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The foreign origins of state schools

By Paul Duane - posted Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Historian Geoffrey Blainey has claimed that Australia's real education revolution occurred late in the nineteenth century, the landmark being Victoria's Education Act of 1872 which introduced what were then called 'state' schools. Not so well appreciated today is the extent to which the models for that revolution were foreign.

There were plenty of ideas from abroad. As former federal government minister Barry Jones has pointed out, the Victorian Attorney General James Stephen, who introduced the 1872 Bill to the Legislative Assembly, referred to English poet and education reformer Matthew Arnold eight times during his speech. And the themes of secular, compulsory and free education had been prominent for some years already in the campaigns of the Birmingham Education League. Whilst such inspirations came from abroad, they were hardly foreign though for a colony that still called England 'home'.

No, the most prominent inspirations for key features of this Bill were the education systems of several continental European nations, notably Prussia, to which Stephen also referred frequently, often through his quotations of Arnold. Consider just three parts of Stephen's speech, which opened the Debate.


First, in the context of explaining why the 'home country' could not offer any example of policies worth following, Stephen dismissed emphatically any acceptance of an English model: ".. if we want a precedent for legislation on the subject of education, we cannot find it in the mother country. There is nothing in Imperial legislation on the subject of education which is not to be avoided in a country like this". Instead, he concluded "No doubt we can derive a great deal of light from the successful way in which education is carried on in Prussia, in Switzerland, and in Holland." (Victoria, Parliamentary Debates, Session 1872).

Second, in the context of explaining why his Government would take direct control of primary schooling (and to allay any fears related thereto), Stephen referred Members to a Report from a number of English gentlemen who said this of the Prussian System : "It is emphatically not a mere centralized system, in which Government is everything. ... In Prussia the Education Department is simply the instrument which the people use to procure the fulfilment of their own desires." He then asked Members to listen to what Mr Matthew Arnold says of the Prussians: "They are proud of their schools, and will not allow the Government to sacrifice them to any other interests".

Third, in recommending Switzerland "as a model whether we regard the training of its people as soldiers or the education of her children", Stephen recommended a book by Mr Hepworth Dixon. This book (The Switzers, 3rd edition 1872) offers a fascinating insight into the mind-set of that era, describing in detail how the Swiss practice of drilling schoolchildren from the age of 6 or 7 in military-style parade ground manoeuvres proved so valuable when Switzerland confronted France during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

On this last point, Opposition member Joseph Jones later joined the Debate by expressing strong affinity with the freely chosen education serving the average Englishman, and his revulsion at what he perceived to be the military purposes of the continental systems of education, particularly those of Prussia and Austria.

These and other references in the Debate confirm that colonial Victoria's politicians of liberal outlook were keen to remodel their education system in the image of quite different, indeed foreign traditions. Traditions that were also more closely aligned, ironically, with a more expansive role for the State in society, at the sacrifice of certain liberties.

The most important policy import from these foreign traditions was the one that made Victoria's education system free for all students, as long as they attended only the State's schools. Prussia had made its own State schools free in the previous century. This had been vital to its social policy of controlling the formation and loyalty of its citizens, which it extended to the larger, even more powerful entity of Germany, created under its direction in 1871.


Providing a free State education to Victorians was an unrivaled way, in principle, of destroying the then existing education system, especially when this free schooling was combined with the Act's withdrawal of State subsidies to the previously dominant private schools. It was a formula for nationalization. Stephen's government did not want these private schools to survive, except through their absorption into the new State system.

The first respondent to Stephen's speech, Opposition speaker Mr T H Fellows, countered with a classically liberal prescription favouring individual liberty and a more limited role for the State. His preferred means of assuring a universal education was to subsidise all children of primary school age, not just those attending a State school. This would have preserved a private education sub-sector that was diverse, competitive, and at some remove from State control. He proposed equal subsidies for every schoolchild, but stopped short of sizing that subsidy at a free education equivalent.

The government side in that forum won, of course, and Victoria's State schools soon provided an influential model for other colonial governments to follow. Which is largely why we continue to struggle today with the issue of education funding. Despite the return of subsidies for private school students during the past few decades, Australia has not managed to shake off the old Prussian-style, authoritarian spirit of our governments' involvement in education.

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About the Author

Paul Duane had careers in the Federal Public Service and the World Bank, working on agricultural and economic development issues. An interest in education led him to make a submission to the Gonski Review of Funding for Schooling.

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