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HomeIssue 25The first Aboriginal preschool in Alice Springs

The first Aboriginal preschool in Alice Springs



The First Aboriginal preschool in Alice Springs was established by the Anglican Church in 1953.


Father Percy Smith and Lucy Britain who worked for the church became concerned that Aboriginal children who lived in the town area of Alice Springs did not have access to preschool education.


First enrolments Ida Standley Pre-School, Miss Brumbie (right) Miss Janet Weir assistant (left).


There had been a town preschool since 1946 but only white children attended.


The co-founder of this preschool was Nathalie Gorey who had come to Alice Springs a few years before to teach at the Alice Springs higher primary school.


It was not that Aboriginal children were precluded from attending the town preschool, it was more so that their circumstances made it difficult for them to do so.


At this time most Aboriginal people who lived in the town did so at The Gap, which was south of the main township close to Heavitree Gap.


The Aboriginal people who lived there were isolated in a socio-economic sense as well as there being no means of transport to get any of their children to the town preschool.


The housing and facilities at the Gap were poor, which created further difficulties.


Father Smith and Mrs Britain realised that when Aboriginal children started school at the age of five they were behind white children in terms of their cognitive and social skills.


Modern research has shown that 50% of a child’s intelligence is formed by the age of five.


It was therefore extremely important that Aboriginal children had access to preschool education.


Father Smith knew most of the Aboriginal families at The Gap and he encouraged them to take the church’s offer of a special preschool.


He arranged for a government truck to go to The Gap each day, pick up the children and return them at the end of the day, which solved the transport problem.


The preschool was conducted at St John’s Hostel.


Mrs Britain ran the preschool very well and was very understanding of the special needs of these children. Children were given meals.


Aboriginal children being helped off the government truck at St John’s Hostel Pre-School in Alice Springs 1953. Mrs Britain (right) and Ms Marie Burke (left).


She was ably assisted by Marie Burke who was an Aboriginal woman who resided at St Mary’s Hostel with her two daughters. Ms Burke was more than likely the first Aboriginal teacher aide in Australia. She was known and respected by many people in Alice Springs.


This arrangement lasted until 1960 when the government established an Aboriginal preschool in Alice Springs.


The first preschool teacher and director was Nancy Barnes (nee Brumbie) who was the first qualified Aboriginal preschool teacher in Australia.


The preschool was established at The Gap and was called The Ida Standley Pre-school. It was funded by the Commonwealth Government.


The Anglican Church rendered a significant educational service to Aboriginal children in Alice Springs at a time when there was little understanding of their particular needs.


John P McD Smith is chair of the St Francis’ House Project.





  1. This is a tremendously interesting article, providing some historical insights of which I was previously unaware.
    For example, I’m intrigued by the role of Marie Burke, resident of St Mary’s Hostel, described as “more than likely the first Aboriginal teacher aide in Australia”.
    It was in mid-July 1953 that another resident of St Mary’s Hostel, Rona Glynn, was appointed by the South Australian Department of Education as a junior teacher at the Alice Springs Public School (old Hartley Street school).
    This was big news in Alice Springs as reported in a front page story: “This was a significant appointment for Miss Glynn is the first Centralian-born person, and the first mixed-blood girl to enter the teaching profession in the NT.” (Centralian Advocate, 17/7/1953).
    Incredibly (to my mind, at least), Rona Glynn was only 16 years old and still studying as a student herself!
    In regard to the town preschool, there was a public meeting in 1946 to assess local interest followed by the drawing up of a constitution and establishment of a governing committee during 1947.
    The Alice Springs Kindergarten commenced formal operation at the CWA Building (corner of Todd Street and Stott Terrace) in February 1948; however, this was an interim arrangement while fund-raising was undertaken for several years to construct a purpose-built preschool on a corner of the Alice Springs Recreation Reserve (later Anzac Oval precinct).
    This building, named the Nathalie Gorey Preschool in memory of Mrs Gorey who died in 1951, commenced operation from October 23, 1954, and was officially opened on December 10 that year – so a good full year after the Anglican Church began its local preschool.
    (Incidentally, Nathalie Gorey had originally come to Alice Springs as a teacher for Aboriginal students at The Bungalow).
    I understand the Nathalie Gorey Preschool, funded and built by local initiative, was the first purpose-built kindergarten in the Northern Territory (the building is now the Alice Springs 50 Plus Community Centre).
    The Alice Springs Kindergarten committee also initiated a scholarship for local girls to train as preschool teachers; one of whom was Janet Weir who later worked at Ida Standley Preschool.
    This all resonates with me – my mother was a kindergarten teacher, first at Stuart Park, Darwin, in 1958 and then at a brand new Amoonguna settlement in early 1961; Rona Glynn was the Charge Sister of the maternity ward at Alice Springs Hospital when I was born there; our family lived just down the highway from St Mary’s Children’s Village (as I knew it) all through my school years; and I attended Ida Standley Preschool, too.

  2. @ Alex Nelson: “Incredibly (to my mind, at least), Rona Glynn was only 16 years old and still studying as a student herself!” Alex.
    Interesting that you raise this fact of Rona teaching at sixteen, such a young age.
    My mother Doreen McArdle began teaching at the age of 16 at St Joseph’s primary school run by the Sisters of Mercy in Emu Park Central Queensland in the early 1930s.
    Mum told me that the nuns selected teenagers to teach young children classes and supervised them as they taught before they went off to teachers’ college.
    My mum went on to the Range College in Rocky and then worked as a governess on a Central Queensland station.
    Mum said the nuns at Catholic schools selected and supervised a number of Aboriginal teenagers (all girls) who went to college with her and taught later as governesses.
    So it seems that this may have been the accepted practice those days.
    Teenagers given practical on the job experience in classrooms before going off to teachers college for formal qualification, at least in Queensland.

  3. There wouldn’t have been many Aboriginal preschools in Australia in 1953.
    Well done Father Smith and Mrs Britain.
    The Education Department of South Australia administered schools in the NT up until the 1970s.
    The practice of engaging junior teachers in SA departmental schools continued into the 1960s.
    From there the junior teachers would go onto some form of teacher training.
    It was not uncommon for them to start as junior teachers from the age of 16.
    So it is quite feasible that Rona Glynn was 16 when she started as a junior teacher at the Alice Springs Higher Primary School.


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