Our history is instructive when predicting the future of Canberra Girls Grammar School

Posted 27 March 2020 12:42pm

Last week, in an interview with ABC radio, a 96-year-old local resident described the qualities she believed, in her experience, have underpinned our society in times of greatest adversity. These qualities, she said, were kindness to others, resilience and being hope-filled people.

In early January, we, at Canberra Girls Grammar School, followed closely the advance of the bushfires - which ravaged so many communities - and kept on monitoring the air quality in our city so we could ensure the children attending our ELC and holiday programs were safely cared for.

The first weeks of the term were similarly dominated by making decisions around ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our students and staff at a range of events, as the country battled the bushfires. Just when we thought we were safe, an unusual hail storm caused havoc for many families. And then the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) started rapidly spreading around the world. As we reflect on the last couple of weeks, the local, national and international landscape has entered a realm and scale that none of us have experienced. The situation so serious that the Australian Government has put most of the country on lockdown to minimise the spread of the virus among the population – with schools having to explore alternative methods of teaching and learning remotely and even preparing to eventually close their campuses.

But, has our School not seen trying circumstances before? Has CGGS not faced difficulties because of major events beyond our control?

A dive into our records and a conversation with two of our mature and much wiser Grammarians, Margaret Cornwell and Dawn Waterhouse, we discovered that – to our knowledge - the School has experienced an unscheduled closure and has certainly faced challenges in our history.

There were times of financial difficulty during the Depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Back then, when the school was known as St Gabriel's, the Community of the Sisters of the Church struggled to retain enrolments from rural families who were unable to afford the fees. By 1932, the Sisters were £20,000 in debt, leading Bishop Radford to seek a donation from the General Synod of the Church of England. The request was denied, leading Bishop Radford to quote:

 'I ask for bread, only half a loaf, not a basket of stones. Please do not offer me stones of criticism as a substitute for bread.'

In October 1932, the Sisters decided to close the School at the end of the year.

Simply shutting the doors temporarily until the Depression passed was not the answer because of the depreciation, which would inevitably ensue. They decided to withdraw completely in order to concentrate on their other five schools.

Jill Waterhouse, A Light in the Bush

However, the Parents & Friends Association, formed in July 1932 and headed by Canon Charles Shearer Robertson, rallied to raise funds from the community to keep the School open. Encouragement was warmly provided by all sectors of the Canberra and regional NSW communities, including not only fellow Anglicans but also members of the Roman Catholic and Greek communities. They vowed never to find themselves in this situation again.

As always in the history of CGGS, many small acts of generosity, assistance, support and kindness from our wider community have allowed the School to remain functioning even when faced with great challenges, including the Great Depression, World War II and two infantile paralysis or poliomyelitis epidemics in the 1940s and in 1954. In 1952, the school closed temporarily because of the threat of a bushfire, re-opening soon after.

Historically, we have risen to the challenges and have come out the other side, stronger and wiser.

In many ways, we have been lucky to count among our supporters, generous, committed friends with a strong conviction in our School. One of those special supporters who have helped our School meet many of those challenges has been the Gabriel Foundation. Founded in 1980, the Gabriel Foundation has not only been financially generous to the School but equally significant in offering us extraordinary wisdom, leadership and good governance. The Gabriel Foundation takes the long view that we, as we have done before, will move through this challenge. Changed, yes, but we will prevail because our core business is education, and we invest in the education of young people and young adults.

Today, in order to continue providing our students with excellent learning experiences, we have in place a remote teaching and learning model. We are acutely aware of the enormity of the changes around the School. The students are the life of the School and not to have them here is deeply saddening. Yet, we are resilient and will continue to respond to the challenges as they arise.

We draw strength from those who have come before us and who had to cope with hugely challenging times throughout our collective history. Our motto, in these difficult days, takes on greater meaning: Iuventuti Nil Arduum – ‘To the young, nothing is difficult.’ To the young and to those a bit older(!) we must be hope-filled, kind to each other and resilient in the coming weeks and months.

Contributors: Anna Owen, Peter Milligan, Clair Murray, Rebecca Golding and Claudia Doman.

Photo at top: Taken in 1937
Front row: Lorna Parr (1938), Pam Eddison (1939), Olive Robertson (1937), Jean Shepherd (1939), Nancy Zouch (1939)
Back row: Joan Allen (1937), Joan Reid (1939), Joy Edwards (1936)