For over a century Australian schools have acted as future-shapers. Since the era of compulsory schooling emerged in the Australian colonies during the late nineteenth-century, every Australian child has spent a number of years in school. Children take at least some of the ideas and behaviours that are developed in the classroom and in the playground with them for the rest of their lives. As such it surprises me that education history is seen as a ‘special interest’ and not a field that is part of the core of Australian history.
A History of Australian Schooling by Craig Campbell and Helen Proctor is a chance for people to catch up on the latest research in Australia’s schooling history in one readable volume. It is long overdue. When I started exploring the history of education in Australia seven years ago I had to turn to books published in the 1970s for the overview I needed to become grounded in this history. Those books were good but forty years later our society has changed and a substantial amount of historical research into many different themes has been conducted. A History of Australian Schooling encompasses a broad range of themes in Australian education history including those that have not been previously collected in one volume.
It is little surprise that highly regarded historians of education such as Campbell and Proctor also argue that schools are an important shaper of our society. “A popular way to think about schools and society is to see schools as merely ‘reflecting’ society” they observe. “We prefer the perspective that schools are an integral part of society; rather than reflecting it, they are often powerful agents in its ‘making’.” If we accept this assertion, then we need to consider the role of schools in any historical question.
A History of Australian Schooling is a thorough overview of schooling in Australia, but unlike the education histories of the 1970s, Campbell and Proctor have made sure that Aboriginal schooling is included. They set themselves an ambitious objective by also including the history of Catholic and private schooling, the schooling of the disabled as well as covering the different government school histories of each state in just 304 pages.
A History of Australian Schooling unfolds the history chronologically. While the focus is on schooling as distinct from the broader area of education the authors recognise that Aboriginal societies long had a formal education system by opening the narrative with a brief overview of the formal education of Aboriginal children before white settlement. The book covers a vast period by closing with a chapter about Australian schooling as we know it in the twenty-first century.
This book is a survey of existing scholarship rather than a presentation of new archival research. As well as the newer themes of interest it also includes important issues that have been recognised in Australia’s education history for many years such as how education authorities grappled with the issue of religion, gender and developments in curriculum.
To manage such a wide remit Campbell and Proctor don’t attempt a comprehensive history of everything in Australia’s schooling history. They find examples which they present as typical of what has taken place elsewhere, such as using the example of Western Australia which they argue demonstrates a similar history of the foundation of public schools to that of other colonies.
One of the strengths of Australian history over the last twenty years or more has been the ground-breaking research into indigenous-settler relations. Campbell and Proctor highlight the long history of denial of education to Aboriginal children by white parents who did not want their children mixing with Aboriginal children at school. The attempts by some Aboriginal parents who wanted their children to receive education foundered in the face of complaints by some white parents to the authorities and other local antagonisms. That and the insistence that Aboriginal children conform to white cultural expectations makes it little wonder that schools are seen as being a white person’s realm. The struggle that Aboriginal people have had with the white education system is mentioned in many memoirs by Aboriginal authors. It has been and continues to be a struggle, but as Campbell and Proctor note, it is important to recognise that Aboriginal people have also had a long history of wanting their children to attend school.
One of the themes that interested historians in the 1970s was the relationship between religion and schools. The histories that were published in this era coincided with the centenary of the ‘free, compulsory and secular’ education acts in many colonies. After several decades where education historians have focussed elsewhere the history of religion and Australian schools is gaining a renewed interest. This is largely generated by current controversies in the eastern states about the role of religious education in the curriculum and funding of schools managed by religious organisations.
Campbell and Proctor’s coverage of these issues as they arose at various points during the two centuries of European-based schooling in Australia is good. They don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the meaning of the word ‘secular’ in the nineteenth century education system was the same as the meaning we give the word today. In the late nineteenth century, “[s]chool secularists usually believed that moral instruction could proceed from common Christian values”, they explain. Even though religious education is not the focus of A History of Australian Schooling, this book handles that aspect of the history of schooling much better than Marion Maddox does in her polemic against religious education in schools. You can read my review of Taking God to School by Marion Maddox at the Newtown Review of Books.
The presentation of the research in A History of Australian Schooling is clear and readable for the lay person. The authors recognise that at times numbers are an effective language, but they are judicious in their choice of tables so that a good balance is maintained between words and numbers. The book is written without sparkle, but the authors are careful to manage any personal proclivities, which is welcome when they discuss issues which are currently controversial.
Yet A History of Australian Schooling is not bland. The final two chapters, ‘Towards a market of schools: 1976-2000’ and ‘The present and future school’ are sure to stimulate the reader to actively engage with their own experiences of schools while reading this book. Campbell and Proctor note the problem of gendered enrolment in elective subjects that persists despite years of work to break down gender barriers. But will the reader agree with the simple binary thinking of the authors that does not admit of the possibility that boys can be discriminated against in some situations?
Campbell and Proctor have some penetrating observations about the current state of Australian schooling. Like others they question the drive for all people to be in formal education for longer and longer. “In the twenty-first century it seems, there is no such thing as too much education.” They point to an issue that the transformative potential of education should have addressed:
Schools remain powerful institutions for producing more and less powerful social groups, and classes, and hierarchies in society.
And who could disagree with this:
School funding is such a highly charged issue in Australia that its politics overbalance sensible policy-making.
The last two chapters really engage the reader and encourage them to debate education issues with the authors as they read. For all this, the concluding paragraph is rather ho-hum. Campbell and Proctor say that history explains how we have arrived at our current state. This is true, but I prefer Ann McGrath’s declaration at the last Australian Historical Association conference. History inspires us to something greater I recall her saying. This is because we can see examples of how we can break out of the constraints of doing things the same way we did things in the past. History should encourage us to live better, rather than passively living in the ruts of the past.
A History of Australian Schooling is a valuable synopsis of our current understanding of the history of schooling in Australia. The research behind this book is substantial and the authors show their mastery of the material. It should be of great interest to teachers and historians as well as the legions of family historians who wonder about their ancestor’s experience of school.
My Education History Work
- Religion in State Schools, including my honours thesis, ‘Queensland’s Bible in State Schools Referendum 1910: A Case Study of Democracy’. My work focuses on the rise of secularism in Australian society.
- Teaching Reading in Australia: This ARC-funded project was led by three professors of education.
- Various blog posts about education history.
Other Education History Sources
- Dictionary of Education History of Australia and New Zealand: this excellent online resource is a project of the Australian and New Zealand Education Society and edited by Associate Professors, Josephine May, Craig Campbell and Jennifer Collins.