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Australian Education System from 1788 to 1948 Essay

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Updated: Jul 7th, 2020


Australian educational system went through a variety of transformations between 1788 and 1948. The system evolved from a number of schools where privileged groups could acquire some kind of education into a mass educational system where students could obtain free secondary as well as higher education. It is also important to note that professional associations came into being at that period as well. More importantly, Australian education helped to shape the nation. Admittedly, the Australian education of the period mentioned above had a number of strengths and weaknesses. It is necessary to consider the system’s context and origins to be able to evaluate these strengths and shortcomings.

A Brief Historical Account

18th Century

At the end of the 18th century, schooling in Australia was not common and quite specific. In many countries, ideas of the French Revolution were in the air and people living in such countries as France, Switzerland, Germany were considering the development of mass education (Green, 1990). At the same time, British people opposed the idea as they tried to avoid the influence of French concepts. Clearly, Australia, as a part of the British Empire, was expected to follow the same view through the development of the educational system here took another direction.

Before the dual system appeared, Australian schooling relied on church and private schools. In private schools, a teacher (usually a woman, which led to the term ‘Dame Schools’) had up to 30 or 40 students who usually attended the classes at the teacher’s house (Hanstock, 2005). Clearly, these students came from well-off families who could afford to pay the necessary fees.

As for church schools, students of these establishments obtained skills in literacy and, of course, educators paid a lot of attention to bringing up religious and virtuous people. It is noteworthy that church schools appeared with the first European settlers as clergy “took the responsibility of the education of the children” who were first to come to Australia (Aspland, 2006, p. 143). This can justify Australians’ loyalty to these schools. These educational establishments were partially funded by the government as officials believed education could save society from corruption and degradation.

At that time, people believed that crime was a result of degradation that, in its turn, sprung from ignorance; and, hence, Australian officials were eager to invest funds into the development of education. Female Orphan School opened in 1801, and it was one of the first results of such ideas and inclinations as the government-funded the school that aimed at raising literacy among Australians and contributing to the development of ‘virtuous’ populous (Barcan, 1980). In the following years, the number of public schools increased substantially.

19th Century

In the first part of the nineteenth century, the Australian government still focused on the development of the educational system and invested in both denominational and public schools. It is noteworthy that Australian officials attempted to address the diversity of population and funded schools that were run by different denominations. However, it turned out to be rather costly as people pertained to different denominations and officials started considering an opportunity to divide religion and education.

Report of Select Committee developed in 1844 showed flaws of the dual system. Thus, different denominations were trying to open as many schools as possible to ensure their influence in the area, and this led to additional losses for the government that had to subsidise all these schools (Barcan, 1988). The questions concerning the dominance of this or that religion were quite burning, and people tried to understand whether religion could be a part of mass education in Australia (Phillips, 2014). To avoid the occurrence of situations mentioned above, the Australian government started funding public schools only. It is noteworthy that the same committee that unveiled flaws of the dual system stressed the importance of standardisation and centralisation in public schools.

This standardisation was achieved at the end of the nineteenth century when officials declared development of mass education. The Public Instruction Act of 1880 established compulsory mass primary education provided in public schools funded by the government (Wilkinson, Caldwell, Selleck, Harris & Dettman, 2007). This was also the time when first universities were opened and first teaching associations were developed.

Strengths of Australian Education between 1788 and 1948

Accessible Education

Clearly, education at that period had numerous positive effects and one of its strengths was that it was mass education. At the end of the nineteenth century, education became accessible for the majority of Australians as it was free, mass and compulsory. As has been mentioned above, the Public Instruction Act of 1880 established mass, free and compulsory education that covered the vast majority of Australian children (Campbell & Proctor, 2014).

Thus, children could acquire free primary education. Interestingly, officials had to encourage parents to send their children to schools as people did not fully understand benefits of education in the eighteenth century. Of course, there were certain issues but at the end of the nineteenth century attendance of schools as well as the number of schools increased significantly. The major focus was on reading, writing and arithmetic as these skills enabled people to get well-paid jobs.

Benefits of this transformation are obvious as the number of literate people grew and quality of education improved. In the second part of the eighteenth century, only middle-class and upper-class children could get some kind of education which was often of doubtful quality. However, in the second part of the nineteenth century, all children irrespective of their parents’ socioeconomic status could acquire knowledge and certain skills.

This accessibility facilitated development of teaching practices and training which, in its turn, led to high quality of education (Aspland, 2006). Clearly, entire society benefited from this as more people were able to complete more sophisticated tasks. More so, mass education enabled Australians to exercise their right to vote and participate in the social life of their country.

It is also important to note that encouraging people to obtain education facilitated development of the system and new schools opened. There was certain kind of competition (which is favourable as schools try to provide high-quality services to attract students). It is necessary to add that numerous religious schools appeared and different denominations tried to ‘win’ more students. At that, these schools did not obtain governmental funding and were sometimes good alternative for public schools.

Standardised Education

Another important strength of the Australian education of the eighteenth and nineteenth century was its standardisation and centralisation. Since the government funded vast majority of schools it was but natural to develop certain standards in the educational system (Campbell & Sherington, 2006). As has been mentioned above, such skills as reading, writing and arithmetic were central to the education of that period.

Centralisation contributed to the development of the Australian educational system as students obtained the necessary knowledge and skills accepted as a standard. Therefore, apart from accessibility, education obtained ensured certain equality among young people. The vast majority of young people had equal opportunities to get well-paid jobs or even apply for higher education.

It is also necessary to add that teachers training benefited from centralisation as secondary education for teachers became compulsory (Campbell & Proctor, 2014). Standardisation also led to development of teachers training and higher quality of education as novice teachers had to have the necessary amount of knowledge and comply with some rules (Hyams, 1979). This proved to be an effective solution that addressed the issue of low-qualified teachers (which was persistent in the eighteenth century).

It is possible to add that standardisation also contributed to weakening of the role of denominational schools as these educational establishments tended to ignore standards (Wilkinson et al., 2007). Admittedly, schools that did not comply with standards set could not satisfy students’ needs as the latter wanted to fit the society that accepted people with certain amount of knowledge and skills.

Finally, standardised education contributed to development of the nation. Australia was the destination of thousands of immigrants who had different backgrounds. One of the aims of education was to promulgate certain values and shape people’s mind-sets to create a strong and unified nation (Wilkinson et al., 2007). Clearly, each public school was bound to incorporate these values into their curriculum. Thus, public schools united people as they were brought up similarly. It could have been hardly possible if children had attended denominational schools where only specific perspectives were accepted.

Weaknesses of Australian Education between 1788 and 1948

It Required Time to Become Truly Mass

Irrespective of unquestionable benefits and strengths of the Australian education, there were a number of limitations. In the first place, it took considerable amount of time for Australian education to become truly mass. In fact, it took Australians about one hundred years to achieve their goal. This is a very long period and numerous systems that existed at that time proved to be ineffective.

For instance, a more active position of advocates of mass and standardised education (like Governor Charles Fitzroy or Henry Parkes) could have facilitate introduction of mass education. At the same time, lots of countries needed even more time to achieve the same results as Australia as England introduced mass education at the very end of the nineteenth century (Green, 1990). Hence, the system was quite successful even though it took a lot of time to be established.

It Was Too Academic

As has been mentioned above, centralisation and standardisation led to the system’s development but education became rather academic. Students got such crucial skills as ability to read, write and calculate but they were quite unprepared to become a part of the workforce. It is necessary to note that education was highly academic and little attention was paid to vocational education until the times of the Great Depression and World War II (Barcan, 1980).

These two events drew people’s attention to vocational education as the country needed professionals in a variety of spheres to contribute to development of the Australian economy which was weakened by the world’s greatest (at that time) financial crisis and the deadliest war. It is noteworthy that after the World War II, many vocational educational establishments were opened.


Clearly, the Australian government enabled thousands of people to obtain primary as well as secondary education. However, there was still a great deal of discrimination. In the first place, secondary education was less affordable and elite groups tended to send their children in privileged private schools and prestigious colleges and universities that were unaffordable for the vast majority of students at that time (Campbell & Proctor, 2014). There was also discrimination as girls could not access natural scientific disciplines since there was certain prejudice in the society. Nonetheless, this weakness was a result of the wrongs in the society rather than flaws in the system itself.


To sum up, it is possible to state that the Australian educational system between 1788 and 1948 evolved considerably. Admittedly, there were some strengths and weakness in the system. For instance, major strengths were accessibility and centralisation of education as this enabled millions of Australians obtain the necessary skills to be able to get a well-paid job and participate in the social life of the country.

More importantly, education enabled Australians to turn into a strong and unified nation irrespective of the fact that immigrants from all over the world came to the country. At the same time, such weaknesses as slow development and academic character made the path of development a bit longer. Nonetheless, it is possible to conclude that educational system of Australia was quite progressive and effective, which can be illustrated by a variety of achievements of Australians at that period as well as in the twenty-first century.

Reference List

Aspland, T. (2006). Changing patterns of teacher education in Australia. Education Research and Perspectives, 33(2), 140-163.

Barcan, A. (1988). Two centuries of education in New South Wales. Sydney: NSWU Press.

Barcan, A. (1980). A history of Australian education. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Campbell, C., & Proctor, H. (2014). A history of Australian schooling. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Campbell, C., & Sherington, G. (2006). The comprehensive public high school: Historical perspectives. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Green, A. (1990). Education and state formation: The rise of education systems in England, France and the USA. South Melbourne, Australia: Macmillan.

Hanstock, R. (2005). In the spirit of the Navy: Violet Gibbons and Osborne Ladies’ College, Blackheath. Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 91(1), 29-47.

Hyams, B.K. (1979). Teacher preparation in Australia: A history of its development from 1850 to 1950. Melbourne, Australia: Australia Council for Educational Research.

Phillips, K. (2014). ABC. Web.

Wilkinson, I.R., Caldwell, B.J., Selleck, R.J.W., Harris, J, & Dettman, P. (2007). A history of state aid to non-government schools in Australia. Canberra: DEST.

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