Community ties are the ones that bind

Loyalty to her old school is helping Carol Oataway lead Hay Public School through some tough times.

Image: Carol Oataway leads the primary school she attended as a student.

In 1872, the bustling country town of Hay was proclaimed a municipality, and the town built its first bridge over the Murrumbidgee River.

With its stores and hotels, a court-house and a Cobb & Co coach factory, Hay was an important hub for rural workers and squatters.

That same year, little Alice Scriffin attended her first class at Hay Public School. By the time she was an adult, Hay’s population had reached about 3,000.

Today, Alice’s great grand-daughter, Carol Oataway, is the school’s principal. The family connection to the school runs deep. Ms Oataway and her sister followed in their father and grandfather’s footsteps when they attended the local primary school in the 1960s. Three generations of the family – Ms Oataway’s father, sister and niece – have been Dux of the school.

Although she didn’t plan it this way, Ms Oataway began her teaching career at her old primary school. Then, after working at a number of other rural and regional schools around the state, she returned in 2005 as assistant principal, and was appointed principal three years later.

Hay has changed over the years. The population has slipped to about 2,000, there are fewer bank branches, and the cinema has closed. Thanks to the drought and changes in the farming community, student enrolments have halved over the past decade as families moved away.

But the school continues to play an important role in the town, providing stable incomes to those families who have a family member employed there, and helping ease student anxiety thanks to a social worker Ms Oataway has employed at the school.

“Hay is still a very close-knit community; people look out for each other and help you if you need it,” she says.

“But there are less services here than when I grew up. I have fond memories of what we had and it is a bit sad because the kids growing up here now don’t know how that feels.”

There were no teachers in her family but Ms Oataway’s desire to teach was sparked early when her father came home one day with a full-sized classroom black board and a cubby house for his daughters.

“He put a school desk in there and from then, all we ever did was play school. It was like I had been practicing for quite a while,” she remembers.

Her conviction that teaching would be her career firmed during high school. Knowing that her parents could not afford to send her to university, she knuckled down in her final two years to secure a teacher scholarship.

“I had to work pretty hard to get that,” she said.

“I was one of those kids who loved school, who loved the structure and routine of school. I liked my teachers and I respected them. I guess that all helped but I didn’t have anyone who influenced me or pushed me towards teaching.”

Image: A younger Carol Oataway with her school mates in Hay.

When Ms Oataway was waiting for her first teaching placement, she told the Department of Education she would work anywhere in NSW.

“As fortune had it, I was placed at Hay Public School, which was a bit of a shock because it was my home town.”

Stints at Pottsville Beach Public School on the far north coast, Attunga Public School north of Tamworth, and Lightning Ridge Central School in the state’s outback followed.

“When I was teaching at Lightning Ridge, I helped the younger teachers, and I realised I had something to offer … It took that to make me realise I could be more than a classroom teacher,” she recalls.

Ms Oataway draws on her past for her work at Hay Public School.

“It is an interesting feeling leading the school that you attended as a child. I think I am more emotionally invested in the school. I have had five generations of my family attend the school, so I have my heart in it.

“It has always been a good school and I want to keep that tradition going. Growing up in this community, I know the people, they trust me and know I have the best interests of their children at heart. I think that deep knowledge helps me in my job.”

Ms Oataway’s vision is to provide every child “with a really great education that will hold them in good stead for the rest of their life, and that will open up opportunities for them, to show them there is a big wide world out there and that they can go and explore different things”.

  • Old school ties
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