The magic of learning at Australia’s oldest school

As we mark 175 years of public education in NSW this year, Billy Kos meets a principal whose school was educating students well before the public system began.

Image: Moving with the times: Newcastle East Public School has been educating students since 1816.

Public education in NSW began in January 1848 after Governor Fitzroy appointed the Board of National Education to undertake the task of creating government schools and establishing a public education system.

Since then, more than 7,000 government schools have been in existence across the State at one time or another.

But one NSW public school has stood the test of time, earning it the title of Australia’s oldest continually operational school.

Newcastle East Public School started off as a charity school inside a church vestry in 1816, under instructions from Governor Lachlan Macquarie, to provide free education to all children in Newcastle, whether they were children of convicts or free settlers.

Henry Wrensford, a convict on a conditional pardon, was the first teacher and educated 17 convict children aged from three to 13 years.

Newcastle East Public School joined the NSW public education system in 1883.

Principal Mick McCann, who joined the school in 2016 in the year of its bicentenary, said its proud history was an integral part of the school’s identity.

“When I first applied for the job, I didn’t realise Newcastle East Public School was Australia’s oldest school,” Mr McCann said.

“It wasn’t long after accepting the position that I became aware of just how important our history is and that it is an integral, everyday part of this school.

The school office and five classrooms are in a heritage-listed building that was built in 1878. This building and the establishment year, 1816, are part of the school logo and features on school uniforms.

“There are also artefacts all over the school celebrating our long history, including an honour board from World War One which I have been told is quite unique in that it appears to have been a ‘living’ archive while the war was still on,” Mr McCann said.

Today, as the school enters its 207th year, Newcastle East Public School maintains the highest standards of quality education and a strong connection to its local community.

“Our teachers go above and beyond to make the connections you need with students and their families to enable the magic of learning to happen,” Mr McCann said.

“And beyond the classroom, our school is the heart of our local community, with many families visiting our grounds outside of school hours to enjoy our play spaces.

“I believe it’s this combination of quality learning and strong connections between staff, students and families that makes Newcastle East Public School so great.”

And 2022 school captains Heath Bailey Hepburn and Iggy Bailey agree that the best thing about Australia’s oldest school is its tight-knit school community.

“Everyone knows each other and that creates such a great atmosphere. It is such a special thing you can’t find at many other schools,” Heath said.

“One of the things I’ve liked about NEPS is that it is a small school which means you will know every face in the playground,” Iggy added.

“This means that you are never alone – at NEPS the kids look out for each other.”

  • 175 years
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