If you have a spare hour in Melbourne city, pop along to the Old Treasury Building at the top of Collins Street to see their exhibition ‘School Days: Education in Victoria’. Drawn from the voluminous archives of Education Department material placed at the Public Records Office of Victoria, the exhibition runs until 31 August, open Sunday to Friday (ie. closed Saturday) 10.00 a.m. to 4.00 p.m. and entry is free.
Victoria has good cause to be proud of the 1872 Education Act which provided for “free, compuslory and secular” education for all children aged between 6 and 15 years of age. It set the pattern for the education acts of the other colonies with Queensland and South Australia passing similar legislation in 1875, NSW in 1880, Tasmania in 1885 and Western Australia by 1893. Ironically, by the time the later legislation was passed, the Victorian act itself had been altered to allow more religious influence and the leaving age had been lowered to 13 years.
Prior to 1872, public education in Victoria was provided through a dual system of denominational schools run by the churches, and government-assisted schools which charged a small, but nonetheless significant, fee. The huge increase in population during the 1850s resulted in a demographic bulge of school-aged children in the 1860s, and there was much public anxiety about the number of children not receiving any schooling. Charitable schools had been started by Hester Hornbrook, whose ‘Ragged Schools’ followed the model of the English Ragged School Union to provide a basic education founded on biblical and ‘practical’ education. At its peak the ragged schools educated 1000 children at twelve schools. An article from Trove in 1859 lists eight of them: one in Simpson’s Road [originally Victoria St Abbotsford/Richmond], three in Collingwood, two in Little Bourke St, one in Little Lonsdale Street [near O’ Brien Lane] and one in Prahran [a second school in Prahran was the forerunner of the present day Hornbrook Childrens Centre]. In fact, there’s a picture of one of the Hornbrook Schools in the exhibition, but taken in 1900 when it had become the Cremorne Street School in Richmond. But by the 1860s, the anxiety about the connection between lack of schooling and crime compelled the government to step in.
As it happened, before we went into the Old Treasury Building, we’d commented on the statue of Chief Justice Higinbotham that stands on the plaza at Treasury Place. I was well familiar with this statue. As a child, I used to go to an orthodontist in Harrison House, the former home of the VFL, in Spring Street. Being a strictly-brought-up child, I wasn’t allowed to say “bottom” but I was able to surreptitiously utter that naughty word by pointing out the statue of Justice “Higginbottom”.
Higinbotham was not only Chief Justice: he was also the driving force behind the Education Act of 1872 even though he was no longer in Parliament when it actually passed. He had, however, been chair of a royal commission of enquiry into education in 1866 and from its findings, introduced a bill into Parliament in 1867 that largely anticipated the 1872 bill. In his speech to Parliament Higinbotham made no secret of the class-based aspect of ‘free, secular and compulsory‘ education. To the working class he said:
You have accepted the vote; now, in the national interest you must accept middle class culture. You will have to change your own way of life and adopt ours. Maybe you will find this difficult, but at least give us your children. In fact, we will remove your children from you for several hours each day by compelling you to send them to school, where they will be imbued with middle-class culture, we will raise them from the savages that they are to become civilized human beings, and for this you should be grateful. (Bessant, 1984, p. 9)
Even though the idea of free schooling stuck in the craw of both conservatives and liberals who wanted a ‘price signal’ so that working-class parents would appreciate the schooling [some things never change], it was recognized that unless education was free, the parents they were targetting wouldn’t send their children.
But if the government was going to make this huge financial commitment- and it was huge- then it was going to be efficient, damn it! A fundamental part of the Education Act was that it created a direct line of oversight from Cabinet to the Minister to the Schools. Control of teachers, control of students. This is made very clear in the exhibition which focuses particularly on the position of young female teachers who were often sent to isolated schools and expected to lodge with local families who resented the imposition. Marriage resulted in instant retrenchment.
Attendance was carefully monitored. There are letters from parents beseeching for a school to be built in a small settlement, promising the attendance of twenty, thirty children from the surrounding district. If a school was granted, it was likely to be built from one of the template-based designs of Henry Bastow, the Chief Architect and Surveyor who was responsible for the construction of 615 schools in five years. The more opulent of these schools were of hawthorn brick with steepled roofs and included his favoured neo-gothic features (you can see a video feature in the exhibition here).
I was fascinated by a video of Ascot Vale Primary School in about 1910 I suspect. It shows the school ground, assembly (complete with flag-raising and oath), marching, ball games, folk dancing (oh, how I loathed folk dancing) and boys doing push-ups. It all seems so physical and martial. There’s a strap on display- a fearsome looking thing which, as a girl I never encountered fortunately. School children joined clubs, and there are the beautiful certificates that we were given for the Gould League, for example. Did you know that I won the state award for the Temperance exam in Grade 6 and received a beautifully embossed certificate that I wish I’d kept (and I’ll thank those who know me not to snort with derision). Girls knitted during the war; male teachers enlisted; female teachers donated (?) a percentage of their wages for the war effort.
It’s only a small exhibition- just two rooms- but there’s much to look at. They have a good public program of talks and events too. Well worth a visit.
Bob Bessant “Free, Compulsory and Secular” Paedogogica Historica, Vol 24, Issue 1, 1984, p.5-25 [available from University libraries]
E-Melbourne website http://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM00507b.htm
There’s a fascinating case study of a disciplinary action taken against a teacher at Baringhup State School by Carolyn Woolman in Provenance (the journal of the Public Records Office) ‘The State of Feeling in the District’ Provenance, Issue 11, 2012