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Being special: memories of the Australian public high school, 1920s‐1950s

Josephine May (Faculty of Education & Arts, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, Australia)
Helen Proctor (Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 21 June 2013




The first state high schools in New South Wales (NSW) were restricted to children with high academic ability. The purpose of this paper is to explore the lived experience of over 70 former students from three such schools, one coeducational, the other two single‐sex, with special attention to academic and social curricula.


The study investigates memories of a particular moment in the history of secondary schooling in NSW before the establishment of mass secondary education. The authors utilise theoretical concepts from recent oral history studies regarding memory communities and intersectionality.


In bringing ex‐students’ memories of both single‐sex and coeducational academically‐selective high schooling together, the study reports on the homogeneity of the memories of this type of schooling despite the different sexual structures of the schools. The respondents, it is argued, constitute a “memory community” in that they recalled their selection for high school as marking them out as intellectually superior, “special”. Their main differentiating feature arose from their sex and gender socialisation. Females were made more consistently conscious of their responsibilities within their schools’ gender regime.


The approach in this paper adjusts the focus of traditional oral history research in the history of education to “history from within” (rather than “from below”); to experiences of both academic and socialcurriculum (not “formal/informal”); to a gendered approach incorporating both sexes; and to a comparative approach across academically‐selective coeducational and single‐sex high schools.



May, J. and Proctor, H. (2013), "Being special: memories of the Australian public high school, 1920s‐1950s", History of Education Review, Vol. 42 No. 1, pp. 55-68.



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