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.
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.
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.
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.
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.