How Far We've Come with NGS Super - The tale of free and compulsory schooling

Part 1: The tale of free and compulsory schooling

Squiz it to me

Where do we start? 
Let's rewind to the early 1850s… Australia was a bunch of colonies and half a century away from becoming a nation. Victoria had just split from NSW to create its own colony. Suffice it to say, there were no digital whiteboards, no iPads in the classroom - and compulsory education is not a thing…

But there were schools, right? 
Yep - and let’s stick with Victoria. When they separated from NSW, they inherited 2 types of schools -  those linked to a church and those that weren’t. So what the government did was chip in some cash, but locals had to provide a minimum number of students and provide the school buildings.

And the teachers?
The government paid teachers’ salaries as long as the school taught a set curriculum and passed inspections. But the people running the school could nominate the teacher and oversee their conduct.

So what if I lived somewhere that wasn’t super organised and running a school?
Bingo - and that’s where trouble brewed... The Catholic and Protestant churches were more organised and had buildings they could easily repurpose to become a school, so they dominated the education system. They also spent a lot of time fighting each other ‘cos that was a thing.

So, what happened?
As more people migrated to Victoria to find their fortunes in the gold rush, calls for education reforms were being made. What the government did initially was create a single Board of Education to oversee both types of schools - aka those run but churches and those that weren’t.

And did that work?
Nope. Because they continued funding religious schools, church representatives dominated the board. Cue a Royal Commission set up in 1866, chaired by the Attorney-General George Higinbotham (great name…) and made up of representatives from the religious denominations - except the Catholics who refused to attend.

What were its findings?
Higinbotham found that state-funded education was the way to go. Religion wasn’t totally off the table - the Commission recommended schools teach a ‘common Christianity’. And you can imagine how the Catholics and Protestants felt about that…

They didn’t like it?
Nope. As the largest provider of education, the Catholic Church didn't endorse the Commission's recommendation on how religion would be taught - and without their support, the Protestants also withdrew their backing.

So, we're stuck…
Until the 1872 election. And get this - members of the protectionist and free trader factions were huge rivals, but they were keen to bring about the downfall of Victorian Premier Sir Charles Duffy, who was accused of favouring Catholics. The issue they came together over? They were both against the funding of religious schools.

I’m on the edge of my seat… 
You’ve gotta love a good political drama… What happened in that election was the Catholic Church called on its congregations to oppose candidates supporting "godless compulsory education," but this move backfield by galvanising the Protestant majority in Victoria. And in June 1872, the Duffy Government was defeated.

What happened next?
Hello free/secular (aka non-religious) education… And the 1872 Education Act made it compulsory for children aged 6-15yo. It also made Victoria one of the first places in the world to do it.

So what happened to the religious schools?
Good question because government funding for church schools ceased. In practice, most of the religious schools folded theirs into the new system. But the Catholics held on to theirs - hence the significant network that remains to this day.

And I’m guessing the other Aussie colonies followed suit?
Exactly right - it’s how public schooling became the backbone of the Australian primary and secondary education system. By 1908, all the states (as they were after Federation in 1901) had centralised government departments administering free, compulsory, and secular education.

Where are we today?

Since 2010, it has been compulsory in all states and territories for kids between 6-16yo to attend school. According to the OCED, that’s over 11,000 hours in education hours from the beginning of primary school to the end of Year 10. 

The fine print: School completion rates for Indigenous, remote, low socio-economic young Aussies are significantly lower than metro students. And in recent years, the decline has been continuing.

The other fine print: Australia’s academic performance for primary and secondary students has also declined.

The numbers:

• $319 billion - How much the Australian Government has committed to providing in additional education funding between 2018-2029.

• 1 in 3 - Aussie students don’t meet the minimum requirements for numeracy and literacy according to NAPLAN test results. It’s data backed up by the Productivity Commission which say that Australian student scores on international tests have seen a statistically significant decline in both maths and reading.

• 56% - the retention rate from Year 10 to Year 12 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in 2022. That compares with the national average of 79%. But… the gap between Indigenous students and the national average has reduced by 3% over the last decade.

Where to from here?

• These days, about 30% of primary and 40% of high school kids attend private schools. Both public and private/independent schools get money from the government, however, private schools can tack on extra fees. The priciest school in Oz? Geelong Grammar - it charges over $46,000 for students in Years 10, 11 and 12.

• And when it comes to academic performance, private schools tend to see better results. However, reports say that is mostly down to socioeconomic factors. The key to levelling the educational field? Needs-based funding. It’s something successive governments have been trying to address - we’ll dive into the 2012 Gonski review in a couple of weeks - but so far it’s been a bit of a mess.

• Many argue that the introduction of universal early education is another way to tackle declining academic performance, while also helping parents who are juggling kids and work. It’s something that the Albanese Government have asked the Productivity Commission to look into.

Get the Squiz Today newsletter

Quick, agenda-free news that doesn't take itself too seriously. Get on it.