The 'free, secular and compulsory' Education Act 1872 cast primary education in a mould that would last for over 100 years: it created a department of education under a minister of the Crown, withdrew effective power from local authorities and parents, withdrew state aid from church schools, centralised recruitment, training and dispersal of teachers, separated secular from religious instruction, abolished fees and mandated attendance for children between the ages of 6 and 15.
There were children who were not subject to the Act. Against the odds, the Catholic education system survived, supported by lay teachers and parents in the 1870s and 1880s and later staffed by members of Irish religious orders. While most Protestant independent schools focused on secondary education, some middle-class families, concerned about the impact of the compulsory provisions on the social composition of their local school, sent their daughters to the private ladies' schools which proliferated throughout the 19th century, while their sons attended unofficial fee-paying 'feeder' schools, also run by women. Poor children, often still contributing to the family income, attended sporadically, some continuing to be confined to ragged schools where they were less likely to be judged by the teachers or the parents of fellow pupils.
For the majority of Melbourne's children, however, the state school provided a common cultural experience. In the prosperous 1870s and 1880s the red-brick schools were public icons, an architectural expression of the state's triumph over denominationalism. Conditions within these fine buildings were often harsh. Children were drilled in the three Rs, with part of the teacher's salary dependent on the success of his students in examinations administered by inspectors. Class sizes were large, with pupil-teachers working under the supervision of more experienced staff who maintained control by frequent use of the cane. Nevertheless there is ample evidence that working-and lower middle-class families welcomed the new schools. Until a lower age limit was set during the 1890s depression, parents valued the free child care, filling infant departments with very young children. They also valued the opportunity offered to older children to prepare for the public examinations which could lead to the public service, teaching and other white-collar professions. Primary schools were an important centre of community. Their sporting teams, cadet corps, brass bands, concerts, pageants and bazaars were a source of local pride, while in hard times schools raised money for their destitute children and provided them with meals.
The depression of the 1890s left the teaching service demoralised. Buildings deteriorated and the curriculum stagnated until 1902 when Frank Tate was appointed Victoria's first director of education, charged with implementing the recommendations of the 1899 Fink Royal Commission to modernise the system. Tate became the apostle of a child-centred pedagogy, introducing kindergarten methods into the Infant Departments and broadening the primary curriculum to include the manual arts, elementary science, music, literature, history and physical education.
Tate's innovations set the pattern for state education until the 1950s. Existing schools were remodelled to provide smaller teaching spaces, each of which would be presided over by an individual teacher. New schools were surrounded by larger grounds, allowing for a greater variety of children's play, and infant departments were formalised, with an infant mistress placed in charge of the first three of the nine years of primary education. The gradual introduction of state secondary and technical education provided opportunities for some students, but for most the Merit Certificate, awarded at the end of grade 8, marked the end of formal schooling. Attendance requirements were tightened, and the official leaving age, which had dropped to 13 in 1890, was raised to 14, and the largely non-functioning boards of advice were replaced by school committees, elected by parents. Charged with having general oversight over the school, it was the fundraising activities of such committees, and later their associated mothers' clubs, that produced some differentiation within what remained a highly centralised system, with parents in middle-class suburbs able to provide facilities for their children beyond the reach of the crowded inner-suburban schools.
The curriculum, however, remained highly centralised. The eight Victorian School Readers, which replaced the imported Royal and Irish National Readers from the late 1920s, presented Melbourne schoolchildren through to the 1950s with a standard selection of poetry and prose drawn from home and abroad. While all second graders thrilled to the story of Yellow Dog Dingo's struggle against the Hobyahs, there was little in this mix of nationalist and imperial literature that introduced Melbourne children to their own city. The introduction of radio broadcasts in 1935 intensified this notion of primary education as a shared experience. In classrooms across Melbourne children were learning the same songs and, when the broadcast turned to folk dancing, spilling out into the playgrounds to dance the same jigs.
After World War II the baby boom and postwar immigration precipitated a crisis in Melbourne's schools. In the new suburbs children were crowded into large classes in church halls and other temporary accommodation until schools could be completed, while the old brick schools of the inner suburbs struggled to accommodate large numbers of children from non-English-speaking backgrounds. As high schools extended across the city, primary schools, stripped of grades 7 and 8, no longer provided their pupils' total education experience. An acute shortage of teachers saw married women cajoled to return to the classroom, although without the benefit of permanent employment. The 1970s saw Melbourne's primary schools transformed with a new flowering of child-centred pedagogy, school-based curriculum development, multiculturalism, a more genuine partnership with parents, a more militant brand of teacher unionism and the dedication of married women teachers who were readmitted on a permanent basis in 1956.
By the end of the 20th century, the proportion of children in state schools was in decline. The reintroduction of state aid to private schools has encouraged the development of low-fee ethnic, religious and alternative schools, reducing enrolments in the established schools and reducing the demand for new schools on the suburban fringe. The 1992 election of the Kennett Liberal Government brought an emphasis on devolution and self-management. Encouraged to develop an individual identity, schools were thrown into competition with each other, with amalgamation or closure facing those who were unable to survive. The election of the Bracks Australian Labor Party Government saw some of these changes reversed but the proportion of primary-school students in state schools continues to decline.