NSW education week: Australia’s oldest school celebrates more than 200 years of learning

Jarrod Brown
Jarrod Brown

As NSW celebrates over 175 years of public education this week, Australia’s oldest school recalls a storied history, long before the state’s public education system took hold.

Starting as a church vestry in 1816, under instructions from Governor Lachlan MacquarieNewcastle East Public School (NEPS) was established to provide free education to all children in the then-fledgling town of Newcastle. 

The first school year consisted of only 17 children led by schoolmaster Henry Wrensford, a convict on a conditional pardon.

Fast-forward across two centuries, and the school takes the crown for Australia’s oldest school as it celebrates its 207th year in operation.

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Principal Mick McCann joined the school in 2016 as it celebrated its bicentenary and believes the school’s proud history is an integral part of its character.

“When I first applied for the job, I didn’t realise Newcastle East Public School was Australia’s oldest school,” Mr McCann said in an interview with the NSW Government earlier this year. 

“It wasn’t long after accepting the position that I became aware of just how important our history is and that it is an integral, everyday part of this school.”

banner of Newcastle East Public School heritage building

The school boasts a landmark heritage-listed building, built in 1878. The building now houses offices and computer labs but remains a symbol of the schools’ longstanding heritage, and features the school logo that adorns student uniforms. 

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“There are also artefacts all over the school celebrating our long history, including an honour board from World War One, which I have been told is quite unique in that it appears to have been a ‘living’ archive while the war was still on,” Mr McCann said.

NEPS joined the NSW public education system in 1883 – pre-dating the 1848 creation of the NSW public education sector by more than 30 years. Since then, more than 7000 government schools across the state have joined its ranks. 

Evolving education

Newcastle East Public School’s proud history of providing high-quality education to students stretches back to the earliest days of the settlement of Newcastle, Australia’s second oldest city.

With a journey that spans the invention of the telephone and the first working automobile in the late 1800s to the smart technological boom of the 2000s, the school’s story is undoubtedly one of evolution. 

Even after two centuries in service, Principal McCann told EducationDaily it’s that same evolution that’s enabled NEPS to continue to thrive.

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“As important as our history is, we are also looking towards the future. Since starting as principal, I’ve watched the school experience a massive evolution in a short amount of time,” he says. 

Constant upgrades to the heritage building over the years, Mr McCann told EducationDaily, have included new state-of-the-art buildings, improvements in technology, continual evolutions in the curriculum – and “the list goes on”.

“It’s thoughtful upgrades that make NEPS a place that students and teachers really want to come to,” he says. “From improvements in the level of our technology, to advancing classroom interiors, we are always striving to give students the highest standard of education.”

“While we are on the smaller side, we have been continuing to grow every year. Where we used to only have four classes 20 years ago, now we have eleven. And I’m hoping for eleven again next year.”

Looking to the future, Principal McCann said that the school’s main focus will be on easing students’ and teachers’ transition into the States new curriculum. 

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“We understand that everyone will be having a learning dip with the transition into the new curriculum,” he said. “Over the next couple of years, our main focus will be on giving teachers the resources they need to flatten that dip as much as possible and make sure that our kids are performing as best as they possibly can.”

Principal McCann says the school is lucky to have such a well-balanced and varied selection of passionate educators helming the school into a new evolution of education.

“With such an eclectic mix of amazing teachers and staff, we’re very confident we’ll be able to tick that box and keep moving forward to achieve the goals that we wanna achieve as a school”.

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Jarrod Brown combines his background in journalism, copywriting and digital marketing with a lifelong passion for storytelling. Jarrod established his journalism career working on the education news and information site The Bursar. He lives on the Sunshine Coast - usually found glued to the deck of a surfboard.