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Learning and education


Children learned their ABC at their mother's knee from time immemorial until at least the era of compulsory elementary education was ushered in during the 1870s; some children have continued to do so of course, with home schooling a preferred option for some parents.

In the medieval period, children, in particular the sons of nobility, would be placed in the households of other nobles to learn their letters, courtesy and the other accomplishments that would be required of them. There were schools attached to many of the religious houses, although initially at least these were used to train the young boys recruited as altar boys or choristers. There were separately standing schools recorded in England during the reign of William the Conqueror in the 11th century. While it should be noted that these schools were not intended for the general populace and that fees were charged, their existence is evidence of formal education for some. Again, it should be noted that most of these institutions were limited to boys. In the main girls of the wealthy classes needed to know only enough Latin to be able to read their prayer books or books of instruction. This would remain the case for centuries, as it was considered that the woman's main purpose in life was to marry, bear children and manage a household: for this a formal and extensive education was not considered necessary.

Growth of grammar schools

Grammar schools were founded in England during the first half of the 16th century with the intention of increasing knowledge in the young but also to promote the worship of God. Tudor merchants and the great Guilds fostered these in London and elsewhere in the kingdom; middle class families would take full advantage of these to the benefit of their children. The working classes, while theoretically able to use these schools, had neither 'the background nor, in an essentially unegalitarian society, the incentive to avail themselves of the education the schools had to offer'. From about 1559 for the next century the Puritans had a strong influence in schools, but the intent was more specifically to educate against the Roman Catholic faith and to promote Protestantism. From the Restoration (1660 or the return of the Stuart monarchy to the English throne) however, the education offered by the grammar schools became less relevant with too great an emphasis on Greek and Latin and religious instruction. Something more utilitarian was required. New academies were established and there was always the option for the wealthy of home tutoring.

The poor

For the poor the 'elderly Dame's school had been the cornerstone of children's learning for a great many years.' In these schools an elderly woman would undertake to teach children the basics of reading and writing for a small fee. Charity schools were started in the late 17th century: with a strong emphasis on religion these taught poor children to read and write and simple arithmetic. Assistance was also provided in helping the boys find apprenticeships and in preparing the girls for domestic service. Sunday schools were founded in the late 18th century. Unlike their modern successors, the Sunday school provided 'three to five hours of instruction each week for an average of four years, using specialized textbooks ...' The Sunday schools spread rapidly across the country and the impact of these greatly increased the literacy of the poor masses in 19th century England. Ragged schools, workhouse schools and factory schools all made some contribution to the basic education of the poor. The great leap forward was the Elementary Education Act of 1870 (Great Britain)which provided education for all.

The wealthy

The middle and upper classes could always use private tutors or the new academies for their sons or employ a governess for their daughters. The quality of these teachers could, of course, vary greatly. Some children were abandoned almost totally into their hands; in other families the parents took an active role, reserving for themselves some elements in their children's education depending on their own interests. There were also the public (ie private) schools. Again these catered predominantly for boys.

Typically a governess might be expected to be able to teach the following: French, Italian, arithmetic, geography, some astronomy, algebra, mathematics and history, together with needlework of all kinds and possibly music. Despite this apparent depth of knowledge young girls at this period were still being prepared for marriage. A career beyond this was either as a governess or by sewing of some sort.

In South Australia

The South Australian School Society was founded in 1838 and its first building erected on North Terrace, Adelaide, although it was never used for its intended purpose. Lack of funding meant the Society was quickly wound up. However, George Fife Angas noted in 1843 that there were 47 schools in South Australia. Private schools were established, including St Peter's College in 1847 and dame schools flourished in the poorer areas. In 1851 An Act to promote Education in South Australia, by aids towards the creation of Schools and the payment of Stipends to Teachers (Education Act) was passed 'to support and improve ... parents' and neighbours' efforts to establish schools.' For the next 20 years a statutory Board of Education subsidised the building of schools and supplemented teachers' incomes (teachers were generally paid out of the fees paid by the parents; the Board's supplementary payments were for demonstrably 'efficient' teachers). These schools were intended for the lower and middle classes. The wealthy provided for the education of their own children with private tutors and governesses, and with privately funded schools. The 1851 Act did not make attendance compulsory and, in Adelaide's poorer sections and in rural areas, children attended school when and as their parents' could afford it, and when they were not required to assist about the house or farm. As late as the 1890s and after the passing of An Act to amend the Law relating to Public Education (Education Act) in 1875 which enforced compulsory attendance in elementary school, at least one mother is recorded as stating in response to the question of her children's school attendance: 'I have three children going to school and I require one at home so I send them alternate weeks.' (Richards p. 378)

The 1875 Education Act made it compulsory for children between the ages of seven and 13 to attend school. Full time attendance was still not compulsory; a minimum of about two-thirds of the school year was allowed, which was largely dictated by the need for the children's labour on family farms. Full time compulsory attendance was finally legislated in 1915. Meanwhile working class parents had petitioned successfully for free elementary education, which was granted in 1891. The school leaving age was raised to 15 years in 1963, and then to 16 in 2003. From 2009 the school leaving age in South Australia will be increased to 17 years. (Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia have already set the school leaving age at 17, while New South Wales and Victoria have recently raised it to 16.)

Today there is a growing awareness of a fall in literacy and numeracy competency in Australian schools. These issues are being addressed both formally and informally with National Literacy and Numeracy Benchmarks, Premier's Reading Challenge programmes and National Literacy and Numeracy Week.


The Kindergarten Union of South Australia was founded in 1905 and the first kindergarten was opened in 1906. Located in Franklin Street in the city of Adelaide, it intentionally catered for the poorest children. Another one was opened in the inner western suburb of Bowden in 1908 and by 1939 there were 10 in Adelaide and suburbs. A Kindergarten Training College was opened in 1907. By 1975 there were 300 kindergartens throughout South Australia and 10 years later the government took over the Kindergarten Union. The emphasis became more firmly oriented on childcare, rather than early learning programs based on the Montessori Method.

High schools

State high schools were established in 1908, with the opening of Adelaide High School. The state run Advanced School for Girls, which had been established in 1879, amalgamated with Adelaide High School later the same year. Nine country towns gained 'district high schools' when the higher classes of their primary schools were converted, usually within the same physical location. By 1910 there were four high schools in metropolitan Adelaide, and for nearly 40 years this remained the total number: Adelaide, Norwood, Unley and Woodville.

In 1915 the school leaving age was raised to 14 and finally in the mid-1950s the number of high schools was increased. Changes in the curricula were made as need and state finances directed: technical subjects were added as an alternative to academic subjects. These were seen to prepare boys for work as apprentices in the various trades. Special technical high schools were opened, operating successfully for many years and then were closed when it was considered the need was no longer there. This decision has recently been reversed, and technical schools are now being opened throughout Australia in response to a shortfall in tradespeople. Changes continue to be made in preparing students for life beyond secondary school, whether it is in tertiary education, the professions or apprenticeships in technical trades. VET is a national system designed to give workers the skills to work in particular industries, for example plumbing and retail. It applies to all ages, not just school students.

Private education

In 19th century South Australia there were many families that provided private education for their children with tutors and governesses. The Gilbert family of Pewsey Vale can be used as an example. The children's education was begun by their mother's companion and helper: she guided Joe, Bill and Dorothy with reading and writing, but was later replaced due to need for her elsewhere in the large family by their first governess who stayed with them for a year. The next governess stayed three years and taught reading writing and arithmetic as well as music and some French. The children were at this time between six and eight years old. Another governess was employed as a stop-gap for six months while the family waited for another recommended governess to arrive. She had to work with children ranging in age from six to eleven and improved the children's French but other subjects are not mentioned. The next governess remained with the family for nine years until the youngest girls were ready for a year at a finishing school in Adelaide. This governess, Miss Cohn, is remembered fondly by the children, and Dorothy wrote 'we loved her dearly, she had a great gift for making learning interesting, and taught English, French, German, Latin, History, geography, music (piano) dancing & maths, not so successfully, but even so the boys all managed to get into their right classes for age groups as they each in turn went to school.' ('Country life...', p. 59)

The eldest son Harry had, before the arrival of the governesses, been sent to stay with a Reverend Ward at Semaphore. He specialised in preparing boys for admission to St Peter's College. Harry went on to Melbourne University at 16.

The children's day included half an hour's piano practice before breakfast (there were two pianos), and then lessons began at 9.00am, with a break at 11.00am for a glass of milk and a 'wild run in the garden', followed by more lessons until 12.45pm when they had lunch. There was another hour's lessons after lunch followed by a walk with the governess. Tea was at 5pm, and then after a brush and tidy-up, the children joined their parents in the drawing room for the 'children's hour' where they played games or sang around the piano.

Private schools

In the earliest years of South Australia the majority of schools were privately run and fee paying. In 1837 or 1838 Congregational minister Thomas Stow  founded an academy based on the English grammar schools; this provided higher education than that obtained in the elementary and dame schools. There were also a number of other schools which provided education for the children of wealthy families but most did not survive beyond the 19th century. St Peter's College and Pulteney Grammar School, both founded in 1847, and Prince Alfred College (founded 1869) are exceptions. These were established by the Anglican and Methodist Churches and supported in part by funding from them. Others would follow. The first church school for girls was Methodist Ladies College opened in 1902 (now Annesley College). The Catholic Church also established colleges, particularly after An Act to amend the Law relating to Public Education (Education Act) was passed in 1875 and the establishment of state primary schools, which it believed 'masked Protestant biases as well as general godlessness.' Christian Brothers College was established in 1878, Sacred Heart College in 1897 to name but two. There are also many non-denominational private schools providing an alternative to State or Catholic education.

Today private schools are supported by both federal and state government aid. There has been a decline in use of government schools with an increasing number of parents both able to afford and preferring the perceived advantages of private schooling for their children.

Distance education

A special aspect of education in Australia deals with providing an education to children beyond the reach of schools. The Correspondence School was opened in 1920; sets of lessons were prepared by staff in Adelaide and posted fortnightly to pupils in remote locations. The children worked through the lessons with their mother or governess and then returned them to Adelaide. Any questions were also posted to Adelaide and the answers received perhaps two to six weeks later. There was enormous isolation.

In the late 1940s a scheme was developed to use the two-way radios that connected most remote properties with the Royal Flying Doctor Service and to provide a home schooling service. The School of the Air was officially launched in June 1951. This was a world first and brought children out of that isolation and gave them the opportunity to interact with teachers and other students. While this still operates successfully with over 1000 students across Australia there is also the Open Access College which caters for students from Reception to Year 12, and includes adult re-entry. Open Access College caters not just for remote students, but those who for a number of reasons are unable to attend a school.

Further reading:

Ashton, Jean. Out of the silence, [Adelaide]: Investigator Press, [1971]

'Country life in the later nineteenth century: Reminiscences by Dorothy Gilbert', South Australiana, volume 12, number 2, September 1973, pp. 57-70

Field, E. M. The child and his book: some account of the history and progress of children's literature in England, Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1968

Latham, Jean. Happy families: growing up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, London: A. and C. Black, 1974

Miall, Antony. The Victorian nursery book, London: Dent, 1980

Miller, Pavla. Long division: state schooling in South Australian society, Netley, S. Aust.: Wakefield Press, 1986

Orme, Nicholas. Medieval children, New Haven: Yale University Press, c2001

Pinchbeck, Ivy. Children in English society, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969-1973

Richards, Eric (ed.) The Flinders history of South Australia. Social history, Netley, S. Aust.: Wakefield Press, 1986

The Wakefield companion to South Australian history, Kent Town, S. Aust.: Wakefield Press, 2001

Walvin, James. A child's world: a social history of English childhood, 1800-1914, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1982

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