BRONWYN Agnew considers Newcastle East Public School as so much more than just her alma mater.
It is a common, ongoing thread between four passionate learners – her grandmother Winifred Winning, mother Betty Agnew, herself and her daughter Winifred Agnew-Pauley – who traversed the same streets to their much-loved school.
“I feel an enormous sense of pride to have been part of that tradition,” she said.
“I feel a great sense of ownership of the school and that comes with the connection of all four of us being part of it. But I also feel a sense of being offered a great gift in being able to start my learning life here.”
Ms Agnew has chronicled her family’s experiences at the school in a new book, To Climb The Hill: A People’s History of Newcastle East Public School 1816-2016.
Former prime minister Julia Gillard will launch the book on Saturday as part of Australia’s oldest continually running school’s bicentenary celebrations, which will span three days.
Principal John Beach has been at the school of 250 students since 2002 and said the community was “very excited” about celebrating the milestone after years of preparation.
“It’s very significant in the history of education in Australia,” he said.
“This is the country’s oldest school – there are no other schools going back as far as 1816 – and we believe it has national significance.
“Public education took a nation of people who were all illiterate to a country that’s got 99 per cent literacy and that’s virtually all through public schooling.”
The school was known as Newcastle Public Charity School when it opened in February 1816, in a slab hut near the corner of Watt and Bolton streets. Convict teacher Henry Wrensford delivered Bible-based lessons to 17 students, the children of convicts, free settlers, military officers and seamen.
The school went through a series of both name and location changes before opening at its current Tyrrell Street address in 1982.
Mr Beach said while the school was grateful that Edwin Braggett researched and wrote his PHD thesis about the first 150 years of the school in 1966, the time had come to compile a people’s history of the school from students and teachers perspectives.
“The experiences of the children reflect Australia’s social and economic history,” he said.
Betty Agnew, 86, attended the school from 1934 to 1941 and remembers classmates without shoes, sitting on the floor with slates and falling ill with whooping cough.