Sunday schools were originally intended as a stop-gap measure, providing British working-class children with an elementary education until replaced by a national school system. Through its utility and service, the temporary expedient became a respected national institution. Evangelical Christians were to turn the Sunday school movement into an instrument for the evangelisation of the young. Their promotion of the schools as 'nurseries for Christians' caused a serious erosion of the role of home and church in Christian formation.
Melbourne's Sunday schools began with the first Methodist, Presbyterian and Independent congregations in 1838-39. The proliferation of particularly Methodist preaching places encouraged the formation of schools staffed by lay teachers and reproducing the character and significance of the British institution. A standard pattern evolved of morning and afternoon Sunday classes, supported by a range of auxiliary organisations. Their weekday social activities, picnics and anniversary celebrations reinforced the holding power of the schools and fostered an enduring domestic religiosity.
At their peak in the early 1960s, Anglican and Methodist enrolments were 80 768 and the Victorian total was 238 740. The success of any school depended on teacher effectiveness; thorough training, a sense of duty and strong religious convictions became the hallmarks of acceptable teachers. To promote these ideals, denominational school unions were formed. In 1871 lay people from various churches formed the Victorian Sunday School Union and began a wide program of religious education. A Children's Church was erected in Collingwood for the 'neglected poor' in 1876 and operated until 1932. A Teacher Training College from its inception in 1886 until 1943 had 3411 students graduate after completing a two-year course. The union book depot and lending library serviced all Protestant denominations and the 126 city schools established by 1903. Schools were encouraged to use the American International Uniform Lessons, a curriculum with one lesson for all classes and schools. Changes in educational theory replaced uniform lessons with Australian-prepared graded lessons.
To overcome inadequate accommodation the union recommended a model that was used for Independent schools in Prahran and Hawthorn, and adapted elsewhere. Methodists favoured the American Akron Plan, featuring a series of classrooms facing a central rostrum with offices and library. A two-storey version was built in Brunswick and the plan used in Auburn, Port Melbourne and St Kilda. All-purpose halls divided into departments accommodated later schools. In the 1970s attendances declined sharply and churches focused on recruitment and new forms of children's ministry. Their quest for a comprehensive replacement of the traditional Sunday school continues.