Charles Street State School, Launceston (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)
There were children among the earliest settlers of Van Diemen's Land, but there is no record of any schooling until 1806 when Jane Noel, a teacher from Sydney, is said to have offered classes for a short time in a small hut in the Hobart Town 'camp'. In the following year a more substantial school was opened by Thomas Fitzgerald, an ex-convict and then clerk, and his wife. This survived, and in 1812 the Fitzgeralds were given an official appointment and paid an allowance on condition they accept poor children, including those of convicts, without charge. A similar arrangement was made with Thomas Macqueen at Port Dalrymple in 1810.
Throughout the nineteenth century there were many small independent schools. Records are scanty, mainly because few lasted very long. They were often held in the teacher's house, were frequently of low standard, but provided one of the few ways for educated people to make a living. While a few offered a higher standard to wealthier families, these often preferred tutors or governesses, although expense and the difficulty of finding them limited this option.
Lt-Governors Sorell, Arthur and Franklin all encouraged the establishment of primary schools (and Franklin also sponsored unsuccessful attempts at secondary and tertiary levels). The main objective was to instill proper habits in the children of the lower classes, through the mediums of basic literacy and numeracy, religious (or moral) instruction, and for the girls, rudimentary domestic training. By Franklin's time, there were nearly thirty such schools, most privately conducted but under the supervision of the Anglican church (with some Catholic schools from 1822), yet these only catered for about one-quarter of the school-age population, and very few from the remote districts.
Franklin responded to the problem in 1838 by establishing a Board of Education, which included representatives from the various churches, but within six months he adopted a different strategy after concluding that denominational instruction would be ineffective in reaching all classes of colonial society. A new board, with no ecclesiastical representatives, was appointed and regulations based on the non-denominational British and Foreign School System were issued in 1839. Subsidies were to be provided to 'free day schools' organised on a district basis by committees of local officials and respectable inhabitants. While scriptural readings were to form part of the daily activities, no commentary upon these was allowed.
This scheme appealed to all but the Anglicans who perceived, correctly, a threat to the position they claimed as the established religion. Sustained Anglican objections met with little success in the colony, but gained a better reception in London. From 1847, at the behest of WE Gladstone (Secretary of State for the Colonies), a 'penny-a-day' system of subsidies to schools, including those run by the various churches on denominational lines, was adopted. This approach had the effect of decreasing the numbers of general schools and, to all but the Anglicans, confirmed the fears that had led Franklin to reject it a decade earlier. In the 1840s and 1850s Presbyterians led the challenge of other religions against Anglican domination of education and secured non-denominational primary education. With the help of the newly appointed Inspector of Schools, Thomas Arnold (the younger), the 'penny-a-day' system was abandoned in 1853 and the previous approach reinstated. By this time some larger independent schools (mostly for boys) had been established, usually by, or with the assistance of, one of the major religious denominations. In addition to secondary education, some offered boarding facilities. Notable were Horton College near Ross, the High School of Hobart Town, and Anglican grammar schools.
The Board of Education's school system spread throughout the island, but grew slowly, hampered by limited resources, inadequately trained teachers, the sparsity of the rural population, and the reluctance of many parents to allow children to attend school when they could be working or helping with domestic chores. The available statistics show that many were being 'educated at home': but this was frequently a euphemism for a scanty education. Further problems were the inability of many parents to pay the fees charged, and the reluctance of many from the 'respectable classes' to send their children to schools they regarded as tainted by convictism (a charge not without foundation as the children of emancipists were well represented in the schools, and it could even be argued that they were the main targets of school authorities).
In 1868 attendance for children between the ages of 7 and 12, who lived within a mile of a school, within the settled districts, was made compulsory. Five years later the upper age was increased to 14 years, and the distance to within two miles, although it was not until 1885 that an attendance standard (of three days per week) was adopted. But there were many exemptions to these provisions and throughout the rest of the century poor attendance was a constant problem. The membership of many local school boards included employers of child labour who were reluctant to enforce the legislation, often on the grounds that it would disrupt the local economy and cause hardship to the families concerned. A further continuing problem was that Tasmania – the first of the Australian colonies to legislate for compulsory attendance – was the last to abolish school fees (not until 1908).
While a new Education Act in 1885 established the Department of Education, significant reform within the state system did not occur until the new century. Following his scathing report on the Tasmanian school system, William Lewis Neale was appointed Director of Education in 1905. Neale was a controversial figure who offended so many people in his zeal for change that he could not survive for long, but he began – and his successors WT McCoy and GV Brooks continued – a thorough-going revitalisation of public education in the state. Following the principles of the 'New Education' movement, they modernised the primary curriculum, improved the recruitment and training of teachers (and their pay and conditions, assisted by the teachers' union they helped found), upgraded the physical condition of the schools, and broadened the reach of the educational authorities. Independent schools had to improve to compete: several large new independent schools had been established since the 1880s, again often under the auspices of the various churches, and by 1910 there were 167 independent schools and 29 Catholic schools – and 390 government schools.
The first state high schools were opened in Hobart and Launceston in 1913 (see secondary education), and in Burnie and Devonport a few years later, and junior technical schools were established in 1918 (see technical education). In the 1920s a bus conveyance scheme enabled the consolidation of small rural schools, and in 1936 the first of the new area schools, offering vocationally oriented secondary classes, was opened. By the eve of the Second World War the Education Department's concerns encompassed students' health, specialist woodwork and domestic schools, special education (including the first school in Australia for partially sighted children), and the application of educational psychology to school practices.
During this period of expansion, many students provided with the opportunity to progress to tertiary studies did so on teachers' scholarships and returned to staff the ever-expanding number of schools. In a very real sense the state system nourished and harnessed the talents of the rising generation. The educationists, and their political backers, led from the front, and despite at times considerable opposition from the more conservative sections of the community, the structure they put in place gained widespread public approval. Indeed, such was its success that Tasmania gained something of a reputation as an educational innovator, in the Australian context at least. By this time, the number of independent schools had fallen sharply; not merely because the government schools had improved so greatly and now charged no fees, but because independent schools themselves were subject to strict regulations with which many could not comply. By 1956, only 12 independent and about 40 Catholic schools remained.
The post-war period saw the completion of the structure envisaged by the New Educationists. The leaving age was raised to 16 years, and 'modern schools' were introduced to cater for the non-academic students thereby kept at school. These were not well received, as post-war aspirations were for the provision of better opportunities for all students, and the various post-primary schools were gradually merged into a high school system based on the comprehensive principle. In the 1960s matriculation colleges – another Tasmanian innovation – were established to consolidate senior secondary (academic) courses.
The introduction of state aid to independent schools from the 1960s has resulted in a resurgence in this field, limited at first, but gaining pace in recent years. Throughout the twentieth century, Tasmania usually held a greater proportion of its students in public schools than the other states. Why this was so is a matter of some debate, but the smaller population, a lower income average level, and the vibrancy of the public sector for most of the century seem to have been important factors. Although this pattern is still evident at the time of writing, Tasmania has joined the rest of the country in recording a definite trend towards the private system.
Further reading: C Reeves, A history of Tasmanian education, Melbourne, 1935.