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The History of Distance Educationblackfirars.jpg

The idea of correspondence lessons for children originated in Australia as part of the quest to provide educational facilities to sparsely populated areas of the country. New South Wales was the first to adopt the method at least in theory during the 1880s 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'. It was not until 1908 with the emergence of travelling schools that correspondence lessons were incorporated as part of a learning regime.

Arthur Biddle, the first appointee to the travelling schools, devised a workable correspondence method and 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, where 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 named, grew quickly, its progress hampered only by wartime finances and lack of space in the metropolitan area.  


mr_finigan.jpgThe lack of suitable accomodation soon forced the fragmentation of the school into four separate, small correspondence schools. 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 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'. In 1933 Correspondence Schools Broadcasts were introduced courtesy of the ABC.

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 students who then totalled 5778, and former students 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 in Canada.

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 1960s bringing steady decline in numbers together 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.

outpost.jpg 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 Correspondence School's ability to offer its services to the wider student population. It represented the exhaustion of correspondence school services which had been historically preceded by the supply of leaflets to subsidised schools from1932 and to the army in 1941.

On his retirement in 1949, Finigan lamented that he did not see the implementation of a system of bringing teachers closer to students. However, such a system 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 the School of the Air was on the other side of the state from Sydney, its students remained enrolled in the Correspondence School. With these circumstances prevailing, Mrs Gibb provided what amounted to an addition to correspondence lessons sent from Sydney.

William Street

williamstreet.jpgIn the early 1970s after the Correspondence School had moved to larger premises in William Street, Kings Cross, 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 number of enrolments in the latter three schools brought buoyancy to the decentralised movement, success proven by their ability to bring educational services closer to the students they served. By the mid 1980s recommendations were mooted to decentralise completely the Correspondence School, the 'monolithic giant', a testimonial remnant to a highly centralised Department philosophy, and it eventually closed 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. Sydney Secondary Distance Education Centre was born. The Learning Materials Production Centre was formed to do the writing of learning materials, Mrs Colleen Dagworthy was appointed manager and deputy principal of the school, and the Centre was moved to co-exist with Dover Heights High School at Hardy Street Dover Heights.

Dover Heights

In 1996 distance education celebrated 80 years and Sydney Secondary Distance Education Centre was awarded a School Achievement Award. By 1997 computers featured networking, Internet access and intranet. The restructure of Open High School in 1998 as a language service led to a significant increase in enrolments at Sydney Secondary Distance Education Centre. In 1999 Mrs Colleen Dagworthy retired but before she did she negotiated the relocation of Sydney Secondary Distance Education Centre to Plunkett Street Primary School, Woolloomooloo.

In 2001 Mrs Kathleen Compton was appointed Principal and Mr Steve Murray Deputy Principal. Sydney Secondary Distance Education Centre was gazetted as an autonomous centre in preparation for the move to Plunkett Street and was renamed Sydney Distance Education High School. In April 2002 the school made the move to Plunkett Street, Woolloomooloo.


The new millennium also ushered in an expansion in the use technology to improve administrative duties and the quality of teaching and learning. Every teacher received access to a computer and a centralised student database from their workstations. A computer lab was developed for study days. Videoconferences were held regularly with other staff at Distance Education Schools and students in ‘feeder schools’ such as Rivendell and Flametree SSPs. Online learning went from a few basic webpages about different courses to fully interactive and dynamic lessons where teachers are able to track and record each student's progress.courtyard.jpg

A changing of the guard began in the mid ‘noughties’. At the end of 2005 Steve Murray was appointed Principal at Open High School and in 2006, Alan Wright was appointed as our new Deputy Principal. In early 2007 Kathleen Compton was appointed Principal at Denison College of Secondary Education and at the beginning of 2008 Mark Piddington’s tenure as the new and current Principal commenced.

Since establishing itself at Woolloomooloo, the school has experienced a rapid growth in students and staff. During 2011, our enrolments grew to 1478 students. Fulltime equivalent student numbers have grown from 673 in 2007 to 820 by September 2011, a 22% increase. We are entitled to over 158 teachers and 23 support staff and now employ more than 200 fulltime and part time staff.