Physical education and training

Australia, 1880-1989

Anxiety concerning the fitness of youth for coming adulthood and its responsibilities has had a long history. Towards the end of the nineteenth century in Australia such anxiety rose to the level of a moral panic. Larrikinism was a problem for the respectable middle classes. The behaviour of too many unruly working class youths, larrikins, tended towards criminality, immorality, disorder and violence of various kinds. Nor were young women immune from the phenomena. The emergence of adolescence as a phase of life requiring supervision and management by responsible adults belongs to this period. Schools emerged as one of the principal sites for such management and supervision, especially in the era following the compulsory attendance laws from the 1870s.

Part of the anxiety was concern for the fitness of young men given the growing probability that the Australian colonies, and then the nation, would be drawn into wars fought by the British Empire. There was Empire-wide shock concerning the unfitness of so many recruits into the armed services for the Boer War, and later World War I. It became increasingly clear that too many inner-urban youth were ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-clothed: they were not fit for their responsibilities towards both the emerging nation and Empire.

Attempts to improve the physical fitness of children and youth, as well as their discipline, was a consequence. According to the language of the day, the population itself might be improved and the threat of “race suicide” (meaning the “white race”) might be averted. This kind of thinking belonged in part to the eugenics movement that was gaining policy traction at the time.

The panics about youth and population were not the only reason for schools to take an increased responsibility for improving the physical and moral education, welfare, and fitness of the young. Some schools and educators had a concern for developing the physical development of children and youth before the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Early approaches to schooling for physical fitness

Student drill to entertain royal visitors, Adelaide Oval, 1901. [State Library South Australia, B45558/16]

Student drill to entertain royal visitors, Adelaide Oval, 1901. [State Library South Australia, B45558/16]

Through the nineteenth century, where the physical education of children and youth existed, it was highly gendered. Males were much more likely than girls to be targeted for vigorous physical exercise. In the public (government) schools, “drill” (marching and exercises oriented towards military preparedness) was usually the inspiration. In 1872 in the parliament of New South Wales reference was made to the positive effects of this kind of physical training for boys:

the schools visited by the Drill Instructors begin to show a more even and a more healthy discipline; and, as arrangements are in progress to extend the course of Drill to as many schools as possible, substantial benefits may be expected to result from the measure. (Quoted in Gorzanelli, p. 69)

The games tradition of the boys’ non-government, corporate, schools in the British Empire developed over the century with increasing regulation and adult supervision of the sports played. Cricket, rugby and rowing were three such sports. Later, in Australia would come sports such as Australian rules football, tennis, hockey and soccer. The provision of sports, and the eventual requirement in many schools that all boys participate in at least one sport carried the main responsibility for the physical education and training of boys. The central role of sports, especially in the nineteenth century collegiate schools, was part of the developing Arnoldian tradition, training that invested games with a series of moral and citizenship-building responsibilities as well as physical development. Such training of young people in the skills, rules and playing of sports retained a role in school physical education through the twentieth century and beyond.

Newington College boys rowing. The "games" tradition. c 1932. [SLNSW, Hood Coll. PXE789(v35)]

Newington College boys rowing. The “games” tradition. c 1932. [SLNSW, Hood Coll. PXE789(v35)]

For girls in parallel private and corporate (non-public) schools, the provision of sports and the expectation that girls would participate in their playing, came later. It was more likely that some version of calisthenics or similar, would occur in such schools. It had the apparent advantage for girls of being non-competitive as well as encouraging bodily exercise. It could also support the encouragement of graceful movement.

Students demonstrating eurythmics at Sydney Teachers College, c1945. [SLNSW, FL1321526]

Students demonstrating eurythmics at Sydney Teachers College, c1945. [SLNSW, FL1321526]

It may or may not have required apparatus such as balls, rings or wands. In the early twentieth century eurythmics became popular in many girls’ schools. Competitive games for girls were also introduced. In Australia one of the most enduringly popular was a version of basketball, later known as netball. Tennis was another.

In the public elementary schools of the nineteenth century where physical education was introduced, it was usually dominated by drill rather than the games tradition of the private and corporate schools.

F.J. Gladman’s magisterial work, School Work, progressing through many editions in the 1870s and 1880s provides a guide to desirable approaches to physical education, not only for the Australian colonies. Rather than imagining physical education as a school subject with a curriculum, there was a different approach:

one of the elements of success in life is that the candidate [school student] be … “a good animal” by which is implied the possession of a sound constitution and well-developed frame. The sedentary nature of most of the school occupations of the child militates seriously against due and proper growth of the body, especially of the chest, arms, and respiratory organs … (Gladman, p. 352).

According to Gladman, games were too irregular, lacking scientific and systematic approaches to be of much use, especially in urban areas. Regular physical “drill” not only assisted with physical development but assisted regular school work by allowing children to return to their regular subjects, “refreshed and invigorated” (p. 353).

Girls exercising using sticks. Deniliquin, 1914. [SLNSW, FL1692617]

Girls exercising using sticks. Deniliquin, 1914. [SLNSW, FL1692617]

Gladman argued that teachers needed training if physical exercises and drill were to be carried out successfully. Simple exercises were better than complex. Large groups could be massed to perform exercises in unison. Heavy apparatus was discouraged, that is “the monstrosities of antiquated gymnasia” of an earlier period (p. 355). Among indoor or out-of-door exercises, practice in marching for children was highly recommended. Along with such coordinated physical exercise was “free movement”, known as “Swedish Drill” (p. 357). Other possibilities were exercises using apparatus such as light dumb-bells, barbells, clubs and scarves (the last, especially for infants).

Late in Gladman’s text is a disclaimer, that schools cannot do everything. Encouraging the physical development of students was desirable, but such activity was better treated as incidental and informal, rather than being subject to rigid programming. The emphasis of the school must necessarily be on moral and intellectual training (pp. 558-559). This disclaimer is significant. One cannot always assume that in Australian elementary and primary schools of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that physical education occurred either with system or regularity.

The principal historian of physical education in Australia, David Kirk, concluded that the traditions of military drill dominated early approaches to physical training in public schools. Its methods allowed for the regulation and normalisation of working-class children’s bodies through precise formal exercises carried out in unison with large groups or classes.

In the early-twentieth century, education departments in the different Australian states gave sporadic attention to the promotion of physical education in schools. The appointment, 1902-1906, in Tasmania for example, of Christian Bjelke-Petersen, led to the training of teachers in the physiological principles of “physical culture”. Bjelke-Petersen was a significant figure in the field in Tasmania, Victoria and New South Wales. To some degree a replacement for drill was imagined, his scheme, for both boys and girls, stressed the importance of breathing exercises, deportment drills, physical culture games, and rest between exercises. The long term impact within schools was limited.

Militarised physical training: preparing for national emergencies

The feared approach of a new war led the federal government to introduce compulsory training for youth on a national basis. An amendment to the Defence Act (1903) in 1910 included responsibilities for schools. Fear of invasion had informed colonial and national governments through successive waves of panic about the intentions of Russia, Germany and Japan in the south west Pacific. Australia’s “white Australia policy” would likely need defending. Developing the fitness of male youth was an urgent and necessary focus as Australia prepared for war.

School rifle drill, 1910. [SLSA, PRG 280/1/44/56]

School rifle drill, 1910. [SLSA, PRG 280/1/44/56]

According to the Act, after 1910 every Australian boy between 12 and 13 years of age was required to be enrolled through schools in junior cadet training. Every boy between the ages of 14 and 18 was to be enrolled in senior cadet units, whether school or community based. Christian Bjelke-Petersen was appointed Commonwealth Director of Physical Training.

A powerful advocate for compulsory physical and military training was a Labor, then Nationalist politician, Billy Hughes. There was no doubt in his mind that Australian male youth was wanting. Through the militarised physical training of youth, Australia would be strengthened, and White Australia defended. Hughes was prime minister in Australia for much of World War I, from 1915 and then through to 1923.

The physical training that developed certainly had a military component (rifle shooting and marching for example), but other physical activity, such as swimming was also possible. The approaches of a version of Swedish gymnastics as developed by Pehr Henrik Ling (1776-1839) were also influential. The exercises involved were usually stripped of their freer elements. They were designed to train particular muscle groups, to promote health and the development of scientific approaches to physical development.

Drill traditions also persisted. At Unley High School in South Australia, a version of the drill tradition was perfected. Each day the whole school, boys and girls, would be gathered in columns and rows, and in perfect unison to the command of the teachers with the most authoritarian bearings and voices, the various exercises would proceed. There was also a great emphasis on marching, and all the permutations of stopping, starting, wheeling to the left or right, that one might expect. This school under its headmaster, Ben Gates, became renowned for such activity and was usually called upon to entertain crowds during royal visits and other public occasions (Campbell, 2010, pp. 30-1, 81).

Older traditions died hard. Physical culture display by boys at Drummoyne Public School, Sydney, 1934. [SLNSW, Home and Away 1229]

Older traditions died hard. Physical culture display by boys at Drummoyne Public School, Sydney, 1934. [SLNSW, Home and Away 1229]

Kirk argued that the effect of this form of physical training continued the long-standing effort to discipline the bodies of youth and inculcate habits of obedience. Such training was increasingly criticised by many, especially some of the more progressive members of the New Education movement. Older traditions could arouse resentment and insubordination among youth themselves.

Hints of the future: 1920s and 1930s

Ella Gormley had an impact in Victoria and Western Australia as well as New South Wales. In 1920, her overseas study of physical education led to six month training courses for 20 teachers at a time in Sydney. Teachers from other states attended. Training included the Danish/Swedish system, including games, folk dancing and rhythmic work in addition to formal exercises. Gormley contributed to the growing popularity of eurythmics in Australia (Young, 1962, p. 80). The first teachers specifically designated as teachers of physical education began to be appointed to schools as a result of this work.

Schools were not the only places of interest for those interested in developing physically active and healthy children and youth. Playgrounds in the suburbs were increasingly planned, especially in the new “garden suburbs”. There were new national parks designed for recreational activity.

By the mid-1920s, physical education in New South Wales public schools had departed from the older tradition of military drill. It was expected to include developmental exercises, and sometimes folk dancing and eurythmics (Cole in Brown ed., 1927). In most Australian states in this period there was some form of physical training. In Victoria, a substantial effort went into the teaching of children how to swim. In South Australia in the same period, the late nineteenth century carried on. In the public (primary) schools, “drill” held its place in the mandated curriculum. In the secondary schools physical training was supposed to occur for 15 minutes each day. In Western Australian government secondary schools there was “gymnastics” included in the curriculum.

The national cadet scheme of 1911 was formally abandoned in 1922, although many schools continued with their cadet units. Some schools introduced the Baden-Powell inspired scouting troops on a more or less voluntary basis. Girl Guides followed.

In 1938, the papers presented to the conference of the New Education Fellowship across Australia occasionally argued the need for a more progressive physical education. Progress was slow, hindered by new threats to the nation, from fascism in Europe and Japanese imperialism.

Taking physical education in schools seriously

In Europe and North America a more professionalised approach to the physical education of children and youth was developing. It was more science based. Nevertheless, the old anxieties about producing youth who were fit for a nation under pressure continued into the 1940s. Before the 1939-1945 war began there was considerable admiration in Australia for German approaches to physical culture, outdoor youth clubs and activity, all climaxing with the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. In New South Wales, Minister of Education, David Drummond was a believer in the German approach, becoming a strong advocate of reformed approaches to physical education.

The government of New South Wale appointed a Canadian, Gordon Young, to a new job as Director of Physical Education. His department began the process of transforming the physical education curriculum, supporting the training of specialist physical education teachers through Sydney Teachers College. In 1941, Young instigated a ‘Flying Squad’ of trained physical instructors who visited the regions, training teachers in the newer methods of physical education. There was a new supporting literature, for example, Victor Stanton’s booklet published in the late 1930s, “I Must be Fit!”. 1937 the Department of Education had advertised for specialist physical education staff who would be expected to give demonstrations in physical education to teachers already in schools.

Fritz Duras inaugurated the serious study of physical education at the University of Melbourne in the late 1930s. [University of Melbourne]

Fritz Duras inaugurated the serious study of physical education at the University of Melbourne in the late 1930s. [University of Melbourne]

In Victoria, Fritz Duras, a German doctor of Jewish background arrived in 1937. He had been expelled from his university post in Germany by Nazi pressure. Duras had a strong background in sports science. He was hired by the University of Melbourne to establish a university course, a diploma in physical education. The University of Adelaide did the same. Neither Gordon Young, nor Fritz Duras had any time for traditional military-related “drill” in the emerging school curricula. Nevertheless, through the 1950s and 1960s it would be the teachers colleges that did most of the teacher training in the area.

In New South Wales and elsewhere long overdue regulations mandated the provision of sufficient grounds to support physical activity. No primary school could be founded on less than five acres of grounds, and no secondary school on less than ten acres. Overcrowded schools on tiny allotments in the inner-cities continued for some time, but the schools built for the post-war baby boom in the new suburbs would not repeat the spatial problems.

The Commonwealth Parliament passes the Narional Fitness Act in 1941.

The Commonwealth Parliament passes the National Fitness Act in 1941.

In 1941, two years into the war, the federal parliament passed the National Fitness Act. Still in federal politics, Billy Hughes supported its passing. The Act funded lectureships in physical education in all the Australian universities and tried to ensure that specialist teachers of physical education would at last begin to arrive in schools in some volume. The Act also laid out funding for a range of coordinating committees and community youth and sporting organisations that would guarantee Australian national fitness into the future.

End of the beginning

These 1940s developments did not necessarily bring about an immediate improvement for physical education in Australia. Universities were often suspicious of physical education as a field of study suitable for their purposes, and it would be many years before full degree courses would be developed in colleges of advanced education and universities.

The post-war baby boom also conspired against physical education. With the shortage of teachers, too often teachers of physical education were drafted into conventional classrooms, teaching the classroom-based curriculum. Time allocated to the subject was often considered inadequate for its purposes.

Photographing possible elements of the new physical education syllabus in New South Wales, 1964

Photographing possible elements of the new physical education syllabus in New South Wales, 1964. [SLNSW, ref. 383810]

At the same time a start had been made. The purposes of the physical education curriculum expanded, often to include “health”. By the 1980s physical education was well established in Australian school curricula. In 1989 “The Hobart Declaration on Schooling”, conscious that “the schooling of Australia’s children is the foundation on which to build our future as a nation”, agreed that there were ten common and agreed goals for the schooling of all Australians. Physical education appeared as the ninth goal:

“To provide for the physical development and personal health and fitness of students, and for the creative use of leisure time.” (Hobart Declaration, 1989 )


Bibliography and References

Campbell, C. 2010. Unley High School: One hundred years of public education, 1910-2010. Adelaide: Wakefield Press.

Cole, P. 1927. New South Wales. In Browne, G. S. ed., Education in Australia: A comparative study of the educational systems of the six Australian states (1-81). London: Macmillan.

Gladman, F. J. 1886. (Revised ed. 1898). School work. London: Jarrold and Sons.

Gorzanelli, M. 2018. The three-legged race: A history of physical education, school sport, and health education in New South Wales public schools from 1880 to 2012. PhD thesis. University of Sydney. Available:

Hobart Declaration. 1989.

Kirk, D. 1998. Schooling bodies: School practice and public discourse, 1880-1950. London: Leicester University Press.

Kirk, D. & Twigg, K. 1993. The militarization of school physical training in Australia: The rise and demise of the Junior Cadet Training Scheme, 1911-31. History of Education, vol. 22(4): 391-414.

Rodwell, G. 1999. The eugenic and political dynamics in the early history of physical education in Australia, 1900–50. Melbourne Studies in Education, 40:1, 93-113, DOI: 10.1080/17508489909556327

Young, G. 1962. Physical education in Australia. MEd. thesis. University of Sydney. Available:

Citation of this entry

Campbell, C. 2023. Physical education: History of a school curriculum. Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and New Zealand (DEHANZ), 5 December. Available:

Keywords: , , , , , , , , ,