In 1931, Margaret J R Lyttle (known as Greta) began teaching five pupils in the living room of her home in Kew, in Melbourne’s inner east. Under the motto ‘Courage’, Greta soon established a following for her child-centred approach, and the nucleus of a school known as Preshil emerged.
Margaret J R Lyttle (Greta)
Greta’s niece Margaret E Lyttle (affectionately known by the children as Magpie, and later Mug) was one of the first to join Preshil’s teaching staff and recalls the school’s early days as happy if somewhat unorthodox:
“Our dining room was a sub-primary room and an old tram car nearby in the garden was a library for the primary aged children.”
All of this was quite illegal and worrying for the neighbours, explained a visiting school inspector. Nonetheless, he approved the registration of the school, declaring himself impressed with its program. Preshil was already attracting teachers who were ahead of their time. In 1933, Frances Durham, the legendary pioneer of art teaching, joined the school and began to explore new ways to encourage children to express themselves through art.
In 1937, growing numbers lead to the relocation of the junior school to its present site, Arlington campus, further along Barkers’ Road. Greta and Margaret continued to live at the school, welcoming a number of Jewish refugee children to join them. Margaret recalls teaching and watching over the children: “in those days, you were brought up to do things for other people”. Preshil’s core commitment to social awareness and justice is often traced back to this embrace of refugee families after the second world war.
When Greta died suddenly in 1944, Margaret assumed leadership of a school with a committed teaching staff and a growing number of children. Margaret remembers that her aunt’s death left the older children without their teacher, within a term of compulsory formal exams that would determine where they would continue their (senior) studies. Undaunted, the children finished their course themselves, working from approved texts and supporting each other. All were accepted into schools of their choice – an outstanding result under any circumstances. Preshil’s emphasis on personal responsibility and community had helped the children to succeed.
By 1948 there were 184 children at the school. By now, Margaret says “The staff had worked together for many years and there was a contented openness about the place. Classroom doors were always open, parents were regular and welcome visitors,” in contrast with the orthodox approach which kept parents at arms’ length. Margaret says “Skills were always important at Preshil. Above all, children want to be seen as being ‘normal’, like the kid next door. They also have enquiring minds and are challenged and stimulated by knowledge and ideas until adults either organize them out of these attitudes, or frighten them in some way into a need to conform.”
“Teachers were available to advise, help, show how, work with or stimulate, with children of all ages moving freely through the school. No bells rang to begin, and the end could be cloudy and gradual or when people were tired and needed a break.”
Through the 40s, 50s and 60s, Preshil continued to grow in both size and significance. Preshil is not only Australia’s oldest progressive school, but was also influential in the development of progressive pedagogy at the local, national and international levels. Seminal educationalists such as Alexander Neill, Dorothy Howard, Jean Stirrat, Oscar Oesor, June Factor, Dorothy Ross, Henry Schoenheimer and Elizabeth Hanby were influenced by Preshil, and the school’s child-centred and play-based learning is today recognised in mainstream pedagogy.
THE SENIOR SCHOOL
“For a long time, many of us had dreamt of being able to bring the Preshil ethos to our concept of secondary schooling We talked over Sunday barbeques, argued and discussed among ourselves and gathered support from educationalists, including John Leppitt (later head of Trinity Grammar) and Henry Scoenheimer (senior lecturer in Education at Monash University)” recalls Margaret. In the early 1970s these plans began to firm and the secondary school became a reality in 1973. Year 7 was housed first in the primary school hall, then later using space in Holy Trinity church in Kew and sharing some classes with Trinity Grammar.
In 1975 the grand old mansion Yallambee was purchased, followed by Blackhall (1978) and its neighbour Kalimna (1990). By 1978 the school extended through to year 12, and Preshil as a kinder to VCE school was born.
Despite its growth from its humble beginnings in Greta Lyttle’s living room, the school continued to see itseld as unique. Says Margaret: “A number of schools are now trying desperately to re-establish some sense of famile and community by sending adolescents out for unfortunately brief visits to kindergartens and primary schools. Preshil is attempting to develop, without strain or conscious effort, a kind of family living that keeps the adolescent very naturally in close communion with children of all levels.”
Margaret Lyttle was made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1989 for her services to education. After 50 years as Principal, Margaret retired in 1994. In honour of her extraordinary leadership, vision and achievement, Preshil was dedicated ‘the Margaret Lyttle Memorial School’.
Preshil celebrated its 80th birthday in 2011, and marks Margaret E Lyttle’s 100th birthday in 2012.
Today, Preshil remains true to its founding principles – engaging with each child as an individual, and building personal responsibility, self esteem, resilience, initiative, creativity and courage.
Under the leadership of Principal Marilyn Smith, and with the support of Council, teachers and the Preshil community, the school is undertaking a range of investments and improvements to ensure the school remains at the cutting edge of educational practice in the 21st century.
Our motto, ‘courage’, continues to be a hallmark of Preshil graduates as they make their way in the world.