After school ended on Monday, 10 August 1891, about forty female teachers from Brisbane and suburbs gathered at the Central State School in Adelaide Street. It was an historic moment - the commencement of the first training course for early childhood teachers in Queensland, under the guidance of Miss Mary Ann Agnew, the newly appointed Instructress in Kindergarten for the Department of Public Instruction.
During that first week, six different classes were formed with 227 primary school teachers. Each class met one day a week, after school or on Saturday morning, over a period of eight months. Under the guidance of Miss Agnew, they were introduced to the relatively new and strange educational ideas and implements advocated by Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852), the father of the 'kindergarten'. The key premise of the kindergarten technique was the belief that the child's moral-actional nature is good-active rather than bad-passive. The educational implications of this basic idea were described by Queensland's Inspector-General of schools, R.H. Roe, in 1909:
Froebel's school is a garden in which each child is a plant, possessing latent human powers instinct [animated] with life and awaiting the opportunity to unfold. His whole system seeks to aid and stimulate this unfolding. Teachers before Pestalozzi and Froebel sought to educate by addition from without (rather than) to bring to full maturity the child's own nature by development of its inner powers.
Like Roe, Miss Agnew impressed upon her students the great delicacy and importance of this task. In particular, they were taught that the kindergarten methods, consisting of play and the Froebellian gifts and occupations, were not solely a means of keeping children 'occupied and amused'. Nor were they intended only to impart specific knowledge. They were:
to awaken sympathy between the child and his fellows and the world around him, to stimulate and exercise the imagination, and to divert into the right channels the natural desire for activity which all healthy children possess.
A greater contrast to the attitudes and methods of infant teachers before the 1890s could not be imagined! A transfer to infant teaching in earlier decades had been regarded with the same enthusiasm as a punitive transfer to the back blocks. Ambitious teachers, both male and female, avoided infant classes in favour of higher grades which were regarded as more intellectually demanding and consequently as a better 'proving ground' for teachers. Infant classes were left to the most inexperienced teachers. At Petrie Terrace Girls and Infants School in 1887, for example, the infants were divided into 13 drafts managed by seven pupil teachers and only three fully fledged assistant teachers. Drafts were often very large, and teachers resorted to military discipline.
In July 1891 the Department appointed Miss Agnew as Instructress in Kindergarten with the intention of implementing new methods and attitudes in infant schools. This followed a recommendation by the Queensland General Inspector after an 1889 study tour of schools in New South Wales (where Miss Elizabeth Banks was appointed Kindergarten Instructress in 1889), Victoria and South Australia. Back at their own schools, Miss Agnew's students were expected to act as Froebellian 'lighthouses'.
Unfortunately, most lacked the necessary equipment for implementing Froebel's building 'gifts' and such 'occupations' as paper folding, paper cutting and paper weaving, drawing, modelling and stick-laying. Though five schools (two in Brisbane, and one each in Charters Towers, Rockhampton and Townsville) were selected in1893 to receive supplies of imported equipment and to act as model schools, the progress of kindergarten in infant schools was limited for many years by the problem of expense.
In 1893, the office of kindergarten instructress was abolished, probably due to the economic stringency of the early 1890s Depression. Progress was slow in the next decade and in 1903, when Miss Agnew was appointed a part-time inspector of kindergarten work, only seven schools had been equipped to use kindergarten methods. Without such equipment, schools were forbidden to attempt the work. Nevertheless, kindergarten work continued to expand in primary schools, and this early work also helped lay the basis for kindergarten and pre-schools after 1907.