Before the Education Act 1872 (Vic), education was offered in a variety of settings by a diverse range of providers. Although most children living in Melbourne in the mid-19th century were enrolled at government-aided institutions, others attended private (independent) schools or those established by the various religious denominations. A few were educated at home by tutors or governesses and, at a time when schooling was neither compulsory nor free, some received no education at all.
From Separation in 1851, the state accepted major responsibility for education, and the question never appears to have been whether the government should be involved in educational provision, but rather to what extent. Voluntarism was never considered as a viable option in the colony as the churches lacked substantial wealth, and the absence of private capital meant that assistance from the general revenue was essential if schooling needs were to be met. Increased immigration following the gold discoveries and a birthrate which by 1855 already exceeded that of New South Wales had resulted in an expanding school-age population. Fortunately the government's income, boosted by gold taxes, enabled it to provide funds in proportion to population not exceeded elsewhere.
At the time of Separation, Victoria inherited a dual system of publicly funded schools from New South Wales. Under the existing arrangement, two Melbourne-based bodies - the Denominational School Board (DSB) and the National Board - distributed funds voted annually by Parliament. The DSB administered schools established by the religious denominations, while the National Board managed non-sectarian schools which provided combined literary with separate religious instruction. The government grant was used to pay teachers' salaries, and in some circumstances to contribute to the cost of buildings and apparatus.
Despite several legislative attempts to alter the situation, the maintenance of a dual system of public schools persisted until 1862 when the Victorian Parliament abolished the existing boards and replaced them with a single Board of Education. The denominational schools continued to be funded as Common Schools (an unpopular name), but new schools were henceforth vested in the Board and were to eventually form the basis of a state system of education.
Government-aided schools were not the only institutions available to parents who wished to educate their children, although by 1858 approximately 92% of children attended these institutions. Private schools actually decreased in number in the years following the dislocation of the gold rushes, but later began to regain their share of pupils, and by 1870 20% attended these schools. The private establishments varied in character and size, and as was the case for the public schools, most were coeducational.
In addition to the public and private schools there existed a third category of educational institutions, called public grammar schools. In 1854 and 1856 the government voted a total of £35 000 for 'the erection and support of grammar schools', which it hoped would prepare pupils for the new, state-funded University of Melbourne. Although both the DSB and the National Board had hoped to secure at least some part of this grant, the executive council eventually decided to distribute it among the four major religious denominations according to their numerical proportions in the 1851 census. These funds were used to establish the Melbourne Grammar School, Scotch College, St Patrick's College and Wesley College, all of which, like the University, were open only to boys.
Education (prior to 1872) table code below ------------------------
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In many instances children's experiences of schooling could not have been very pleasant. Buildings were often makeshift, ill ventilated, inadequately heated and sometimes designed for other purposes. Many denominational schools were also used as churches and during school sessions several classes were taught in a large room partitioned from one another only by a curtain. Often playgrounds were non-existent, especially in Melbourne's crowded inner suburbs. It is perhaps not surprising that attendance was often irregular.
Although it is sometimes assumed that the curriculum offered in 19th-century schools was of an extremely restricted nature and limited to the teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic, this was never the case in most of Melbourne's public schools. The course of study, in addition to the 3Rs, usually included grammar, dictation, spelling, geography, drill, drawing and singing, and in some instances higher subjects such as mathematics, bookkeeping, Latin or French. A similar range of subjects could also be found in many of the private schools. The inclusion of higher subjects was not unusual at a time when schools were attended by children of all ages, as it was not until the latter decades of the century that primary and secondary education were regarded as distinct stages of tuition, conducted in separate institutions. In the public schools children progressed through five classes, although not all reached the highest stage. As school attendance was voluntary, children entered at different ages and often a wide range of ages could be found within the one class.
A number of observers suggested that the introduction of a system known as payment-by-results in 1864 reduced the standard of education in the public schools. Under this scheme, if pupils passed examinations in five basic subjects, teachers received an augmentation to their salary. It was claimed that the financial incentive caused teachers to concentrate only on the examined subjects. This tendency was exacerbated by the deliberate decision of the Board of Education to prohibit the teaching of higher subjects within the prescribed hours, although it subsequently allowed them to be taught outside these hours on the payment of an extra fee.
Members of the Victorian Parliament had for many years questioned the wisdom of placing the colony's educational arrangements in the hands of an 'irresponsible' board which had failed to stop educational duplication. The existence of numerous small and often uneconomic schools within the one locality prevented the establishment of schools vested in the Board. In November 1872, parliament eventually passed a bill which established an Education Department, under a minister of the Crown, to provide compulsory, free, secular primary education). Most of the religious denominations, with the exception of the Catholics, allowed their schools to form part of this new system, and so began a new era in educational provision.