Review: A History of Australian Schooling

Book cover of A History of Australian Schooling

A History of Australian Schooling by Craig Campbell and Helen Proctor (Crows Nest, NSW:Allen & Unwin, 2014).

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

Other Education History Sources

7 thoughts on “Review: A History of Australian Schooling

  1. I think I know those 1970s histories that you speak of: at Teachers’ College we did a semester unit on the history of education and I am sure that the texts we read were the same. I found it fascinating. I remember feeling proud that the Australian colonies were so progressive as to legislate for education that was ‘secular, compulsory and free’ and I’m not the only one, I am sure, who thinks that if we had not wasted the blood of our best and brightest on the battlefields of Europe in a stupid war, Australia with an educated workforce would have led the 20th century in many fields.


    • I got the impression that Miles Franklin was very disappointed at the vibrancy that Australia had lost when she returned to Australia after the war. It was not only the intellect and zest of the lost soldiers but how the life of those who survived was trampled by the horrific events of the war years.


  2. I read and used Campbell and Proctor (2014) in my own school and community history work. It is an excellent overview, which is very comprehensive in its range and conclusions, for the short “summative” style. We need, though, also national and state over-arching histories which provide further analytical depth. The conclusions of such works may not differ to those of Campbell and Proctor, but one cannot predict where such original research adventure would arrive. I am thinking here of the question of unevenness. I am struck in Campbell and Proctor how solid the educational history has been in Victoria, with New South Wales following. There is perhaps no surprise there, given the actual historical events in Victoria, producing the likes of Frank Tate. However, the educational history of Queensland is left floundering. It is not that there have not been educational historians working hard in the state, but that the work has never been seriously supported by government and private sectors. There is no deep and comprehensive educational history work done in Queensland in the way that it is done in Victoria and New South Wales. It is certainly not either that Queensland does not have a story to tell, because our community has been a backwater of agrarian populism, although that tell something of why Queensland governments and Queensland businesses always prioritize away from cultural and socio-intellectual stories. Some one would argue that the problem is the narrow ideological outlooks among academics in the university’s humanities schools. But that is overlooking the damn obvious — the professionally-trained educational historians, who I know are the ones who can do the job, are underemployed and well outside paid academia. Why are they not supported to do the job? Why won’t anybody make the Queensland government and businesses aware of this fact? Why doesn’t one care when, for example, the Queensland government closed down its history unit?


    • Queensland education is fascinating and it is important that it is researched. This Queensland Library website gives just a taste of the history of schooling in Queensland. It is sad that the Queensland government does not value this (or value Queensland’s cultural achievements, witness the failure to fund the literary awards). There are no easy answers to this problem.


  3. On the matter of whether ‘religion’ gets written out of the history, I don’t think is straightforward, as critics like Greg Melleuish suggests. The problem is not that the criticism has no validity; it is that the inference that there is a deliberate attempt to write religion out by left-wing historians, of whom Craig Campbell is an archetype, is just a polemical blow-out without the deep analytical research that Melleuish actually calls for. The polemics is hollow when the same left-wing historians are accused of pseudo-religion because of their moralistic and prophet-like historiography. Hence, see the ambiguity which arises, without the detailed intellectual history done on both religious and secular values — “[s]chool secularists usually believed that moral instruction could proceed from common Christian values”. Can you see it, there before you, in this short statement? I can, because I do that kind of research.

    Let me explain. When the complaint is made that ‘religion’ is getting written out of history what exactly is being referred to? Is it an umbrella term which seeks to catch one or two of the following: established institutions, morality, metaphysics (of some kind), or is it worship, or is it spirituality, whatever that term signifies. When you look at the histories, you do actually get a lot of some of these items and less of other items. It is not straightforward as what has been implied. As a way of an example, for those who know know something of Australian history, which is the harder task to name? An Archbishop — Anglican or Catholic or Orthodox — or to name a President of the Rationalist Society or any other freethinking / humanist organisation, or for that matter, name a President of the Congregationalist Union, the Baptist Union, the Methodist Conference? What about Australian leaders of the Muslim community, the Bahá’í community, Hindu…Buddhist…etc? The point is when critics or apologists talk of ‘religion’ you can be sure that something more specific is in reference. And I include myself. If it is not a question of an institution or an organised religion, it is a kind of morality, a metaphysics, or a particular activity — communal or private.

    Why ‘religion’ seems to be written out of the history is ultimately a problem of language. The idea of religion is itself a historical artefact that is becoming dated, and for believers as much as for skeptics. It has acted in Western history as an umbrella term but with hidden references, so that there have been ambiguous positive and negative connotations utilized. This is something that Karl Barth understood in arguing that ‘religion’ is merely man’s insufficient response to God, but then we have to ask Barth why ‘revelation’ ought to be quarantine from the definition.

    Religion ought not be written out of the history, but nor should various ideas of secularity, and more importantly, neither should the vast array of ideas which can not be neatly captured by umbrella terms.


  4. I attended Dorcas St Primary School Sth Melb from prep through to grade 6 I had 7 wonderful years and had many friends it was a wonderful place to be. I m very sad and dissapointed it did not continue to remain a school. If this building is so called heritage listed then why was it desicrated and turned into housing. I am aware the answer to this question will be the front section only is heritage preserved my opinion is no excuse thats an appalling excuse it is sadly ruined. How dare they.


    • I used to live just a couple of blocks from the school in the early 1990s. It was sad to see it closed along with many other schools in the mid 1990s and now there is a shortage of government schools in the area! Have you recorded your memories of the school?


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