lived when they first arrived and what the financial situation of the family as well as the number of children in the family and where the interviewee fitted in the family. The physical situation in which they were schooled was considered important and what they learned from their teachers. The researcher believed it was relevant to find out what conditions were like in the school from the teachers’ point of view, to enable the broadest understanding of what the children experienced. Finding migrants who had attended a Catholic primary school in the 1950s and 1960s was much more difficult than anticipated and eventually the snowball method of sampling was employed. In this approach, the interviewee who had responded to the initial requests for interviews which were made through ethnic organisations and clubs, and through the church newspapers, were asked to recommend others of their ethnic group to become interviewees. Social encounters sometimes resulted in more suitable references, thus more snowballing as more suggested interviewees were recruited. The teaching sisters were found by sending letters to each of those orders who had been responsible for providing sisters to teach in Catholic schools, requesting interviewees willing to talk about their experiences. Several of the sisters from these orders agreed to be interviewed. How they managed to cope under the very difficult situations in which they found themselves, adds to the picture. A list of questions was drawn up to set the direction of the interviews not to be a rigid path to follow. From here interviewees were encouraged to talk about their personal experiences and what they felt about their primary school life. Each of the interviews was carefully dissected to find out what the common experiences were and what factors most impinged on the stories. Experiences to more than one interviewees were considered most important, and what the sisters talked about enhanced the whole picture. From this research project, it was hoped that a better understanding of what the post-war child immigrants to Australia experienced as they settled, would be illustrated. Although many advances have been made in teaching migrant children and of the need to teach them English as a second language, rather than letting them learn from the other children, it is the more personal experiences of ‘slings and arrows’ that can be transferred to today’s migrants, so that we can teach them with more understanding.

PublisherACU Research Bank
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research GroupSchool of Education
Final version
Publication dates01 Jan 2015
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