The Education Question 1871, South Australian History

The Education Question

An editorial comment in The South Australian in June 1848 concerning the state of education in the colony alluded to the scarcity of teachers. It was argued that even if new schools were established there were no competent teachers available to fill them, and in addition a number of present teachers were incapable of instructing in more than the mere rudiments.

The solution offered was to establish a training school for masters and schoolmistresses, and for the Government and the colonists to combine to get a person with high qualifications from Britain to superintend a training institution to insure a supply of men properly qualified to instruct the colonial youth.

The Central Board of Education was established under the 1851 Education Act. It was not until the 1875 Education Act that education for children at primary level became compulsory. In its 1854 half yearly report the Central Board of Education and the Inspector of Schools were unhappy to report that the number of schools had diminished in the previous quarter.

The Inspector called for freer use to be made of the various country chapels and churches, as was largely adopted in America, where in every young township one of the first buildings erected was one that served as a school during the week, and as a church on Sundays. The number of town schools had decreased by one to 31. On average over the three months, the number of children in attendance too had fallen by 123 to 1,666, being an average of 51 for each school.

The total number of schools taught by licensed teachers was 118 being an increase of one school on the preceding quarter. The average number in attendance was: boys 2,848; girls 2,408; total 5,256; a decrease of 82. The general average of pupils for each school was 45.

In its 1855 end of the year report the Central Education Board noted that new private schools were flourishing; but it had no account of them. At the end of September the average attendance was — in town schools 1,609; suburban schools 1,305; country schools 2,780; making a total of 5,694, noting that of course the increase of population during the past year must be taken into account. The total number of licensed schools was 132 compared to 121 in September 1854.

Teaching in schools was by no means a path to wealth. Public school masters and mistresses were licensed by and received a small stipend from the Central Board of Education. In 1861 in a letter to the editor a school master explained that:

In the prospectus of my school, I put down my terms at a guinea a quarter, and I state the same in the monthly returns of my scholars made to the Board of Education. I have a school of about 50 scholars, so that it may be supposed that I receive school-fees to the amount of about 50 guineas per quarter, or 200 guineas per year.

Would this were so; but, alas! I receive the guinea per quarter for only six or seven of my scholars. Of the rest, for the majority I receive one shilling a week, making a deduction when there are more than one child of the same family; while for some I receive no fees at all.

As a licensed teacher, I am bound to receive destitute children into my school, and yet, if I were to charge their education to the Board as destitute, I should lower the standing of my school, and should not be able to obtain the guinea a quarter from any one of my employers.

The result of all this is that, instead of my school fees amounting to 200 guineas a year, they realize scarcely half that sum. I believe my case to be but a sample of the experience of most other teachers. Were I to give you my name, it would probably have the effect of reducing my income to a still lower point. I therefore beg to subscribe myself; A Schoolmaster. June 5, 1861.

In October 1865 a schoolmaster complained that his salary of £77 per annum, £52 from the Education Board and £25 from school fees, was insufficient to support himself, his wife and eight children, and that they were in great want. The Education Board Committee immediately called a meeting to see what could be done.

After long consideration they came to the conclusion that there was no use in petitioning Government for an increase in the teacher’s salary. The Government had hungry servants enough of their own and it paid very little attention to their complaints. The Committee then resolved to dismiss the schoolmaster, as they considered it a disgrace to themselves and their children to have a teacher who was receiving a Government salary in such a deplorable condition.

On 5 May 1868 the Chief Inspector reported the examination of 36 schools and stated that in many of them attendance was reduced considerably below the average from temporary and local circumstances, to the serious loss of the teachers.

Two years later the Board reported that the number of licensed schools in 1869 amounted to 330. As many as 25 new schools were opened but 20 had been closed. Among those opened were Barossa Goldfields, Gnadenfrei, Montacute, Carlsruhe, Tothill and Sichem.

It also stated that 'Small schools have been amalgamated wherever it has been possible to do so. Applications for licences for schools in town and centres of population at which the attendance was below forty have been invariably refused. Two licences were withdrawn from schools in the city because the attendance of scholars fell below the minimum allowed by the regulations.

For the townships of Strathalbyn, Kent Town, Mount Barker, and Mount Pleasant no new licences were granted in place of those resigned, it being considered that two licences for Strathalbyn and one for each of the other townships afforded sufficient public school accommodation.

Some of the schools specified as closed will probably remain so only for a limited time. Such places as Alma Plains and Linwood should not be left without the means of providing education for the children residing there. More favourable seasons for the farmers will doubtless cause applications to be made for teachers not only for those places, but for others in similar situations and circumstances.

In country places three miles is considered a reasonable distance to fix as the minimum limit within which a second licence should not be allowed. There are, however, many localities which are much more than three miles distant from any public school, but in which the population is not large enough to justify, considering the Board's present limited amount of funds, the expenditure of even the minimum amount of stipend allowed by the Act.

In order to meet this difficulty half-time schools have been encouraged, and are being tried in several places with considerable success. But while this arrangement appears to be one well suited for teaching on stations and in small villages, it would scarcely be serviceable in meeting the requirements of scattered, thinly-populated places lying wide apart, many of which must of necessity be found in a colony embracing so large an area of cultivated land as South Australia.

For such places it would seem that what in New South Wales are called provisional schools would be most useful — that is, schools in which should be collected for daily teaching the children of the neighbourhood, even though the number was considerably below the present minimum, and payment made according to the number satisfactorily taught.

The teachers of these schools should of course be competent properly to instruct in the first principles of education but their qualifications need not be equal to those of the teachers in the public schools; and their work being to provide instruction in places where the qualified teacher could not be supported, they would when the population had become sufficiently numerous give place to teachers of a higher class.

Should any amendment of the Education Act be effected the Board would recommend the repeal of the provision fixing the minimum grant in aid, and that they be allowed in exceptional cases to grant a smaller stipend than forty pounds per annum.

The appointment of teachers to schools is made by Trustees, School Committees, or parents of the scholars, and such appointment is then required to be submitted to the Board for their approval. Seventy-eight appointments of teachers were submitted to the Board for approval, 49 of which were accepted, seven postponed, and 22 refused. Of the 49 new licences granted, 30 were to new teachers, 10 to teachers previously employed under the Board, and nine to teachers who left one school for another.

The resignation and withdrawal of licences amounted to 44. The number of licensed teachers was 328,— 225 masters and 103 mistresses. The number of assistant teachers was 239, — 20 males and 219 females. It is to be regretted that no provision can be made for the appointment and payment of assistant pupil teachers.

The amount of the annual vote for stipends, and the minimum sum allowed by the Act to be paid any teacher, entirely preclude the Board from authorizing the employment of assistants. The difficulty is not to some extent by granting, in special cases, an increased amount of stipend to the principal of the school in which assistant or pupil teachers are employed; but it is felt that their authorized appointment and remuneration would be a great desideratum, the necessity for which is year by year becoming more apparent as small schools are amalgamated, and others become more numerously attended.

The Board would, therefore, again call attention to the want of a model school in the city, an institution in which boys, girls, and infants could be instructed in separate departments, and in accordance with the newest and most approved methods in which also new teachers, unless they possess certificates of having been previously examined, should be required to undergo a course of training previously to then taking the management of any school.

A training school is Indispensably necessary in any system of public education; and it was deemed of importance by the framers of the present Act, that there shall be in the city of Adelaide, or in some place adjacent thereto, a Normal School or Training Institution, under the control and regulation of the Central Board of Education, for educating and training persons of both sexes in the qualifications, intellectual and moral, necessary to make good and efficient teachers'.

In 1867 the sum of £2,500 was voted for the establishment of such an institution, and it is a matter of regret that the money then voted was not applied to the purpose intended. When the elections were on in 1871, many people showed their concern with the state and quality of education as provided by the department, as well as the pay for the teachers.

The Register of 1 December 1871 reported;

There is no question which the electors have to consider more carefully at the present juncture than that of the reform of our system of education and it is well that in doing so they should get to the root of the defects at present existing before they decide upon the proper remedies. It has been very truly said that the late dispute about the use of the Bible has blinded the public to the other equally important aspects of this question, and we invite our readers to turn their thoughts aside for a moment from that one consideration, and ponder over those other matters upon which their voice ought to be as distinct and potential in its utterance.

Two or three candidates have ventured upon the bold statement that they are not aware that the present system has been otherwise than a success. It is almost useless to argue with such men, who shut their eyes and ears to what is going on around them, and then loudly proclaim that they see nothing amiss. We venture to say that if they would take a single backstreet in Adelaide, and enquire from door to door, they would gain sufficient information to convert them. They may appeal to the census returns in confirmation of their view, but they will find those returns but a broken reed upon which to rest their theory.

We have shown in a former article that the figures recorded in the census are utterly contradicted by the returns of the Board of Education. The latter can only account for about 15,000 out of 45,000 children of school-going age, and our readers may decide for themselves how many of the remaining 30,000 are likely to be educated at home or at private schools. We undertake to say that after making the most liberal allowance on this head, more than a third of our population will be found to be growing up in utter ignorance. Early private education in South Australia was provided by Prince Alfred College and JL Young's Adelaide Educational Institution.

If this is 'success,' we should like to know what would be called failure. If we look to the records of the Police Court we shall find other evidences of failure in that moral influence which should be an essential part of all school training. Scarcely a day passes but some juvenile criminals appear before Mr. Beddome, with abundant evidence in their faces and manner, no less than in the offences they are charged with, that both their moral and intellectual faculties have been trained to evil in the streets and gutters of the city, and have never had any other kind of development.

If we turn to the country districts, the evidence of neglect is even more startling. Let our readers consider the facts recently elicited upon the trial of a youth in the Supreme Court for a criminal assault upon a girl, together with those of a subsequent charge of perjury arising out of the same affair. The case is so utterly revolting in its details, it exhibits such a want not merely of right feeling, but of common decency on the part of all concerned in it, such a development of the mere animal nature among them, as to satisfy the most casual observer that the canker has already eaten deep into the heart of the community, and calls for prompt and summary measures to counteract its evil tendencies.

We do not argue that school training is a panacea for all moral evils. Unhappily, the roots of vice are too deep-seated to be eradicated by any such simple means. But we do affirm that children habitually trained under an intelligent and God-fearing teacher are more likely to become peaceable, orderly, honest, and industrious members of society than children who have never been brought under any such influences. And we affirm further that the development, of the moral and intellectual faculties' is a great safeguard—we do not say an absolute safeguard — against the inevitable influences of the animal and sensual nature.

Assuming then, that good school-training is an important help towards the maintenance of decency, order, and good government in the rising generation, we turn to our experience of the past to ascertain wherein our present educational system has failed to meet the wants of the community. The failure has been clearly twofold. The influence of the system has not reached a large section of the population and the training has in too many instances not been what was required. Here then, are the two vital defects, we have to remedy.

If the State is interested as it is most unquestionably, in the bringing up of an intelligent and orderly population, it must not only place the means of education within the reach of all, but it must also look to it that those means are not neglected. For this purpose the power of compulsion is essential. A parent has no more right to starve and dwarf the mind than the body of his child. He is no more justified in withholding from it mental food than animal food, and if he neglects his duty in either case the State must step in and compel him to perform it.

Of course such compulsion presupposes that the instruction is brought within easy reach of his dwelling, and is obtainable at a price which he can afford. Hence the principle of itinerating teachers for the scattered districts becomes a necessity, while it is equally important either to make the public schools free, or to fix the fees so low that no man in regular employment can feel them as a burden. Here let us protest, in passing, against the principle laid down in the Ministerial programme that where parents are unable to provide for the education of their children the fees should be paid by Government.

The past operation of this principle has either been to pauperize the parents, or to exclude the children from school. When the Norwood threepenny school was established, with its admirable system of admission by ticket, many children came with tickets in their hands who had never been at the Government schools at all. Their parents had been too proud to make the necessary application and send their children under the stigma of belonging to the destitute class, but they gladly accepted from some well-to-do neighbour the private gift of a set of tickets which any one could buy at the school, and which enabled their children to attend upon an apparent equality with their playmates.

Some such plan as this appears to us to meet the case of the needy far more wisely than that proposed by Mr. Blyth. Of course for orphans and neglected children other provision would have to be made. Turning to the doubtful quality of the training imparted in many of our public schools, the causes of failure are not far to seek. Most prominent among them stands the want of funds. For years the Board has not had at its disposal the means of doing its work efficiently, and its quiet acquiescence in this state of things has been one of its most serious shortcomings.

The necessary consequence has followed that the profession of the schoolmaster has been one of the most miserably paid of any in the province. The men we hire to build up the walls of our houses, to construct our reaping machines, or to put together our furniture are far better paid than those we employ to fashion into shape that wondrous structure—the brain of a child. We can point to many a mason, a carpenter, or a machinist who has risen to wealth and position in the colony through the practice of his trade, but we cannot point to a single licensed teacher who has done so.

To their honour be it said, there are many men in the profession doing noble work for the poor pittance the community doles out to them; but it is impossible to expect good and efficient service as a rule from a class so wretchedly underpaid.' It is no libel to say that many of our licensed teachers are inefficient and ill-adapted for the duties with which they are entrusted, and so it must be until we recognise the fact that to secure a really good article it is above all things needful to pay a fair price for it.

The Ministerial programme is silent upon this question of funds, but the electors must look it fairly in the face. We are satisfied that without local rating, which must of course be accompanied by certain amount of local control, the colony will never be able to establish its public schools upon an efficient and successful footing. Prevention is better than cure and for our part we would far rather pay a sixpenny education rate than a threepenny police rate.

Next to the shortness of funds, the most glaring defect of our present school system has been the absence of proper supervision. We recently contrasted the exhaustive mode of inspection pursued in New South Wales with the miserable sham which goes by that name in South Australia, and we need not say more on the subject now, save that it fairly illustrates the habitual inertness of the Central Board. The scarcity of funds prevents much opportunity of selection in the appointment of teachers, and when once appointed they are left very much to their own devices, unless things get bad enough to call for local interference and protest.

No attempt is made to train them, and the time devoted to testing the results of their work is absurdly inadequate. We have known of a couple of hours being deemed sufficient for the complete examination of a school of a hundred children. Again, it must be borne in mind that there is no art which has made more progress in the last twenty years than that of teaching, and yet we question if a single effort has ever been made by the Board to import new systems and new ideas into the colony. Here there is room for a reform as vast as that put forth in the Ministerial programme, and perhaps even more pressing.

It cannot be too strongly urged alike upon electors and representatives that a more efficient system will be utterly useless unless it is accompanied by a more efficient administration. A new Education Act will simply provide the needful machinery. It will depend entirely upon the hands that guide it whether the work it turns out will be good or bad.

Did this mean that Males did not have to be thoroughly competent???

Education Department 1913.


With special thanks to Lance Merritt for his contribution


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