The word “alternative” is often used to describe the education offered at Preshil. Whilst it may be correct to say that Preshil offers an alternative to the education offered at many other schools, to refer to Preshil as an “Alternative School” does not give a clear picture of what Preshil has to offer and indeed may be misleading.

The term “Alternative School” has come to refer to an amorphous collection of schools that has widely different philosophies. In the minds of many, the term “Alternative School” conjures images of hippies from the Sixties, caftans, airy-fairy ideas, weirdos, loose structures, undisciplined children and undisciplined minds. This association is no more true about our friends in Alternative Schools than it is about Preshil.

Preshil does not need the adjective “alternative” to describe the education it offers. Preshil lies clearly within the progressive education movement and is Australia’s oldest surviving Progressive School.

What is the Progressive Education movement?

The progressive education movement was started in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by groups of educators reacting against traditional education, which was seen as authoritarian, repressive and failing both the child and society. It was a broad movement for educational reform. Experimental schools, which challenged the traditional view of education, were set up in the USA, Europe and in Australia, and eventually led to educational reform. Margaret J R Lyttle (the founder of Preshil) was part of this movement.

The proponents of the progressive education movement were variously influenced by the writings, amongst others, of Jen Jacques Rousseau, JF Herbart, Johann Pestalozzi, John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Friedrich Froebel and AS Neil.

Although many of the “progressive” ideas appear to us, in the twenty-first century as unexceptional, they were extremely radical at their inception, being developed at a time when children were still perceived as property of their parents (in particular the father) and the “rights of the child” had not appeared on the radar of public debate. Margaret E Lyttle, the niece of Margaret J R Lyttle and principal of Preshil for fifty years, was a great advocate for children and was recognised for her services to education by being made a member of the Order of Australia on 12 June 1989.

The progressive education movement is still continuing in various schools throughout the world. In the twenty-first century there has been renewed interest in Japan, Israel, South Korea and the countries of South America.

What are the features of a progressive education?

The dominant ideas reflected to a greater or lesser degree in “progressive” schools are:

  • The child is not an empty vessel to be filled up with information. The primary root of all educational activity comes from the active participation of the child in the education process.
  • Free play is essential to the full development of the child.
  • Education should aim for the development of the whole child: social, emotional, physical, psychological and not just academic.
  • Meaningful education depends on the experiential learning – learning through doing.
  • Whilst rejecting utilitarian education, there is an emphasis on manual arts and respect for the artisan.
  • Respect for nature and the environment. Most schools were developed in a garden setting, some incorporated agrarian or other farming activities.
  • Emphasis on social education, learning in groups, cooperation, interdependence.
  • The child should be expected to develop independent thought and should become a questioning and critical thinker.
  • Democratic education for a free society; children should participate in the decisions that affect their lives. This may include the curriculum, and/or the management of the school.
  • Rejection of competition between children, the giving of prizes and marks, and standardisation.
  • Development of self-discipline, rejection of externally imposed discipline.
  • The curriculum should be geared to what is known about child development and not examination bodies.
  • The development of the child should be along natural lines (Froebel). Education should assist natural growth and development.
  • Co-education; girls and boys should be educated together, reflecting society.
  • An integrated curriculum, as opposed to a fragmented curriculum.
  • Non-denominational.

Those involved in progressive education agree that “it is not what you put into the child, but what you draw out that constitutes education” BH Montgomery, Head of King Alfred School, London, 1945-1962.

Preshil's Mandate

For Preshil, its chief objective as stated in the constitution of the Preshil Association is:

To provide for girls and boys from pre-school age a progressive education by which they are helped to develop naturally along their own lines and to provide opportunities for members of the teaching staff and others to become familiar with and practise such new and progressive methods of education as a changing society requires.

For over 80 years Preshil has been assisting children to develop “naturally along their own lines”. Students stand up year after year at their graduation Valedictory Dinner and thank the school and staff saying “Thank you for letting me be me”. Similarly, parents express appreciation, thanking Preshil for supporting and encouraging their child to be him or herself.

There is nothing woolly, airy-fairy, weird, loose or undisciplined about a Preshil education. On the contrary, it is highly challenging, exacting and demanding both for teachers and their students.