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Newcastle East Public School principal Mick McCann always loved to see the "Eureka" moment on students' face. Picture: Supplied.

Meet the principal of Australia’s oldest public school

When Mick McCann first walked into Newcastle East Public School, he thought he was in Hogwarts.

"I had no idea it was Australia's oldest school," the 52-year-old told Education Review.

"I was walking around and saw the big gothic buildings, the vaulted ceilings, the plate tile on the roof, the big thick walls, and I rang my wife and said, 'I think I'm the principal at Hogwarts.'

After being unsuccessful in applying to work other schools, Mick landed in Newcastle - a job he was surprised to get.

"I had zero expectations; all I was chasing was feedback on my interview technique - but I must have done all right.

"I was stoked that I got it, and the opportunity I've been given here at Newcastle East is phenomenal.

"The staff I've got are amazing, the kids are ridiculously good, and their parents too."

According to Mick, the "vibe" of the school brings the community, the kids and the staff together.

"It is like we pride ourselves that when people walk in our school, they go ', Oh, yes, I do like this.'

"It's similar to when you're looking to buy a house, and you walk into one you really like, and you get that feeling."

Heritage building. Picture: Supplied.

Newcastle East Public School was established in 1816, before public education began in NSW.

At the time, it was a charity school settled in a church vestry tasked to provide free education to all children from convicts or free settlers in Newcastle.

The school then joined the state public education system in 1883.

The school office and five classrooms built in 1878 are in a heritage-listed building which, according to Mick, comes up with a "couple of quirky cool things."

"The school started with 17 convict free settler and soldier kids. We have a sculpture representing the 17 initial students in the garden to commemorate them.

"In my office, there used to be a trap door in the middle of the room that allowed people to escape if they ever got in trouble."

All across the school, artefacts from different eras can be found telling the story of its walls, including an honour board from World War One which Mick said was "unique" and a "living archive" of the war.

Newcastle East sculpture garden. Picture: Supplied

Today the school's history is embedded in its identity and culture and is shared with its 257 students.

"It's just become part of our vernacular and what we do when discussing our school. It's just automatic; we talk about the school history; it is not contrived nor pushed; it's a constant little drip feed of cool facts.

"Our logo is our building, and our motto is Australia's oldest school. On the back of our hoodies, instead of putting Newcastle's public school, we've got 1816 - it's integrated into everything that we do."

Mick said the school history is also woven into the town history, which allows staff to go on walking excursions around the local community and delve deeper.

"We've got those little tidbits that we can grab on and draw in and keep the narrative going on and reinforce how important the school's history is."

In Australia, teaching history has become controversial over the years.

In 2022, while reviewing the curriculum, the former government expressed concerns that the original history draft curriculum did not include enough about Australia's Western and Christian heritage.

According to Mick, teaching history is essential even when it depicts terrible actions.

"We need to acknowledge what happened and move forward, ensuring we're not making the same mistakes," he said.

"With Aboriginal history, we know how deep and how long that was, and we know that there was the stolen generation, there's been the apology, we are moving forward and putting a very strong focus on Aboriginal history and language and culture; which is important.

"But we can't ignore it; we need to acknowledge and understand the mistakes made."

According to the school principal, teaching history has been always challenging, but being in Australia's oldest school helps address the subject.

"Because you've got these direct historical artefacts in and around the school, it helps develop that narrative and tie things in."

Mick said he's enjoying teaching the kids the history of the school and Australia's past. 

Honour board from World War One. Picture: Supplied.

Over the past 200 years, Newcastle East Public School has thrived, but being Australia's oldest school principal can be challenging.

In 2020, the primary school had serious asbestos "scare" that put kids and staff's health at risk.

"Fortunately, this is only a small percentage of the job," Mick said.

"After all these years, being Newcastle East school principal is easily the best job I've ever had.

"Even on the worst day, I still love my job."

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