This term is used in Victoria to differentiate privately owned or incorporated schools from those that are part of the State education system. More prominent in Melbourne than in Sydney, where the elite is more likely to have been educated in State selective-entry schools, independent schools have been important in defining the city's identity. More than half of the city's students complete their education outside the State sector, with the proportion being higher in the south-eastern suburbs where the most prestigious independent schools are concentrated.
A number of private schools were established in the 1840s, including the Port Phillip Proprietary College (founded 1840) which soon gained a promising reputation. However, when Charles Perry, first Anglican Bishop of Melbourne, arrived in 1848, he remarked that the previous 14 years had seen schools established which were 'unworthy of the church'. From then on much of the impetus for the creation of independent schools came from the churches, especially following the founding of the University of Melbourne in 1853.
The Melbourne Diocesan Grammar School, founded in 1848 in the grounds of St Peter's Eastern Hill, was run by Richard Hale Budd. It closed in 1854 but is still seen by some as the precursor of Melbourne Grammar School (founded 1858). This school, along with Geelong Grammar School (founded 1855, re-founded 1863), dominated Anglican education for decades. The Presbyterians, originally relying on parish schools, decided in 1850 to seek from Scotland 'an accomplished teacher to take charge of an Academy'. Robert Lawson set up the Melbourne Academy in Spring Street, which moved to Eastern Hill in 1854 and soon became known as Scotch College, flourishing under its new headmaster, Alexander Morrison.
When the first Catholic Bishop of Melbourne, James Goold, was appointed in 1847, he was also anxious to establish a school. He did so in 1851, and in 1854 it became St Patrick's College. Soon afterwards the Academy of Mary Immaculate was established, the first major denominational girls' school in Melbourne. The West Melbourne Grammar School was established by the Melbourne Hebrew congregation in 1862, and a range of other schools followed. Some, such as Parade College (founded by the Christian Brothers in Victoria Parade), are no longer in Central Melbourne. Others, including St Thomas' (now Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School) and Williams-town Grammar (now Westbourne Grammar School) have merged with other schools over the years. However, many have not survived, the depression of the 1890s taking its toll. Most non-denominational private schools flourished for a short period, only to close on the death or retirement of their founder, although some, such as Hawthorn Grammar School, established formidable reputations and weathered many slumps in enrolments. A few private-venture schools were saved, but of the small private girls' schools only Toorak College (now in Mount Eliza) and Ruyton (Kew) survived. In contrast, the only major Christian denominational schools which have closed were All Saints' Grammar, St Kilda East (Anglican) and St Patrick's (Roman Catholic). Perhaps with this in mind, a few private schools that were non-denominational or private at foundation have established church affiliations, Brighton Grammar and Box Hill Grammar (now Kingswood College) being the most well known.
After enrolment, competitive school sport became important. The Melbourne Grammar- Scotch College football match in August 1858 was the first officially recorded game of Australian Rules football. The Geelong Grammar-Scotch College cricket match in February 1858 saw George Tait, later founder of Presbyterian Ladies' College (PLC), playing for Geelong. In the next year he was playing for Scotch. Both games are now annual fixtures.
The need for organising sporting competitions led to the creation of the Associated Public Schools' (APS) Association in 1877, consisting of Melbourne and Geelong Grammars, Wesley, Scotch and St Patrick's. The rules excluded privately owned institutions such as The Geelong College, which in retaliation formed the Victorian Schools' Association with Brighton Grammar. However the APS soon changed its membership; in 1901 Xavier College took over from St Patrick's, which was too small to muster teams for all sports, and seven years later The Geelong College, now a corporate body, joined. In 1920 eight schools combined to form the Associated Grammar Schools (AGS); but in the 1950s the APS was enlarged to include Brighton Grammar, Carey Baptist Grammar, Caulfield Grammar, Haileybury, with St Kevin's leaving the Catholic Schools' Association to join the APS.
The great event that brings all 11 schools together is the annual Head of the River. The AGS also flourished, with its surviving founding members, All Saints, Camberwell, St Thomas, Ivanhoe and Trinity, being joined by Assumption, Marcellin, Mentone, Peninsula and Yarra Valley. Girls' schools were just as proud of their sporting prowess and the Associated Girls' Public Schools brought together PLC, Methodist Ladies' College, Melbourne Girls Grammar and The Hermitage (Geelong). Later competitions included many other schools: Fintona, Ruyton, St Catherine's, Tintern and Toorak College. Other prominent girls' schools include Lauriston and Firbank.
Most independent schools were founded as single-sex institutions but since the 1940s several co-educational establishments have been opened. Although there has been a trend for single-sex schools to embrace co-education, most of the older institutions remain single-sex, Wesley being the most notable exception. Melbourne Grammar, after much debate in the early 1990s, decided against the change.
In spite of the costs in establishing schools and maintaining them through periods of low enrolments, few independent schools have closed in recent years. Some schools can now claim to have educated as many as five generations of the same family. The availability since the 1960s of capital grants and per capita funding from both State and Commonwealth governments has led to the establishment of a number of low-fee religious, alternative and community schools across the suburbs. However, by combining a high fee structure with impressive physical facilities and an emphasis on discipline and academic excellence, the older independent schools have been able to maintain their élite status.