The Education Reformer

Musings by Geoff Maslen

Preshill: a fading beacon?



One of Australia’s most remarkable and longest-lived educators has died: Margaret E. Lyttle passed away on 7 January 2014 at the age of 101.

   Known to all as “Mug”, Margaret Lyttle was renowned among alternative schoolers and much loved by generations of children during the 50 years she spent as head of Preshil, Australia’s oldest and most eminent progressive school.

  Under her indomitable leadership, the Barkers Road school in Kew was transformed from a tiny kindergarten in the 1940s to become, by the time she retired in 1994, a unique centre offering a special kind of learning to 500 students from the nursery to the VCE.

  In the course of researching a book about Australia’s private schools in the 1980s, I visited Preshil many times over several months, observing the children in and out of class, talking to the teachers and discussing educational philosophy with Margaret Lyttle.

  Socrates probably summed up the essentials of that philosophy 2500 years ago in The Republic: “Hence, my excellent friend, you must train the children to their studies in a playful manner, and without any air of constraint, with the further object of discerning more readily the natural bent of their respective characters.”

  When I first went to Preshil, I found it still abided by that philosophy, that it was then, as it must have begun, a very happy school; a place where the children were cheerfully busy, relaxed and socially confident; where their feelings and rights were respected and their attitudes and opinions taken seriously by the adults around them.

  Parents and teachers do not always realise the extent to which the head of a school can exert enormous influence over its whole direction and give it a distinctive character. Few schools in Australia have been so profoundly affected by one person’s vision of childhood’s promise as Preshil under Margaret E. Lyttle.

  She was the niece of Margaret J. R. Lyttle, who founded Preshil in 1931 and who seems to have been as remarkable as her namesake. It was she who raised the young Margaret, along with two other nieces and a nephew, at the same time as she struggled to get Preshil established. 

  In the school’s first prospectus, she wrote that “according to the development of the child in his early years is the whole trend of his future life determined. The basis of his character is laid in those years, the first patterns of social living are formed and the creative instinct, the factor that determines the richness and completeness of his future living is either fostered and developed or stifled…”

  Margaret E. Lyttle went back to Preshil in 1938 after training as a teacher and, on her aunt’s death in 1944, she took over the running of the school. As I watched her at work, dealing with teachers and parents while keeping an ever-watchful eye on the children, I had the strong impression she held the reins of control as tightly as she ever had and that few could imagine what the place would be like without her.

  I heard teachers refer to her as “a benevolent dictator” and one told me: “I worked in Malawi and I know what a guided democracy is and that’s how I’d describe Preshil.”  When I passed this observation on, Ms Lyttle bridled at the suggestion in a way that Margaret Rutherford, whom I thought she rather resembled, might have done and her blue eyes behind her glasses glinted crossly. But then, she had to admit, when she spoke “everyone listens”.

  “They don’t always take notice of me but they have a lot of regard for me. I’ve been here so long,” she said. Which was absolutely true because at that time she had been in charge for nearly 40 years, displaying a kind of selfless devotion to the children many of whom, as adults years later, sent their own children to the school.

  Mug had a lifelong commitment to the ideals first propounded by Socrates and then put into practice by Friedrich Froebel, the shy German creator of the first kindergarten in 1837. Froebel believed in the continuity of a child’s life from infancy on and he argued that self-activity, determined by the child’s interests and desires, and intelligently directed, was essential to the unfolding of a young person’s inborn capacities.

  The child’s chief activity, according to Froebel, is self-activity. So doing and self-expression became fundamental to the kindergarten, and movement, gesture, directed play, song, colour, the story and human activities part of kindergarten technique.

  The advent of the state school system in Australia, however, preceded the kindergarten or pre-school movement here and, partly as a result, they were long seen by teachers as extraneous to the real business of schools – inculcation of the Rs. At Preshil, however, this division between the kindergarten and the primary grades did not exist and nor were there demarcation lines between the primary and secondary grades – although the older ones still go to another nearby campus.

  Mug, though, declared she was no theorist but a practitioner while admitting she owed a lot to Sigmund Freud. This was clear from her and her teachers’ over-riding concern with the problems of individual children and the fact that quite a number of children were there because they did have problems. 

  At the time of my visits, the centre of Preshil was a rambling old house where Margaret Lyttle lived and where Preshil had moved in 1938 from the home where her aunt had started it across the road. Mug had a bedroom to herself and a study in the house although the study was as likely to be invaded by children as it was to be used by teachers or members of the school council for meetings.

  “Preshil is not a place where children do what they like, but rather a place where children like what they do,” she once said, adding that the themes of compassion and social justice had characterised Preshil since its inception.

 “[Here] each child is treated as an individual, with their own unique talents and traits that we value and nurture. At Preshil, children play an active role in their education. They are expected to take responsibility for their actions and ultimately create their own future. Choice with responsibility is a powerful combination – one that fosters self-discipline, maturity, resilience, confidence, initiative, creativity and courage in every child.”

  Behind the house, in what would once have been a large backyard, a cluster of natural habitat, open-space buildings had burgeoned, merging in and out of the children’s play areas, most shaded by huge old peppercorn trees, themselves the sites for children-built cubby treehouses of assorted shapes and sizes.

  My first impression was that the place was like a beehive. Chirruping little three and four-year-olds skittered about the feet of a group of secondary school boys erecting a climbing frame for the littlies, under the supervision of a teacher.

  The various structures were the result of collaborative design between Mug, the children, teachers and the late architect Kevin Borland who years later reflected on the design process:

  “I feel that an architect can’t design without the client being involved, and the pupils were very much involved. They did little plans and discussed with me the sorts of things they’d like. I involved them in every stage: the planning, the drawings, and they looked over the job and discussed progress and by doing this with them I hoped they can understand how an architect works I really liked working with the kids.

  “They needed a bit of a catalyst and I provided them with choices and discussed and observed. Observing the fact that all kids love to climb and be on different levels, I designed a building that would reflect this, by use of levels and low spaces for example. They like the comforting feeling of the low scale – it’s almost the womb-like syndrome.”

  Borland’s buildings are now on the state heritage register and Preshil itself is heritage listed for its role as the state’s longest continuous experiment in progressive education: The state heritage citation says:

  “Preshil is historically significant in reflecting the social changes taking place during the 1960s, in particular the emergence of a counterculture and dissatisfaction with traditional middle-class values, including the conservatism of traditional schools and their educational methods. Preshil is the only progressive school in Melbourne surviving from the major period of interest in progressive schools in the 1920s and ’30s, when the relationship between a child’s development and their learning environment began to be explored through experimental architecture.”

  As I strolled around observing the buildings and the children’s activity, Margaret Lyttle spoke of the history of the school, despite our conversation constantly being interrupted as she greeted children and teachers and parents, all of whom seemed to move about with the sort of freedom and informality people display when they are at home.

  “My aunt was inspired by Froebel’s work and by her own beliefs and philosophy to plan a new approach to teaching methods,” she told me. “There were no kindergartens in Melbourne and `infants’ sat in backless forms in tiered galleries – at least when my aunt began as a ‘pupil’ teacher with the Education Department. Then Miss Pye of the Melbourne Teachers’ College suggested she should resign and open a small school of her own so she could develop her ideas more fully.

  “In her own teaching, she incorporated ideas she found valuable in the teaching of Tagore, Steiner and Montessori. At the same time she was a founding member of the Kindergarten College as well as being a lecturer there and a supervisor of its students.”

   At the time I was visiting Preshil, it was possibly enjoying its heyday. Yet, despite the small classes, the care and attention teachers provided, the articulate assertiveness that the children developed, and the fact that the majority who stayed at the school to finish year 12 were successful, Preshil still had only half the numbers in the secondary years as were enrolled in the primary section.

  As happens in many successful state primary schools, half the Preshil parents then took their children away and enrolled them in conventional private schools. No doubt they were anxious to give their offspring a good “old school tie” and make contacts with the powerful of the future.

In the case of Preshil, it was also probably because parents felt uneasy about leaving their children in a school where there were no bells, no formal timetables, no compulsory after-school sport and, perhaps worst of all, there were no school uniforms.

  Mug Lyttle told me she did not like the divisions between state and private schools and would like them all to be fully supported and open to everyone. But Preshil was and is a private school and had to charge fees which in the 1980s ranged from $1000 a year to $2400 whereas now they are up to 10 times as much.

  A direct consequence is that the school belongs in the elite class of top private schools, catering to wealthy middle-class parents with 83 per cent among the most socio-economically advantaged, according to the MySchool website. The site reveals there are no indigenous children at Preshil and only about six of the students speak another language at home.

  Even so, Preshil has faced a catastrophic fall in enrolments, with numbers plummeting from near 500 when I was a regular visitor to little more than 300 today.  After Mug Lyttle retired, what many had feared began to occur: without her authority, Preshil seemed to lose its way until, by 2011, the school was attracting media attention because intense internal dissension had led to a case before the Federal Court.

  In a report in The Age []on the conflict in December that year, Ian Munro noted the impact this was having. Munro wrote that the then school council chairman, Peter Gahan, had “lamented” how the dissension had cost the school deeply in terms of lost enrolments, “that it had lost money in 14 of the previous 15 years at an average of $240,000 a year”.

  Gahan warned that unstable leadership had created internal anxiety. “It is clear that Preshil has struggled to deal with the leadership question ever since Margaret Lyttle retired,” he said. “In many ways, we are still struggling with the legacy of her colossal role as principal and how best to replace her as the heart and soul of the school.”

   It would be intensely sad to think that Mug Lyttle may have died believing her life’s work had been in vain and that the school she had nurtured for half a century might even be forced to close.

   Yet hundreds if not thousands of the children she cared for would reject any suggestion she had strived in vain, instead that her influence on their lives had been profound and that without her their futures would have been uncertain.

* An edited version of this commentary was published in The Age on 10 February, 2014  

Author: geoffmaslen

Geoff Maslen is the doyen of Australian education journalists and the author of The End of School?- a challenging new e-book available at Geoff has been writing about and commenting on education for the past 50 years, including 40 years as a contributor to The Age education pages while also publishing articles on education, science and the arts in newspapers and magazines across Australia and around the globe.


  1. Thanks for this article Geoff. I have been on my own journey as a primary school teacher, learning coach for disengaged teenagers who were kick out or dropped out of school and in the process of going back into primary school again.I am a big fan of the Big Picture model of learning espoused by Eliott Washor and Dennis Littky (USA and Australia) and also John Holt who headed up the home schooling movement for many years.
    My blog details some of my journey, if you are interested (not much in the last 6 months or so).

    I have paid for your book and look forward to reading it.



  2. Hi Geoff,

    I was really pleased to read your article about Margaret Lyttle. If anyone deserved a state funeral, she did! Back in 2007 I persuaded the National Library of Australia that she ought to be interviewed, and in the end I did the interviews.

    Sadly, she was already losing her memory, so the interviews are a pale shadow of the woman – though occasionally she dropped a gem. There’s also a fascinating strip of silent film in the Australian Children’s Folklore Collection (at Museum Victoria) of Preshil children playing in the mid-1950s.

    It was given to me by the wonderful American children’s folklorist, Dr Dorothy Howard, who visited Oz in 1954-55 on a post-doctoral Fulbright scholarship. She spent some time at Preshil, and got on well with Margaret – I think Margaret remembered her in my interview. They would have seen eye to eye on more than education, I suspect: both were radical pioneers.

    I’m sorry to hear of Preshil’s decline.

    June Factor
    Honorary Senior Fellow
    School of Historical & Philosophical Studies
    University of Melbourne

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