The Real Education Revolution

By Blainey, Geoffrey | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Real Education Revolution


Blainey, Geoffrey, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


The education revolution of the 1870s is still incomplete, writes Geoffrey Blainey.

We are promised an education revolution in Australia. If it arrives, it will be a jubilant day. But will it arrive? The answer is 'no'. We can hope for progress but not for a revolution.

To ask for a revolution is almost to ask for the moon. A revolution is a once-only event. It rarely happens. We have experienced one mighty education revolution in Australia. Its effects far exceeded what we now can expect - if Mr Rudd and Ms Gillard do improve our huge system of education.

Australia's real education revolution came late in the 19th century. Victoria led much of it. The landmark was the introduction of compulsory education here at the start of 1873. It was free and usually lasted until the age of 13 or 14. It was a wonderful change in a land where many people could not read and write, or could read only with great difficulty.

Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales were soon well ahead of most European nations in primary education.

This step was also revolutionary because it was virtually a law against child labour. If children were compelled to go to school, they could not work fulltime in factories or on farms.

Building new primary schools, mostly in remote places, and hiring teachers, called for a huge expenditure. In terms of the real cost per child, it was more expensive than the present stimulus package for schools known as Building the Education Revolution. This first education revolution was the real one. It affected most children. However, it did not reach most Aboriginal settlements, especially in the outback, until the 20th century. Therefore, by 1970, it was generally effective. Since then, primary education has retreated in many Aboriginal regions. In that sense the real education revolution of the 1870s is still incomplete.

If the Rudd government could succeed in revitalising primary schools for Aboriginal children, especially in remote places, and if it could entice children to attend regularly, that would be a wonderful achievement, it would be great - no matter the cost.

It is now known, from research in India and other places, that a reasonable level of education for girls makes them more effective mothers and more protective of their babies' health. Here is a simple path towards improved health for indigenous children.

From the end of World War II there was a great growth in secondary education in Australia. It was not a revolution. It affected a far smaller proportion of the population than did the primary school revolution.

In the last 50 years there has also been a dramatic growth in universities. While impressive, it hardly can be called revolutionary. Even today, primary education is the most important field, in my view. A lot can be done to help but it will consume much money and thought.

There is another reason why we cannot expect another education revolution on a grand scale. A vast area of education today is outside the control of educators. …

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