Free, secular and compulsory
‘Effect of state education on neglected children’, Punch, 1873.
Education was seen as essential to the ‘common good’. If the new state of Victoria were to govern itself well, educated citizens were needed.
'This being a new and free country, let us leave behind us all the superstitious nonsense of the old world. Let us meet here on common ground. Let us send all our children to the same schools, irrespective of creed or country …'
– Edward Cohen, member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly, 1870.
Education before 1872 Government-aided institutions, private schools, church school, tutors or governesses – or no education at all! Such was the state of education in Melbourne in the mid-19th century.
When the Port Phillip District separated from New South Wales to become the colony of Victoria in 1851, it inherited a dual system of publicly funded schools, under two separate boards: the Denominational School Board for religious schools, and the National Board for nonsecular schools.
In 1862, a single Board of Education was formed. Denominational schools continued to be funded as Common Schools. Public grammar schools, such as Melbourne Grammar, Scotch College and St Patrick’s, were open only to boys.
What was offered in the schools? The three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. But a surprising range of other subjects was also available, for example, mathematics, book-keeping, dictation, grammar, geography, Latin or French, drill and drawing.
Who attended? Attendance was voluntary, and children entered at different ages.
What were the conditions? Not very enjoyable! School buildings were often makeshift. They were cold in winter and hot in summer. Playgrounds were not common, and discipline was strict.
The 1872 Education Act
This Act shall be called and may be cited as ‘The Education Act 1872,’ and shall come into operation on the first day of January, One thousand eight hundred and seventy-three. In 1872, Victoria was the first state in Australia to establish a public school system based on the principles of free, secular and compulsory education.
Education was compulsory: Literacy and numeracy were considered essential for the common good; educated citizens were crucial for effective self-government.
Education was free: This served the public benefit.
Education was secular: Religion was regarded as a source of conflict. Schools were to be secular, with no religious instruction.
Victoria’s Education Act 1872 was the first of its kind in the world. Neither Britain nor the United States had a comparable system that took the responsibility of education out of the hands of churches, local groups and private providers. Considerable resources were allocated: fortunately the government’s income, boosted by gold taxes, enabled it to fund this unprecedented level of public education.