There has been a lot of talk recently about education revolutions: New ways of teaching, new curriculums, new buildings, new ideas.
Education and schooling are one of the fundamentals of growing up, taken so much for granted that many of us don’t want to do it. There was a time in Sydney when this wasn’t such a big problem, the problem was getting an education.
The first school had opened in 1789, a girls school in Sydney and from then until the 1820s independent schools, mainly religious and mainly for the more affluent members of colonial society opened here and there. In 1826 the Anglican Church was given control of all schools, with the New Testament being standard text for learning to read.
Still there was no compulsion to go. Parents could send their children for as many or as few years as they pleased. Most poor families couldn’t afford to send their children to school, instead sending them to work. Even if you could afford it, there weren’t that many around. In 1838 there were only 30 of these common schools in all NSW, with a few Catholic and Presbyterian ones thrown in for good measure.
Now not going to school is great, but it does limit your prospects a little, and in a growing community like Sydney in the 1870s and 1880s, schooling became one of the hot topics. And not just for kids, but for adults as well.
With a growing awareness o the importance of education, the colonial state government decided to get involved. Education was seen as vital to the states future; it would reduce crime and delinquency, hasten economic development and prepare children to act responsibly in a democratic state. At least that was the theory.
So in 1880 NSW passed an Education Act making it compulsory of children to attend school for a until a specified age (12 at first, later 14) and thereby changing every child’s life in Sydney and across NSW. And then, like now lots of new school buildings began to appear. Many of these grand temples of learning are still in use such as in Bourke Street Surry Hills or Cleveland Street Redfern.
At the same time the state government also took over what was known as the Working Men’s College, run by the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts. The Working Men’s College had been running since 1878 and aimed to educate men (and some women) in technical skills, useful lint he increasingly industrialised city. The college had done well and the government, who had subsidised it, saw the opportunity to expand it across Sydney and NSW. And so in 1883 they took control and changed the name to the Sydney Technical College or Sydney Tech which in turn grew up to become TAFE.
By the end of the 1880s, Sydney’s first education revolution was complete.