Development of special education to 1947
It has rightly been claimed that there is no such thing as a normal child, in the sense of a statistical average endowed with a human face. All children are unique individuals with widely differing talents and aptitudes. There have always been children in the community, however, who are conspicuously different. These special children suffer a wide range of disabilities - physical and intellectual handicaps, emotional instability or social disadvantage. Schools today are better equipped to help such children because of the great advances made this century in educational psychology. In the nineteenth century, however, when education for the average child in Queensland was limited to a few years of elementary schooling, children with special needs were virtually ignored. Special education in Queensland has been provided from two different directions. There was firstly the provision of educational opportunities through voluntary organisations for children with physical disabilities. The second direction, to develop much later, was active Government intervention to provide special education services.
It is interesting to notice the order in which disadvantaged children have been assisted. The first group of children to receive special educational provisions were the blind, then the deaf. These disabilities affect the children of all social groups. Concerned parents were joined by doctors and interested community bodies in 1888 to establish a home and training centre for the blind. The movement attracted much public sympathy and in 1893 the school was granted a Government subsidy. From 1897 deaf and blind children were educated separately but were housed together.
It became possible for blind and deaf children to complete their formal education through to Scholarship and, by the early 1950s, to continue on to Junior and matriculation. Although the Department of Public Instruction assumed full responsibility for educating these children in 1931, the level of parent and community involvement in their education has remained high. Contrast the early development of these schools with the slow progress towards providing special education for children who have intellectual and emotional problems associated with learning. Realistic moves to provide education for these children did not come about until the educational renaissance of the 1920s. This slowness of provision can be attributed to several causes. Firstly, the past low priority on education in general meant that there was little concern for children who failed in the standard school system. Wedded to this was the assumption that if such children failed, it was simply their own fault. This is obviously not the case with blind and deaf children.
Educationists also were not aware of the magnitude of many learning problems. Above all these, however, there was the sad reality that most children in this disadvantaged group came form poorer homes. Their parents, largely ill-educated and inarticulate, were unable to organise self-help groups or muster public sympathy for their children. A certain stigma was attached to the opportunity school child (and his parent) which other areas of special education did not have to combat.
The guiding light behind the establishment of opportunity schools in Queensland was a man of unusual insight and compassion, District Inspector W.F. Bevington. Early in 1923 Bevington prepared a plan to provide special classes for children who were not making normal progress in school. The first special class was formed at the South Brisbane Boys School, where two Sydney-trained assistants, Misses H. Young and D. Huxham, were appointed to take charge. Other classes were formed at Fortitude Valley, New Farm, Ipswich, Rockhampton, Townsville and Toowoomba. There were 240 pupils in these seven classes. Other classes were formed at Buranda and Leichhardt Street Boys School to cater for the more difficult cases. In all, 15 teachers were employed in the classes in 1923. For the next 12 years Bevington supervised the development of these special schools.
The problem was enormous. Children needing special attention varied from normal students with emotional learning problems to subnormal children who could not talk or co-ordinate their movements. Bevington's classes later became a dumping ground for behavioural and disciplinary problems. Teachers who were unsympathetic to the idea of the special classes or ignorant of their purpose threatened to send lazy children 'to the Dunce's school'. This prejudice against the special classes led the Department in 1926 to rename the centres opportunity schools.
During the next six years the numbers of schools and pupils remained relatively constant. At the conclusion of the first 10 years of the scheme, 1995 children had been admitted, and of these 504 had been returned to the normal classes. In 1935 Inspector Bevington became Acting Chief Inspector of Schools and during the remainder of his Departmental career engaged in administrative duties at Head office. During the following four years, inspections of these schools were distributed among seven different inspectors who unfortunately had neither Bevington's knowledge nor his concern. Thus the unity of control and direction which marked the earlier period soon disappeared. In 1936 the South Brisbane Opportunity Classes were transferred to Dutton Park where a school with its own domestic science centre had been erected. Miss Kathleen Sheehy, a teacher at the South Brisbane Opportunity Classes since 1923, was appointed headmistress.