IFHAA Australian Schools

The Evolution of Education in Australia
By Marion McCreadie

Family historians and genealogists searching for their ancestors often make the mistake of assuming that schools as they exist today also existed in days of early settlement. This mistaken belief can lead them down many false trails as they search for records. Understanding how school systems developed is a great aid in tracking down records.

If you have searched in vain for your ancestor's high school records, it may very well be that such records do not exist for one reason: High schools did not exist until fairly recently in the histories of many countries. Schools developed as the needs of society demanded. An examination of the development of school systems in Australia provides insight on school development in other colonial societies as well.

In these days of open-plan, computer-equipped classrooms, encouragement of interaction between teacher and pupil, availability of a wide variety of subjects, gender equality and restrictions on discipline, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what schools were like in the 1800s. Nowadays there are pre-schools, primary schools, high schools and technical colleges in most towns, and universities in the bigger cities.

If you lived in the country in the 1800s, you might be lucky enough to have a small, one room school house on land donated by a local farmer. In the city, if you could not afford to attend one of the schools set up by the various churches, you would most probably be tutored by the wife of the local doctor, lawyer, magistrate or other professional. No standard for education existed. Education was only available to the wealthier middle and upper classes, who could afford to pay tuition.

By the 1830s, the idea that crime was the result of ignorance, ignorance was the result of a lack of education and, therefore, education would decrease crime, was seen as a means of forging the penal colony of Australia into an organised and orderly society. This society would be based on, but hopefully better than, the existing British system. It was, therefore, imperative that the government set up schools so that all children could be taught, not only the three "R's," (reading, writing and arithmetic) but how to be good moral, law-abiding citizens. Opponents of this idea, however, felt that the child of a blacksmith didn't need any more education than what was necessary for him to become a blacksmith, the child of a farmer only what was necessary for him to be a successful farmer, etc.

The government allocated money for education and this was used to pay teachers, erect and equip schoolhouses and buy necessary textbooks. A government school was one which had been either set up by the government or was an established school which received monies from the government to continue educating children. The majority of the church-run schools were outside this system, and remained so until well into the 1900s.

The government also laid down strict guidelines as to the curriculum, teachers' and students' behavior and what activities could or could not be performed in the school grounds. It did not matter if the school was a small one room building in the country with less than 20 students, or a larger city school with classrooms of 100 students. The curriculum and rules were the same for all.

Both boys and girls received instruction in the basic subjects. In addition, girls spent 80 minutes of the day in sewing, knitting and darning instruction while the boys spent this time learning geometry and more geography and arithmetic. The days commenced with the teacher inspecting the pupils to see that their face and hands had been washed, their hair combed and their clothes neat and, where necessary, darned. Thirty minutes of each day were also taken up with singing. However, they primarily tried to instill into the children the advantages of being orderly, clean, punctual, decent and courteous, and avoiding all things which would make them disagreeable to other people.

One way to achieve this was the use of discipline. Rules governed how children were to enter the room, bow to the teacher, sit down on the benches, sit when reading what was on the blackboard, sit when writing, hold their pens, the position of their writing pads, and which hand was to be used for writing and which to point to the words being copied. Most learning was by rote. Pupils learned to repeat their tables, lists of dates and capital cities of the world, and poems parrot fashion.

Play was also deemed to be character building because it assisted with discipline and duty and instruction in the virtues of self-denial, self-restraint and obedience. However, the general observation was that the children were running, jumping and shouting in a confused manner, and not learning anything. A good game of rounders or cricket was an approved activity, but marbles was seen as a nuisance. Since very few teachers had the necessary skills, and the schools lacked the necessary equipment, other forms of physical activity, such as gymnastics, were practically non-existent.

At 13 years of age, a pupil could apply to become a pupil teacher. This method of training teachers proved unsuccessful because the pupil, who stayed at school and learned from his teacher, did not have contact with other teachers and their methods. In some cases in the city, 15-year-old girls were put in charge, albeit temporarily, of a class of 100 students not much younger than themselves. School inspectors and masters did not understand why these young girls could not control the class. Pupil teachers also picked up many of their teachers' bad habits, and became clones of their teachers.

Pupils could be at school from about six years of age to over 16 years. However, school was not compulsory, and some parents required the help of their children to eke out a living. As a results, absenteeism was fairly high, and it was not unusual for children to leave school after less than two years. Thus, the children learnt only the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. The view was that these 'elementary' schools were set up to cater to the lower classes; therefore, it was not considered necessary to add more subjects to the curriculum or to make the school more attractive.

Compulsory education was introduced in the 1870s and was difficult to enforce. In many cases those who were charged with enforcing compulsory education found that they were only able to visit a particular area once a year. The few established teachers' colleges were not well attended because the extra study involved did not translate into increased pay. Training colleges did not exist until the twentieth century in Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia. Higher education was mainly available only to the wealthier classes.

The depression of the 1890s and the need for skilled workers impelled merchants to demand that technical education in schools be improved. In the face of criticism from distinguished British visitors and eminent politicians as well, commissions were set up to investigate developments in education overseas. Their reports left no doubt that the education systems needed major changes.

Fees for high schools were abolished, subjects were improved and courses were extended to four years. The courses were designed with the student in mind: commercial courses for business, technical courses for industrial, domestic for home management and general courses for higher, professional education. Would-be teachers now had to complete secondary education and then attend training college.

Three levels of certificates were introduced. Qualifying certificates were awarded for successfully passing examinations after completing six years in elementary school. Scholarships were awarded which entitled successful students to four years of higher education. The Intermediate certificate was awarded for the successful completion of four years of high school, and the Leaving certificate for the completion of another two years. A student who wanted to enter University also needed a Leaving certificate.

At this time, a number of Superior Public schools were operating. Pupils receiving their Qualifying certificates from these primary/elementary schools, and not wishing to enter a High school course, could spend the next couple of years at the school learning subjects that would help them in the future. The syllabus for these schools was changed so the students could, if they wished, obtain their Intermediate certificate. In time, this type of school became another high school.

Apart from increasing the time spent in primary/elementary schools to eight years, and decreasing the total amount of time spent in high school to four years, this system remained basically the same until the 1950s. Since then, changes to the curriculum and examination methods seem to have occurred every few years. The introduction of calculators and then computers to the school room have changed schools so that if our great, great grandparents could only see them, they would shake their heads in disbelief.


The Australian Government School 1830-1914 - A.G. Austin
Australian Education 1788-1900 - A.G. Austin


List of Australian Government organisations, companies, societies, libraries and schools which hold archive material.

A description of a turn of the century school.

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Last modified: March 20, 2006