It’s not often that you get the opportunity to revisit the past in a significant way. I’m probably fortunate in that I’ll have that opportunity in a few weeks when I return to Townsville after an absence of nearly thirty years. I worked as a principal in special schools in Queensland for eighteen years, but my first appointment in that role was to a new special school called the Mundingburra South Special School, to be opened at the beginning of the 1981 school year and located in a building in Burt Street Mundingburra.
At that time, there were actually four special schools in Townsville. They were Aitkenvale Special School, Cootharinga Special School, the Endeavour Special School in North Ward, and Townsville West Special School in Wilson Street. The first and last of these were state special schools, originally called “opportunity” schools. Cootharinga and Endeavour Special Schools were both originally training centres set up by private charitable organisations called the Queensland Sub-normal Children’s’ Association and the North Queensland Crippled Children’s’ Society respectively. At the time of their creation, these schools catered for children with severe and multiple impairments considered ineligible for enrolment in state special schools.
During, and immediately after the Whitlam era, comprehensive human rights legislation was introduced federally which began to markedly improve the lives of people with disabilities. By the 1980s, this legislation was beginning to take effect and the states had begun the process of developing their structures to provide educational access for all. The previous training centres were becoming the responsibility of the relevant state authorities. By 1981, the two Townsville centres previously run by the charitable foundations had been staffed by teachers paid by Education Queensland, although the buildings they occupied remained the property of the foundations.
In the case of Cootharinga, the school had grown over the years to the point where its original buildings at North Ward were inadequate, and an interim decision had been made for the school to be relocated into the administrative centre on the same property, which was a two-story building with a lift. Whilst this worked reasonably well, the lift was an issue, as it could not be used during a fire, and timely evacuation of the wheelchair-bound classes on the upper floor was problematical. A decision was made, that subject to funding, a new purpose-built school would be developed off the North Ward site on state land in Thompson Street Mundingburra.
In the meantime, and whilst project planning was underway for this new school, overcrowding problems at Cootharinga would be partially alleviated by the commissioning of a new small school in Burt Street Mundingburra. This was the school which I opened in January 1981 as Mundingburra South Special School as teaching principal. The building is now the site of the Mundingburra South Preschool. During 1982, in my second year as principal of the “overflow” school, Alwyn Thomas, (principal of Cootharinga Special School at the time), and I were seconded to produce a design brief for the buildings for the proposed new school, which now accommodates the Townsville Community Learning Centre.
This detailed brief was expected to outline the physical and curriculum needs of the students, and to explain the required built environment in terms that Treasury officials and architects would understand. It was a considerable and comprehensive task, and the deadline for completion was semester two 1982. I was replaced in my school to allow time to complete the task, but Alwyn wasn’t, as he did not have a teaching load. We completed the task by the deadline, and it was sent off to the Director of Public Works (now called Q Build) to be costed. We were disappointed to be told at the end of 1982 that there were insufficient funds to build the school, and both Alwyn and I were appointed to special schools in Redlands and Petrie respectively in 1983, and we left Townsville.
I was excited to be told at the end of 1985 that I was to be sent north again to close Cootharinga Special School, and to open the replacement school in Thompson Street Mundingburra, to be called Mundingburra Special School, for the 1987 school year. The required $2.8 million to fund the project had obviously been found. In 1986, the board of the Cootharinga Society was not as enthusiastic about the relocation as was Education Queensland. There was a body of opinion that the new school would be a white elephant. Some on the board believed that it would be impossible to send sixty plus children daily offsite to a school remote from their residential institution. In a conversation at the time, one of the more senior board members of the Society insisted that the bulk of the children at Cootharinga were “unreceptive to education”.
A great deal of liaison was necessary with the matron and care staff at the residential to solve the problems presented by the demands of the relocation. We used the 1986 school year to work on these issues one by one. Teachers came to work early and went into the residential with our physiotherapist and occupational therapist to train the nursing and care staff in techniques which made the care tasks less demanding. In addition, the limited independence skills many of the children possessed were developed as much as possible. Care staff came into the school to observe and assist in physical care activities. A spinoff was the improvement in relationships between care and teaching staff. We also encouraged visits of residential staff to the construction site during the latter half of 1986 as the buildings took shape. The aerial shot above shows the complex now. It must have been taken in the dry.
By the end of 1986, the Cootharinga Society officially supported the development of the new school, and all the children, with the exception of a handful of students with life threatening conditions were slated to attend in 1987. The staff appointed to the new school at the beginning of 1987 were, with one exception, in their first or second year of teaching. The energy and enthusiasm of this group of young teachers was an enormous advantage in setting up and operationalising programmes in the new school. The official opening took place in term 3 1987. The Minister for Education at the time (Hon. Lin Powell) described the opening as a great event for the Townsville community.
I was very fortunate to enjoy six years as principal at Mundingburra Special School and remain in touch with the enthusiastic cohort of teachers who established the school during the first few years of its life. A number of them went on to pursue distinguished careers in special education and academia. They were an amazing bunch, and it was an honour to have led them in this exciting enterprise. It was rewarding to for me to learn in 1997 when I was in a regional management position in another region, that one of the foundation students (who was one of the group of children considered too delicate to move to the new school and had been given six months to live in 1986), was graduating. She had attended Mundingburra from 1987 on and was moving into a semi-independent living situation.
The original school will always have a special place in my heart.