Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sheehy, Kathleen Eileen (1892–1981)

by Geoffrey Swan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Kathleen Eileen Sheehy (1892-1981), head teacher, was born on 4 November 1892 at Gympie, Queensland, second of six children of Irish-born parents Jeremiah Sheehy, goldminer, and his wife Katherine, née O’Driscoll.  Educated by the Sisters of Mercy at Gympie, Kathleen stayed on at the convent school as a pupil-teacher, passing the qualifying examinations conducted by the Department of Public Instruction.  When, in April 1912, she joined the State teaching service and took up an appointment at Blair Athol, her mother insisted that her brother (Sir) Christopher Sheehy accompany her on her first journey away from home.

Next year Sheehy moved to Gayndah and in September 1915 to Bowen Bridge Road State School, Brisbane.  In 1916 she transferred to Wooloowin, where W. F. Bevington was head teacher.  This was the beginning of a long professional and personal friendship with Bevington who, after he became a district inspector of schools in 1920, introduced special classes for the 'mentally defective' in Brisbane and some regional centres.  He was supported by the minister for public instruction, John Huxham, and by the departmental under-secretary, Bernard McKenna.

 After working for short periods at Breakfast Creek, Petrie Terrace Girls’ and Infants’ and Leichhardt Street Boys’ schools, in November 1923 Sheehy was appointed teacher-in-charge of the 'backward' classes at South Brisbane Boys’ School.  She also assisted Bevington in recruiting and testing pupils for the classes.  In 1926 she recommended that the euphemism 'opportunity' replace 'backward', as was the practice in other States.  'Who', she observed some years later, 'would want to attend backward classes?'  The Education Office Gazette announced the change of name in July that year.

In 1935, when attendance at the South Brisbane classes had reached a hundred, it was decided to transfer the pupils to a separate school.  The Dutton Park Opportunity School, the first school thus designated in the State, opened in 1936 with Sheehy as head teacher.  With her usual enthusiasm and energy she set about providing an attractive and stimulating environment for the children.  She successfully applied for domestic science and manual arts facilities.  These activities became an important part of the curricula.  Boys were allowed into the domestic science classes but manual arts remained a male domain.  Sheehy also organised an opportunity school teachers’ association and served as secretary for some years.

With staff shortages during World War II and Bevington’s retirement, the carefully devised recruitment and discharge program was discontinued.  Dutton Park Opportunity School became a repository for children with a wide range of disabilities.  Sheehy’s professional influence declined and so too did her health and energy:  she developed an alcohol problem—which she eventually overcame.

Retiring in December 1958, Sheehy continued to live at her New Farm home, regularly visited by former staff members and colleagues.  Failing eyesight and difficulties in walking did not prevent her in 1975 from inspecting the recently renovated Baroona Opportunity School.  She was most impressed.  When it was suggested that her advocacy during the 1920s and 1930s for the group of children variously described as backward, mentally handicapped, intellectually impaired, slow learning and educationally disadvantaged, had influenced provision of new facilities, she was uncharacteristically silent for a while.  She then said, 'Huxham, Bevington and McKenna would also be pleased'.  Sheehy died on 22 April 1981 in Brisbane and was buried with Catholic rites in Toowong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. J. Swan, 'Educational Provision for Mildly Intellectually Disabled Children in Queensland: Development and Decline', Exceptional Child, vol 35, no 2, 1988, p 71
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 6 December 1937, p 12
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 7 November 1938, p 19
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 8 November 1938, p 11
  • G. J. Swan, Opportunity Classes-Alternatives? (M.Ed.St. thesis, University of Queensland, 1978)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Geoffrey Swan, 'Sheehy, Kathleen Eileen (1892–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sheehy-kathleen-eileen-15413/text26621, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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