‘Free, Compulsory, and Secular Education’: Wanted by the people or forced on the people by the government?

Free, compulsory and secular education was not instituted by the Australian government until 1880 under the Public Instruction Act. However government attempts at implementing this same kind of schooling system first began in the early part of the nineteenth century. Why did it take so long for such a system to be put into place?

One would be forgiven for thinking that the attempts made by the government were knocked back by the people because they did not want schooling systems for their children. There are many people that assume the belief that ‘school’ was primarily brought in to control and civilise the rebellious Irish, and was thrust upon them against their will.

However, evidence shows that people did in fact want education and schools for their children; they fought greatly for it. But it was the way education was to be implemented that caused contention and prevented the education problem from being resolved even after the Public Instruction Act was made law.

The Future of Australia?

Education of the ‘lower classes’ was not considered important in early England. Some feared that if you educated those at the bottom of society then you only created clever devils. Others thought that if you educated the poor, then they would become dissatisfied with their place in society and this might upset social order. Others again, simply took the view that people only needed to learn enough to do the job they were assigned to do in life. Education was for the wealthy, and the middle and upper classes generally managed the education of their own children.

Australian Convicts

Convicts in Colonial Australia

Education was out of reach for many and seen as unnecessary for others both in England and in colonial Australia. But all that changed when government leaders realised the potential for Australia to become a flourishing nation. Views on who should be educated started to change when officials recognized that convicts and convict children were going to be the future of Australia; that they would potentially be the leaders and founding fathers of this new nation. Educating the lower classes suddenly became an important idea.

The Church of England – Australia’s Established Church?

Government leaders became concerned with the education of convicts and their children and tried to help with the set up of places for children to be taught. Overseeing the maintenance of education was automatically assigned to the Church of England. The Church of England was the established Church in England and government officials assumed that naturally it would, and should, be the established Church in Australia and not a body independent.

The Anglican Church was granted financial assistance and given land for the purpose of setting up schools but this created conflict among other Christian churches. Members of other sects, especially Catholics, were expected to abandon their religion and risk excommunication by attending Anglican schools, or their children simply had to miss out on going to school.

Religious Conflict

The conflict created by the religious clash caused government leaders to pay attention. While the Church of England was the Established Church in England, it was not the dominant Church in Australia. Alan Barcan claims that a more tolerant religious and political environment in Australia was increasingly hostile to special privileges for one church.

Initially, leaders tried to accommodate individual churches by granting them assistance to form and run their own schools, but this soon proved to be too costly and inefficient. Accommodating religious differences became difficult because in some communities there were only enough enrolments to justify funding for one local school, not two or three.

Proposals and Rejections

So began the cycle of government proposals and rejections of different schooling systems.  Government officials were increasingly interested in a schooling system that did not favour any one church denomination to the exclusion of all others. But Church schools wanted to control how the Bible was interpreted and taught to their students, and they wanted state aid to do it. For them a true education moulded character and prepared a man not so much for what he must know but what he must be and what he must do.

A G Austin argues that such conflict was endured because only a society convinced of the importance of education would have tolerated the frustration and acrimony caused by the attempt to obtain schools.

Secularist Conflict

But by the late nineteenth century, Church schools were no longer just fighting against each other; they began fighting against a growing secular society. Alan Barcan attributes this to religious division, lack of one dominant Church, the undeveloped nature of society in a new land, scarcity of clergy in rural areas, a materialistic spirit encouraged by financial survival, and the lack of a strong middle class.

1913 NSW Public School

1913 NSW Public School

Support for secular reform was also supported by growing anti-Catholic feeling following the attempted assassination of Prince-Alfred, in 1868, by a deranged Irishman in Sydney. Attempts at abolishing state aid to all Church schools began in 1872 and became law in 1882, two years after the Public Instruction Act was introduced.
Catholic Oppostion

The Catholic Church continued to maintain its schools denied certification and many of these independent schools flourished. Catholic opposition continued, but the Roman Catholic Church made it clear that they were going to continue to challenge the constitutional foundations of Australian education.

It seems inevitable that the call for secular schools would have taken place whether or not Church schools experienced so much conflict in the path to an educated society. Because of their efforts, Church schools have survived into the twenty-first century, offering an alternative not just to families of those religions but to parents seeking an education grounded in values and principles as opposed to secular public schools.

Whatever the opinion on Church schools may be, the efforts of religious schools in the nineteenth century stand to challenge our notion of what an education truly is and ought to be for ourselves and our children.

April Webber


5 comments on “‘Free, Compulsory, and Secular Education’: Wanted by the people or forced on the people by the government?

  1. Connell Nisbet says:

    This was a well-researched and very insightful post. I thought you introduced the topic in a clear and concise manner then maintained a tight structure that allowed you to develop your ideas. It’s a fascinating part of Australia’s history to cover, especially as many of the issues you mentioned are continually appearing in the media, in particular, issues of government funding. You write in a very engaging way, getting to the heart of the ideological conflicts behind our early education system. I’d be curious to know if education systems in other settler colonies developed along similar lines – obviously this is beyond the scope of your paper, but the ideas you raised got me thinking. Well done.

  2. tifanycentelles says:

    I really liked this post. This topic is different which triggered me to read it! its very well researched, i never knew there was so much controversies to implement education in Australia nor did I think it was influenced by religion so much…! congrats, it was definitely one of my favorite papers!

  3. kmcqatmc says:

    Very interesting to read that conflicts over the purpose of religious/ethical elements of education are still continuing from a long history!

    This paper highlighted the historical tension between church groups to mould the deeper aspects of childrens schooling, and the attempts in the nineteenth century can be seen to have made a substantial impact on todays schools according to your work.

  4. karlietaylor says:

    This is an excellent post April, very interesting and informative. When my family first came to Australia they converted from Catholicism to the Church of England because it was the only school and church available in our small town. To this day our side of the family remains Anglican (some went back to Catholicism when they built a new church) and all of my grandparents and great-grandparents were devoutly Protestant. It’s interesting to see the effect that the availability of religion and religious education can have on people and we are so lucky to have such a diverse education system today because our forebears were willing to stand up for their faith and their principles.

  5. hannahp258 says:

    That was a very interesting and thought provoking article. It’s very worrying to think that secular education had such strong opposition in the 19th century, given how much we rely on it today. I recently wrote an essay on religious freedoms in Australia, and it seems more obvious as to why there is such a heavily forced separation today by the court and parliament. I also find it very intriguing how Australia has no established state church despite the obvious influences English culture would have had. It is perhaps interesting to note that secularism in schools is again being pushed with the recent high court challenge to ban Pastors in public schools.

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