8 September 2023

Joyeux anniversaire! Canberra's oldest school - that was also a hospital for nine days - is turning 100

| James Coleman
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Telopea Park School

Telopea Park School is having a birthday! Photo: National Library of Australia.

It’s worth taking a few days to celebrate a milestone of 100 years.

At least that’s what Jason Holmes thought as the principal of Canberra’s oldest continuously operating school.

Monday, 11 September, marks 100 years since a large crowd, including 600 children, gathered outside Telopea Park School in Barton to watch the Federal Minister for Trade and Customs, Sir Austin Chapman, cut the ribbon to officially open the school.

Not only that, but 2023 is also 40 years since the ACT signed a deal with the French Government to provide bilingual education at the school.

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Ex-students, staff and dignitaries from the ACT Education Directorate and the French Government attended a reception dinner last night (8 September). There will be tours of the school today and a community picnic tomorrow.

For the return to school on Monday, students can look forward to an alternative timetable with an assembly in the morning to “wish the school happy birthday”, followed by a drone shot of the students forming the numbers 100 and 40.

This will also represent the “many faces of the school” because there’s a lot more to Telopea than age alone.

Telopea Park School today. Photo: Telopea Park School Parents and Citizens Association, Facebook.

Jason is relatively new, starting as Telopea’s 13th principal in 2021, but he’s taught at local schools since 1994. He says there’s pressure to maintain the “really strong reputation” Telopea has gained locally, nationally and internationally.

“There’s a bit of pressure to make sure we’re doing the very best we can for our school community, and also taking into consideration the complexity of a school with its Intergovernmental Agreements – making sure we’re honouring those and making the most of those as well.”

Cecil Henry was Telopea’s first principal and one of only two staff members when it opened in 1923. Total students numbered a mere 58, but by the end of the year, this had leapt to 120. Two years later, 11 teachers were catering for about 400 students spread across both primary and secondary sections.

“That’s remarkable,” Jason adds.

“As is the fact some really prominent organisations like CIT and the ANU actually had their beginnings here in the school buildings.”

In 1930, the Canberra University College, forerunner to the Australian National University (ANU), opened in the school premises after hours.

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The NSW Government ran all the public schools in the ACT until 1973 when the ACT Schools Authority took over. It was a time of upheaval for the school, and in the early 1980s, enrolments were dwindling to the point there was talk Telopea Park would close.

The idea of combining with a French bilingual school reared its head as the solution.

On 4 July 1983, representatives from the Australian and French governments sat down in the Assembly Hall to sign “An Agreement between the Government of Australia and the Government of the French Republic Concerning the Establishment of a French-Australian School in Canberra (Telopea Park School)”.

“I love all the different faces of the school,” Jason says.

“So it’s not just been a primary school or a high school, but it’s been combinations of those things at various times.”

Telopea Park School

Telopea Park School assembly, 1927. Photo: Canberra Museum and Gallery.

The list of alums is impressive too, from former prime minister Gough Whitlam (who even kept a photo of himself as a student at Telopea by his bedside at a nursing home) to mountain climber Lincoln Hall, internationally acclaimed pianist Lisa Moore and Australian Rules player Alex Jesaulenko.

“There have been quite a few high-profile people, but when you look behind the scenes, the number of really high-level professionals who have come through the school and are making a difference in their fields is pretty impressive as well.”

Telopea wasn’t always a school, either.

When Parliament House opened in 1927, the buildings were transformed into a temporary hospital for nine days (which Jason says he “can’t imagine would happen in today’s climate”). It was put to use a few days later when a plane nose-dived into one of the nearby fields during a flying formation.

biplanes in Canberra

Opening ceremony for Parliament House. Photo: National Archives of Australia.

Flying officer Francis Ewan was rushed to the school, and although he died later at the main hospital in Acton, his ghost is said to frequent room 22 at the school. Students claim the door swings open on its own, and there’s a “strange” smell in the air.

“I’ve never experienced anything there, thankfully,” Jason says.

Nowadays, total students number about 1400, including children and grandchildren of former students. Jason has his work cut out for him.

“It’s a very unique place,” he says.

“My goal is to make sure the reputation continues to grow and that we continue to offer great learning opportunities for our students and great community connections.”

To learn more about the celebrations, visit Telopea Park School.

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Harley Quinn7:49 pm 10 Sep 23

Terrible school when I was there, but congratulations nonetheless

old canberran5:03 pm 09 Sep 23

I would have thought St John’s schoolroom would hold the title of oldest school. The church was built in 1841

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