Public Instruction Act, 1880

Significant changes

The spark which touched off reform was the virulent criticism of the government schools by Catholic authorities who accused them of being 'seed plots of future immorality, infidelity, and lawlessness'.   The Catholic authorities saw the government school system as a subtle means of 'squeezing… the Catholic faith out of Catholic people', and hoped to encourage their flock to support the denominational schools rather than the government schools.  In this they were successful, but at the same time their criticism created a bitter reaction against the continuation of State aid for denominational schools, especially Catholic ones.  A bill to change the administration of State education in New South Wales was introduced into parliament by Parkes in 1879.  After a stormy passage the Public Instruction Act, 1880 came into force on 1 May 1880. The Act both extended the educational provision made under the 1866 Act and introduced significant changes. The more important of these changes were the withdrawal of State aid to denominational schools as from the beginning of 1883, the introduction of compulsory education, the entry of the State into the field of secondary education and the replacement of the Council of Education by the Department of  Public Instruction on 1 May 1880. In broadening educational provision the 1880 Act modified some of the existing schools and created three new types of schools - Superior Public, High, and Evening Public Schools.

First Superior Public Schools

The Superior Public Schools were identical in structure to present day Central Schools, that is, they combined primary and secondary pupils in the same school. This type of school had been developing under the Council of Education when some of the larger Public schools were able to introduce the 'higher branches of learning' to pupils who had completed the normal elementary school course. The first Superior Public Schools were gazetted in 1881 and by 1890 their number had increased to 64; they reached a maximum of 145 in the first decade of the twentieth century.

First High Schools

High Schools first began in late 1883 with the establishment of separate High Schools for boys and girls in Bathurst, Goulburn and Sydney. From their inception the High Schools offered an academic course designed mainly for students intent on entering the university; entrance to the High School was through a competitive examination. Prior to the reorganisation of secondary education after 1910, the government High School system received little community or government support. Relatively high fees for these schools placed them at a great disadvantage to the Superior Public Schools in which fees were nominal. Consequently, Superior Public Schools in country areas often became de facto High Schools and many of their pupils sat for and passed the university entrance examinations. In contrast High School enrolments never exceeded 1,000 in any year prior to 1910.

Establishment of Evening Public Schools

Evening Public Schools were designed for young people who, having had little primary education, wanted the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. These schools required at least 10 pupils aged 14 or over; usually only males attended Evening Public Schools because the Victorian code of morality discouraged the 'promiscuous intermingling of the sexes' at night. Evening Public Schools operated in the buildings of the local Public School, normally under the charge of that school's teacher. In the initial establishment of an Evening Public School local enthusiasm ran high, but two hours a night, three times a week, frequently blunted the keenest scholar and in many cases the schools did not last longer than their first winter; only in major centres, such as Sydney or Newcastle, did some of them operate for long periods. In general terms, the Evening Public School movement was a failure, and quite understandably so. With the introduction of compulsory education and the extension of government schools into most parts of the colony there were very few places where children did not get at least a smattering of literacy. Even in their best year, Evening Public Schools enrolled fewer than 2,000 pupils, less than one per cent of total enrolments in the government school system, yet a significant number for a system of schools which were essentially remedial. In 1911 the Evening Public Schools were replaced by more vocationally oriented schools; this change will be dealt with when the general reorganisation after 1910 is explained.

House to House schools

The extension of educational services brought about by the 1880 Act included liberalising the conditions under which Public and Provisional Schools could be established; for example, in Public Schools the minimum attendance required was reduced from 25 to 20 (many Provisional Schools were therefore automatically converted into Public Schools) and for Provisional Schools the number required was lowered to 12. The Department also introduced a smaller variation of the Half-Time Schools, to cater for sparsely populated areas unable to be reached by conventional Half-Time Schools. The new schools were to be composed of three or more families or groups of families residing some miles apart, each forming a teaching station which was visited in turn by an itinerant teacher employed by the Department. Instruction was confined to the elements of literacy. At first, in 1881, the Department called these schools Third-Time Schools but by 1882 the term House to House School had been adopted and was used thereafter. Despite the intention, nearly half the House to House Schools had only two stations, many operating in specially erected buildings, and the main difference between them and Half-Time Schools was in the smaller size of the former. There was also a significant minority of House to House Schools with only one teaching station, the Department taking advantage of the fact that these teachers were paid less than in Provisional Schools. The number of House to House Schools quickly reached a peak around 1890 and by 1910 had dwindled to a bare handful. Enrolments in these schools represented at their maximum a little over one per cent of total enrolments in the government school system. It is worth noting that an offshoot of the House to House School, the Travelling School, which snail-like carried its own schoolroom and teacher's quarters in the form of a caravan and tent, emerged in 1908. It was modelled on a school which had opened in Queensland in 1901. While there were only three Travelling Schools, they were a romantic addition to the education system, and the last one, Ivanhoe Travelling School, survived to the end of 1949.

Separate Aboriginal Schools

The first Aboriginal School in the government education system also appeared in the 1880s. When the 1880 Act came into force, less than 200 out of an eligible 1,500 Aboriginal children were under instruction, half of whom were accounted for in the two Christian mission schools at Maloga and Warangesda. The compulsory clauses of the Act, together with the practice of the Aborigines Protection Board of encouraging Aboriginal attendance at local schools, led to a greater number enrolling in government schools and a corresponding increase in protests by white parents over their children associating with children from the 'blacks' camps'. The result was the development of a system of separate Aboriginal Schools. At their peak in the late 1930s some 40 schools were in operation, and all told 60 Aboriginal Schools have existed at one time or another. After 1940, in line with a newly adopted policy of assimilation, Aboriginal Schools were gradually merged into local Public Schools. In 1968 the title Aboriginal School was abolished and the few surviving schools were given Public School status.

Compulsory attendance

The compulsory clauses of the Public Instruction Act directed parents of school-aged children (6 to 14 years of age) to 'cause such children to attend school for a period of not less than seventy days in each half-year'. Despite the difficulties in later years of enforcing attendance, the response in the early 1880s was almost overwhelming. Enrolments in government schools, which had been increasing during the 1870s at an average rate of 9 per cent, jumped in 1880 by 25 per cent and by 17 per cent in the following year; further increases occurred from 1883 as the government system absorbed many pupils from denominational schools which had either closed as a result of the withdrawal of State aid or been converted to government schools. As had occurred with the 1866 Act, the lowering of minimum attendances for Public and Provisional Schools led to a spate of applications for new schools; when to this was added the influx of pupils into the school system brought about by the compulsory clauses of the 1880 Act, the result was a massive increase in the number of schools. By using tents, portable classrooms and rented premises, as well as conventional school buildings, the Department increased the number of schools within a matter of five years from 1,100 to 2,100; by the time of Federation there were 2,800 schools in existence, very close to the all-time record of 2,885 in 1913.

New schools and courses of study

The decade following the passing of the 1880 Act was obviously a busy time for the Department. Not only were hundreds of new schools brought into existence, but many new courses of study were introduced, and the Department appeared to be on the threshold of a 'golden age'. Unfortunately the flowering of the government school system in the 1880s was stifled by the economic depression of the 1890s: expenditure on education was severely reduced and by the time the government school system entered the twentieth century it was in poor physical shape and trailing modern educational developments both overseas and in some of the other States of Australia.