Tuition of a secondary standard has always been available in some independent schools, but State secondary education was not provided in schools specifically established for that purpose until the first decade of the 20th century. The use of the term 'secondary education' to describe a distinct stage of tuition following a primary stage is of fairly recent origin, with Victoria adopting the name 'high school' as the official term for secondary schools within the public sector.
During the 19th century a minority of parents, including some who patronised Melbourne's public schools, sought a secondary education for their children. At first advanced subjects were included within the regular curriculum, but after the establishment of the Education Department in 1872 they were designated as 'extra subjects' to be taught outside the regular school hours on payment of fees. Although students from the public schools who studied the advanced subjects were able to sit for the University of Melbourne's matriculation examination, they never entered in numbers equal to those presenting from the independent schools. Despite a recommendation by a royal commission in 1878, the Victorian Parliament initially refused to establish secondary schools, preferring instead to provide funds for state scholarship-holders to attend existing non-government schools.
The first state secondary school, the Melbourne Continuation School (later renamed Melbourne High School), opened in 1905. It offered a two-year teacher preparation course to pupils aged 14 and above. But from the beginning the school had a dual purpose, as recipients of state scholarships for secondary tuition were also accepted. It was obligatory for these students to receive instruction that would enable them to sit for the university's examinations, and within a short time similar tuition was offered to many of the trainee teachers. Once this curricular change had occurred, the school could no longer pretend to be other than a 'secondary school' in the sense accepted today.
A second state high school, the University Practising School (later University High School), was opened in 1910 to provide teaching experience for prospective secondary teachers who were enrolled in the university's Diploma of Education. The school was controlled until 1913 by an advisory committee, whose members included representatives of the university. Free tuition was given to all students, in contrast to the fee of £6 per annum paid by those attending the Melbourne Continuation School, and entrance to the school was gained by a competitive examination.
Independent schools fought against the entry of the state into what they considered their domain. William Fitchett, headmaster of Methodist Ladies' College, complained that the state's participation in secondary schooling was 'simply Socialism'. When, in 1910, parliament finally accepted responsibility for providing schooling beyond the primary level, a clause in the Act specified that no school could be established where there was existing provision. As a result only five of the 24 high schools opened by 1920 were in Melbourne, and it was not until 1921 that the first metropolitan high school south of the Yarra (Mordialloc-Chelsea) was opened.
Although the majority of pupils in the state system completed their education after grade 8 of the primary school, enrolments at the secondary schools increased steadily until the 1930s depression, when the government decided to levy fees in all metropolitan schools offering post-primary courses, irrespective of whether or not pupils had reached the compulsory leaving age of 14 years, and to double the fees charged in the two highest forms. Although some modifications were later made to the schedule, it was not until 1947 that fees for all secondary students were effectively abolished.
Secondary school enrolments again began to rise steadily from 1935, but in the years following World War II the increase was dramatic. In 1935 there were 22 000 secondary school pupils but this rose to over 91 000 by 1960 and to 154 000 by 1969. The most rapid expansion occurred during the 1950s, fuelled both by an increase in the birthrate and by a large intake of immigrants. Not only were pupils entering the secondary schools in greater numbers, but they were also remaining longer. Whereas in 1948 just under 50% of those who entered secondary school remained to the third year, this had increased to over 75% by 1956. Similarly, while only 10% stayed to year 5 in 1948, within six years almost 20% did so. The growing importance placed on accreditation by employers and the public in general saw the retention rate to year 12 rise from 27.5% in 1969, to 41% in 1983 and 82% in 2003.
The expansion in secondary student numbers during the 1950s and 1960s presented problems in relation to both accommodation and staffing. Sixty-one new high schools were built between 1956 and 1965 inclusive and additional classrooms were added to existing schools. But the lack of teachers was more serious. During the depression the Department had virtually ceased to train secondary teachers and in the following decade more qualified teachers left the service than entered. Although secondary training was re-established in 1950, it was many years before sufficient numbers were available. The desperate need for staff could, however, be said to have had a positive outcome for some, as married women who had been excluded from the state's schools for over 60 years were from 1956 able to seek employment once more.
The curriculum offered in secondary schools has always been the subject of much debate. The 1910 legislation created two new divisions within the Education Department: a secondary division which was to administer schools offering 'liberal' education, and a technical division to administer vocational schools. The decision to split post-primary education into two sectors was to be the subject of much criticism as it forced pupils to make an important educational decision at an early age. Yet it was not until the early 1980s that the secondary and technical divisions were abolished and a comprehensive system of schools generally known as secondary colleges was established.
Melbourne's early high schools provided students with two years of common study at the end of which they could specialise by taking a further two-year professional, commercial or domestic arts course. Within a few years it had become clear that the overwhelming majority of students were choosing the professional course with the intention of entering for the university's public examinations. The influence of the university on the curriculum offered in secondary schools had been a matter of controversy since the matriculation examination was first held in 1856. From the beginning, matriculation was used not only as a prerequisite for entrance to the university itself but as a test taken at the completion of secondary schooling. It is only recently that the influence of the university could be said to have been ameliorated.
In the interim, many changes in accreditation procedures have occurred. In 1912 a Schools Board consisting of representatives of the Education Department, independent schools and the university replaced the university's Board of Public Examinations. The Board relinquished control of the matriculation from 1945, and all other examinations from 1965, at which time it was replaced by a new body, the Victorian Universities and Schools Examinations Board (VUSEB). An era of curricular reform and experimentation with school-based assessment began with the establishment of the Victorian Institute of Education (VISE) in 1976. The most recent change for pupils in years 11 and 12 occurred in 1992 when the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) was introduced, by yet another body, the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Board (VCAB). As the VCE also has many critics, it is likely that the nature of curriculum offered in the secondary schools and the types of assessment employed will continue to be matters of some dispute.