New Education Part 1

Australia , 1895-1920

In the late nineteenth century, widespread interest in the education offered to children was evident throughout the countries of Europe, the United Kingdom, North America, the colonies and former colonies of European empires, and in developing countries. A movement for the reform of education, that became known as “New Education”, was stimulated by educators, students, and authors who travelled to other countries for study or observation; book and journal publications and international conferences. “New Education” was part of a much broader movement for social and political reform in a period when the word “new” was applied to various causes. The term enjoyed currency with the “new woman”, “new realism”, “new journalism” and other causes. In the United States, the term “progressive education” was commonly used. “New Education” was often referenced by educators in each Australian colony in the late nineteenth century. After Federation in 1901, the six states, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, Tasmania, South Australia and Western Australia, retained responsibility for the provision of education. The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed reforms to each of the centralised state systems of education. Reform occurred after widespread dissatisfaction was expressed by educators and others that ranged through the subject matter of the curricula, pedagogy (teaching and learning practices), inspection, payment of teachers by results, the pupil-teacher model of teacher preparation, and the physical conditions of schooling.

New Education has been usefully defined by Australian historian, Cliff Turney:

New Education embraced such diverse aspects as child study, manual training, experimental education, learning‑by-doing, self-activity and freedom, moral education, physical education, nature study and agricultural pursuits, Herbartianism, kindergarten work, Pestalozzian pedagogy, and Montessorian approaches. A vital underlying theme was a movement towards teaching and learning concerned essentially with the child, its nature, and all-round development. For the schools the New Education meant new aims, new content and new methods. In turn, these required better prepared teachers and improved facilities and resources. (Turney, 1983, p. 1)

Active learning in a kindergarten, Fitzroy, Victoria, 1910. Source: State Library of Victoria

Active learning in a kindergarten, Fitzroy, Victoria, 1910. Source: State Library of Victoria

Putting New Education into practice

Western Australia

The reform of education in state administered schools in Western Australia began relatively early. Cyril Jackson, appointed as Inspector-General of Schools in 1896, completely reorganised the educational system in the following years. Already an advocate of New Education in England, Jackson, with the support of Premier John Forrest, introduced a new curriculum, structural change to the Department of Education, the recruitment of talented teachers and inspectors from the eastern states and England, and the establishment of continuation classes, Perth Technical College and Claremont Teachers Training College.

New Education, as introduced in Western Australia, drew upon English precedent to a greater extent than its introduction to the eastern states, due in large part to the central role of Jackson. Western Australia was experiencing economic boom and explosive population growth and Jackson was able to align reforms with economic ambitions for the state.

New South Wales

The movement for reform in New South Wales was stimulated by two powerful speeches delivered at the Annual Conference of the Public School Teachers’ Association of New South Wales on 25 and 26 June 1901. Attorney-General, Bernhard Ringrose Wise was critical of state education, ridiculing the salary received by many teachers, and criticising the pupil-teacher system of training. This public criticism must have been most unwelcome to his Premier, John See. The following day, Francis Anderson, Professor of Logic and Mental Philosophy at the University of Sydney, delivered a speech which would be recalled by educators and later historians as precipitating an “educational renaissance”. From within the system, individual teachers had little opportunity to criticise the education provided by the Department of Public Instruction, but there were no constraints on Anderson.

Francis Anderson in 1902. Source: National Library of Australia

Francis Anderson in 1902. Source: National Library of Australia

Anderson’s speech was also published in booklet form, and this version reveals Anderson as a masterful lecturer and speaker who captivated his audience with subtle humour, irony, and persuasive argument. He warned his audience that he would be “speaking frankly of what seem to me to be the defects, limitations, and needs of the existing system of education” (Anderson, 1901, p. 3). Then he launched a strong attack on those who persisted in a “parrot cry” that the state possessed the “most perfect system of education in the world”. Anderson ridiculed a comparison which had been made between the public school system and that “glorious luminary” the sun (p. 4ff). There were, in fact, many spots upon the “glorious luminary” and unfortunately those spots went deeper than the surface. Elementary education was neither compulsory nor free, the curriculum needed radical alteration, the examination system, understaffing, and large classes forced the teacher to adopt methods “which are to be condemned as mechanical, and even vicious from the point of view of true education” (pp. 6-8). Anderson was blatant in his extensive criticism of the pupil-teacher system, before delivering a passionate conclusion declaiming the importance of education, and the necessity for highly trained teachers capable of bringing “enthusiasm, intelligence, inspiration, and life” to their work (pp. 28-29).

The Sydney Morning Herald report of Anderson’s speech recorded frequent laughter and applause, and at its conclusion, “prolonged cheering and applause” (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 June, 1901).

Further criticism of education followed, reported and supported by the press. The issue was debated in parliament and finally the Premier and Minister for Public Instruction, were pressured to appoint a commission of inquiry. The Knibbs and Turner Commission delivered its first report in late 1903 (published January 1904). The commissioners had travelled widely in the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States, and the report drew on the origins, theories, policies and practices of New Education as both observed and thoroughly researched.

The recommendations made by Knibbs and Turner in this report were debated at a significant educational conference held in Sydney over two weeks in April 1904. It was attended by government officials, public and private school administrators, Protestant and Catholic clergy, university lecturers, school teachers, interstate representatives, large numbers of interested public and the press. Recommendations included abolishing the pupil-teacher system and replacing it with previous training, establishing close links between the University of Sydney and a newly constituted training college, extending kindergarten classes, introducing new subjects, and providing separate classrooms for each graded school class, with adequate lighting, ventilation, heating, and modern seating. The many recommendations passed at this conference, and the adoption of a new syllabus of instruction for the primary schools in the same year, represented the beginnings of a transformation of the public education system.

Inspector Peter Board, who had also travelled overseas and had then drafted the new syllabus for primary schools in early 1904, played a major role in the Conference, speaking to nearly all the recommendations and explaining how they might be implemented. Board was appointed Director of Education in early 1905, overseeing ongoing reforms over the next two decades. The new syllabus was trialled in l904, amended and extended with notes and instructions for teachers and introduced to all schools in 1905.


In Victoria, action for reform occurred a little earlier than in New South Wales. During the economic depression of the 1890s, there were severe cuts to spending on public education, and as conditions improved educators, economists and parliamentarians called for change. In 1898, Alfred Deakin, then a parliamentarian in the Legislative Assembly, delivered an influential attack on prevailing education. Support for reform grew in the wider community and the press. In 1899, Parliament appointed the Royal Commission on Technical Education (1899-1901) with Theodore Fink as its Chairman. The Commission concerned itself with much more than technical education and became an inquiry into the whole educational system. Reports of the Commission condemned public education as it existed and Fink’s recommendations covered the re-organisation of the Department of Education, the nature and content of primary education, and the system of inspection.

Frank Tate, appointed an inspector of schools in 1895 and a prominent advocate for New Education from the 1890s, gave evidence before the Fink Commission, along with practical insight into how reform might proceed. He was appointed to the new position of Director of Education in 1902 and, like Board in New South Wales, introduced and oversaw significant and ongoing change in the decades that followed. Tate abolished payment by results, modified the pupil-teacher system, and introduced a completely new course of study for the primary schools.


Historian Peter Meadmore researched the situation in Queensland, uncovering a lack of enthusiasm for change on the part of conservative administrators. However, by 1903 there was growing agitation for reform on the part of Andrew Barlow, the Minister for Education, the Queensland Teachers’ Union and the press. Under pressure from Barlow, the conservative Undersecretary and the General Inspector imported the New South Wales syllabus of 1904, but little support for teachers was provided. The syllabus demanded teaching practices that were very different to those it replaced and most teachers simply lacked the experience to understand and implement those practices. Meadmore contrasted the Queensland situation with New South Wales, pointing to crucial factors necessary for successful implementation as distinct from mere introduction. These factors were present in New South Wales but largely absent in Queensland. They included the informed embrace of the philosophy of New Education by the chief officers and enthusiasm on the part of these officers in supporting implementation in schools. While Peter Board began to fill the top positions in the service with officers and inspectors who supported reform, Queensland did not. Another factor required the syllabus to be accompanied by the reform of teacher training. New South Wales quickly set up a new training college and appointed Alexander Mackie, who was committed to New Education, as principal. Queensland continued with the pupil-teacher system. Peter Board added extensive notes to the new syllabus in 1905, and supported in-service initiatives throughout the state, but those notes and initiatives were absent in Queensland.

In 1914 Queensland finally issued a revised syllabus, to be implemented in 1915. It was compiled by a team of inspectors and teachers, and included considerable guidance for teachers. A training college for teachers opened in 1914, but catered for a very small number of teachers while the pupil-teacher system continued to operate.


William Neale, an inspector in the South Australian system, was tasked to investigate Tasmanian primary education in 1904. His report was scathing. Neale was then appointed Director of Education in 1905. Under Neale, changes were introduced. A teachers’ training college opened in Hobart, fees for school pupils were abolished and school attendance numbers increased dramatically. Neale, however, aroused the antagonism of teachers, including when he recruited large numbers of teachers from South Australia. Criticised by a committee of inquiry into his administration in 1909, Neale resigned. He was replaced by William Taylor McCoy, a former inspector in New South Wales. McCoy re-organised the Department of Education, introduced a new course of instruction, and generally instigated and gained support for the principles of New Education.

South Australia

In South Australia, dissatisfied teachers formulated new policies in the early years of the century while experiencing worsening conditions of work and an incompetent administration. In 1905, a reformed state Labor Party formed government in coalition with Independent Liberals. This government appointed Alfred Williams, a headmaster and president of the Teachers’ Association, as Director of Education. Under Williams, the school curriculum was reorganised, Adelaide High School opened in 1908 and district high schools opened in rural areas. William McCoy, transferring from Tasmania, later assumed directorship of education in South Australia.


When Francis Anderson summed up educational policy and development in the Australian states in 1914, he pointed to great changes in methods and aims achieved since 1900. The 3Rs, he said, had ceased being treated as ends in themselves and instead had become instruments of mental development, while initiative on the part of teachers was encouraged instead of being discouraged. To achieve such change, three things had been absolutely necessary: new programs of instruction in accordance with the new ideals; new methods of selecting and training teachers; and assistance to teachers in transforming from the old system to the new. In most states those three conditions had been met, in some more satisfactorily and completely than in others.

Sydney Teachers College Nature Study class at Blackfriars, 1911. Source: Courtesy of the University of Sydney Archives [REF-00050509]

Sydney Teachers College Nature Study class at Blackfriars, 1911. Source: Courtesy of the University of Sydney Archives [REF-00050509]

Extensive change was achieved in this period. New syllabuses of instruction underpinned by theories of New Education; the abolition of school fees for primary education and a move towards their abolition in secondary schools; the development and growth of secondary education; pre-service training for teachers in dedicated courses; and new school buildings and facilities. Various evidence, including inspectors’ reports and teaching journals indicate change penetrated deeply into classroom practice. In a period when Australia was sometimes referred to as the “social laboratory of the world” educational reform stood within a wider agenda of reform and development.

Historians writing in the second part of the twentieth century would often claim that the Australian response to New Education was largely derivative and the reforming educators were imitators of what they observed in other countries, particularly England. This view has been challenged by historians who argue that Australian educators sought ideas widely, from the United States and Europe as well as England, Scotland and Ireland, that they participated in a vibrant transnational exchange of ideas from which they not only borrowed but consciously adapted to unique Australian contexts. Australian educators did not wish to merely imitate overseas reform, but looked to other countries for examples and comparisons that they could adapt. Australian reforms, in turn, were observed by visitors from overseas and disseminated to other countries through publications and correspondence.

Bibliography and References

Anderson, F. 1901. The Public School System of New South Wales. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Anderson, F. 1914. “Educational Policy and Development” in Federal Handbook prepared in Conjunction with the Eighty-Fourth Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Australia, August, 1914. Melbourne: Government Printer, 509-545.

Austin, A. G. & R. J. W. Selleck. 1975. The Australian Government School, 1830-1914: Select Documents. Carlton, Vic.: Pitman.

Barcan, A. 1980. A History of Australian Education. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Dunt, L. 1993. Speaking Worlds: The Australian Educators and John Dewey, 1890-1940. Parkville, Vic.: University of Melbourne.

Godfrey, J. I. F. 2007. “Sowing Seeds for Development: Cyril Jackson’s Attempts to Establish Relevant Schooling in a Rural Setting in Western Australia, 1896-1903”, History of Education Review, Vol. 36, no. 2, 16-33.

Gregory, A. 1982. “The Fink Commission, the 1890s Depression and Victorian State Education”, ANZHES Journal, Vol. 11, no. 1 (1982), 34-48.

Kass, D. 2018. Educational Reform and Environmental Concern: A History of School Nature Study in Australia. London: Routledge.

Meadmore, P. 2003. “The Introduction of the ‘New Education’ in Queensland, Australia”, History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 43, no. 3, 372-392.

Meadmore, P. J. 2000. “Examining Reformist Discourses: Queensland State Primary Education, 1900-30.” Ph.D. Thesis, Queensland University of Technology.

Rodwell, G. W. 1992. With Zealous Efficiency: Progressivism and Tasmanian State Primary Education, 1900-20. [Australia]: G. Rodwell.

Selleck, R. J. W. 1968. The New Education. London: Pitman.

Turney, C. (ed.). 1983. Pioneers of Australian Education. Vol. 3, Studies of the Development of Education in Australia, 1900-50. Sydney: Sydney University Press.

Citation of this entry

Kass, D. 2024. New Education Part 1. Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and New Zealand (DEHANZ). 29 June. Available:

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