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Dubbo School of distance education

Education / June 20, 2017

The idea of correspondence lessons for children originated in Australia as a means of meeting the quest to provide educational facilities in sparsely populated areas of the country. New South Wales was the first to adopt the method at least in theory during the 1880's as part of their operation of half time schools. Teachers in their absence from their two respective schools were required to leave lessons for 'the continuance of learning'. However, existing evidence suggests the theory did not become practice in this context. In effect, it was not until 1908 with the emergence of travelling schools that correspondence lessons were incorporated as part of a learning regime.NSW Dept of Public Instruction No. 1 Travelling School.(Vis. 1)

Aurthur Biddle, the first appointee to these schools devised a workable correspondence method an co- opted the services of literate adults to assist in the implementation.

During the war years, and with the closure of small bush schools, Biddle's method was transposed to the Bridge Street headquarters of the Department of Public Instruction whereby the Inspector Stephen Smith undertook the work as the need arose, early in 1916. Indicative of the need for such a service, The Correspondence School, as it was soon entitled grew apace, it's progress hampered only by wartime finances and dire lack of space in the metropolitan area. This forced the fragmentation of the school into four separate, small correspondence schools until larger accommodation was obtainable. In 1922, secondary pupils were permitted enrolment and in July 1924, the schools were amalgamated and housed in the former Teacher's College at Blackfriars in Sydney with 2335 pupils under the tutelage of 47 teachers.

Walter Finigan, the first Principal, put in place some insightful methods. He personally devised a numeric and graded leaflet system, each leaflet covering most prescribed subjects and by doing so set the pattern for teaching each child 'individually and sequentially'. 1933 Correspondence Schools Broadcasts were introduced courtesy of the ABC.

Harry Kellerman (Deputy) on the left and Walter Finigan (Principal) on the right conducting correspondence lessons in 1932. (Vis. 2)

In 1935, the Correspondence School magazine 'Outpost' was first published, providing a progressive account of the school's development. Its high ideal was to unite enrolled pupils which then totalled 5778, and former pupils in the camaraderie of overcoming isolation. In 1938 Blackfriars, as it was affectionately known, gained international renown when Mr Finigan delivered the opening address at the First International Conference on Correspondence Education held in Canada. Again, in 1946, it was the subject of a UNESCO film, 'School in the Mailbox'. Indeed, Blackfriars became the model on which other nations based their own correspondence systems. By 1959, under the leadership of Harry Kellerman, the school reached its peak enrolment of 7420, the 1960's bringing steady decline in numbers concomitant with increased wealth allowing children to go to boarding schools and improved roads linking families with larger country schools. During this period, Australian students living overseas and travellers were permitted enrolment.

With the introduction of the Wyndham scheme in 1961, single subjects were offered to students who were unable to complete elected subjects at their local schools. The Department prided itself on the success of the Wyndham Scheme which had been made possible by the availability of the Correspondence School to offer its services to the wider student populace. It represented the exhaustion of correspondence school services which had been historically preceded by the supply of leaflets to subsidized schools from1932 and to the army in 1941.

On his retirement in 1949, Finigan bemoaned he did not see the implementation of a 'system of bringing teachers closer to pupils'. However, the process was to begin only 7 years later. In 1956 Mrs Phylis Gibb set up the School of the Air in Broken Hill. It was modelled on the Katherine School of the Air in the Northern Territory using the Royal Flying Doctor Service radio network. Even though it was as far to the west of the state as Sydney was to the east, pupils remained enrolled in the Correspondence School. With these circumstances prevailing, Mrs Gibb provided what amounted to an adjunct to correspondence lessons sent from Sydney. In the early 1970's after the Correspondence School had moved to larger premises in William Street, Kings Cross, more potent attempts to decentralise resulted in the setting up of experimental and autonomous satellite schools in Nyngan, Bourke, Cobar and Walgett. These centres combined the use of the radio contact and correspondence lessons.

The weight of enrolments in the latter 3 schools brought buoyancy to the decentralised movement, success proven by their ability to bring educational services closer to the children they served. By the mid 1980's recommendations were muted as to the complete decentralisation of the Correspondence School, the 'monolithic giant', a testimonial remnant to a highly centralised Department philosophy, eventually closing its doors in December 1990. A new era of the decentralised provision of Distance Education began in January, 1991 with the simultaneous opening of 11 new centres spread across New South Wales. Dubbo School of Distance Education was one of these centres.


  • Vis. 1: The Travelling School c. 1910 Dept. of Education Archives, Parramatta. Travelling Schools File
  • Vis. 2: Walter Finigan and Maurice Kellerman at the radio. 1938 in 'The Outpost: The Magazine of the Blackfriars Correspondence School. Vol. 4 Dec. 1938.