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The Department of Public Instruction 1875-1957

Closer settlement in Queensland progressed rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s and, consequently, the number of schools rose from 231 in 1875 to 911 in 1900. This situation strained the colony's limited education budget and created problems of inadequate teacher supply and training, a proliferation of poorly designed and equipped provisional schools, and a perennial teacher housing problem in rural areas. These problems, however, should be kept in perspective: despite the difficulties, colonial educators achieved a remarkable feat in bring basic literacy to most Queensland children by 1900.

Though a number of highly qualified teachers were imported from Britain in the 1880s, the pupil-teacher system was the main method of recruiting and training teachers. Not until 1914, when a teacher training college was established in Brisbane, was it possible to upgrade the standard of teacher preparation beyond the level of the pupil-teacher system, which was phased out between 1923 to 1935. Moreover, the disproportionate number of provisional schools in the colonial period helped keep the overall standard of buildings and teaching down. In 1908 there were 640 of these essentially makeshift schools compared with only 461 State schools. A significant development came in 1909 when the minimum attendance required for a State school was reduced from 30 to 12. This led to the reclassification of large numbers of provisional schools as State schools, and meant that new districts applying for a school were more likely to be granted a State school. Consequently in 1909 there were 1059 State schools and only 79 provisional schools in Queensland.

The basis of the colonial curriculum was the '3Rs'. In addition, object lessons ('show and tell' lessons), drill and gymnastics, and vocal music were supposed to be taught, but in practice these relatively new subjects were often ignored or poorly taught. Geography, needlework, grammar, history and mechanics were also included in the curriculum at various levels. While some of these subjects were included for their practical usefulness, the main criterion for inclusion of subjects in the curriculum was not their practical value, but their value in disciplining ('sharpening') mental faculties such as 'memory' and 'reasoning'.

The influence of this mental discipline concept on the curriculum was receding by the 1890s. Such subjects as agriculture and domestic economy were introduced as part of object lessons, and the introduction of Arbor Day in 1890 also reflected a growing concern for the utility of the knowledge and values imparted in schools. By 1905, when important syllabus changes were made, the value of subjects was increasingly assessed in terms of their everyday usefulness, and 'leaning by doing' was stressed. The child rather than the teacher, was becoming the centre of the learning process, at least in theory. These changes in the philosophy of education, combined with attempts to mould the content and methods of teaching to the peculiar geographic conditions of Queensland, were major influences on education for the next six decades.

A major consequence of these trends was the increasing emphasis on vocational subjects such as manual training and agriculture. This reflects not only the new educational ideas, but also the idea held by many educators that economic growth was essential to the progress and strength of the State. In 1905, for example, nature study was included in the curriculum. This subject included elements of agriculture, botany and biology. Then in 1910 a teacher of agriculture was appointed to travel among the schools. This teacher's work laid a basis for the project club system developed after 1923. In addition, in 1917 the Rural School concept was introduced at Nambour State School. In this new type of vocational school, boys were taught manual skills, elementary agriculture and farm management, while girls were taught home management and needlework skills. Rural Schools remained an important part of the education system till the 1960s.

Attempts to solve this problem of distance constituted another important trend in the new century. Distance had always been a major factor inhibiting the spread of schooling. To help overcome this problem, the Department implemented an itinerant teacher scheme between 1901 and 1932. Itinerant teachers travelled over the lonely outback to bring books and a few hours of schooling to the children of isolated settlers and pastoral workers, but few of these teachers were able to visit families more than three times a year. With the improvement of postal facilities, the Department gradually replaced the work of the itinerant teacher by the more efficient services of the Primary Correspondence School, founded in 1922. This school reached its peak during World War II, when it was serving both isolated children and those whose schools had been closed in the national emergency. In another attempt to overcome the problem of distance, travelling domestic science and manual training railway cars were introduced in 1923 and 1925 respectively. These were in operation until 1967.

Increasing emphasis on school services in the 1900s reflected a concern for the 'whole child'. After 1907 attempts were made to combat the widespread western Queensland problem of ophthalmia (blight) and in 1911 a Medical Branch of the Department, staffed by travelling doctors, dentists and ophthalmologists was created. In later years, railcars were fitted out for use by these people.

One of the major influences in this period was the external Scholarship examination. This was initially designed to provide an opportunity for secondary education for a limited number of academically gifted students. Subsequently, the provision of scholarships was widened to include the majority of those who sat for the examination. By the 1950s many educationists felt that this Scholarship examination was hampering necessary educational reforms.

The period of the Great Depression imposed financial strains on primary education. As part of a general austerity drive, building programs were retarded and teachers' salaries were cut. World War II, which followed immediately on the heels of the depression, then created staff shortages. Unfortunately, there was to be no 'back to normalcy' for education after 1945. Once the effects of the post-war baby boom began to be felt in the 1950s, classroom crowding and staff shortages remained endemic.

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Last reviewed
20 February 2013
Last updated
20 February 2013