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New South Wales ‘secular’ education and the Public Schools League

Peter Garrett, a former Australian Federal Minister for School Education, puts Marion Maddox’s thesis in her book Taking God to School[1] in this way:

The Australian settlement established early consensus on the question of government support for religious schools, namely that it was undesirable. Education that was ‘free, compulsory and secular’ was the foundation stone on which a school system should be built. Maddox applauds the guiding instincts of politicians of the day who determined that government should enable this education model, led as they were by fears of sectarianism and the isolation of specific religions if the state supported religious schools. They also expressed an ideal about the kind of nation they wanted Australia to become: a fair country where every child would be well educated, each bound to the other in the same setting, without the added complication of religious affiliation getting in the way.[2]

The government of the colony of New South Wales under Henry Parkes certainly thought this way as did much of the population. The catch phrase used in the nineteenth century was ‘free, compulsory and secular’ and this slogan has been rejuvenated by the work of Maddox. While the argument of Maddox is worth weighing and given serious thought, and while Garrett’s review of her book begins to do this, there is a danger of misunderstanding the intentions of the nineteenth century discussion. In particular, there is the risk of believing that by the use of the word ‘secular’ the nineteenth century advocates of educational reform were seeking to eliminate religion from a state-funded school education system. Such a usage can been seen in Craig Campbell’s work ‘Free, compulsory and secular Education Acts Australia, 1850-1910’ where, in seeking to assess the degree to which the systems of public education actually did create free, compulsory and secular schooling, he says:

Except for Victoria, the colonies allowed some visitation by religious clergy and others to give some denominational/religious instruction. If ‘secular’ meant no Christian influence on the curriculum at all, then none of the new public schools were secular. ‘Common Christianity’ elements survived in some of the textbooks, and often underpinned public school moral education.[3]

Such an assessment suggests that seeking a ‘secular’ education system in the nineteenth century meant the desire to eliminate Christian influence from the schools. This was simply not the case, at least in New South Wales. Many devout Christians, though not all, were in favour of, and campaigned for, a ‘free, compulsory and secular’ state-based education system. It is instructive to see what these supportive Christians understood about the ‘free, compulsory and secular’ system.

John Hay Goodlet

John Hay Goodlet

John Hay Goodlet (1835-1914), merchant, manufacturer, philanthropist and devout Christian, was one such campaigner and his views are illustrative of the understanding of these supportive Christians. Goodlet, a Scottish-born Presbyterian, clearly placed a high value on education and gave a considerable amount of his time, effort and finance in support of the building of educational facilities and organisations for disadvantaged, secondary, disability and tertiary education. He was long time member of the board of the Ragged Schools and of the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, a member of the public school board for Canterbury,[4] a founder of the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Sydney, and a founder of St Andrew’s College in the University of Sydney. At a meeting in 1874 to consider the erection of a new public school at Ashfield Goodlet, an Ashfield resident, listened as Henry Parkes extolled the virtues of the schooling system that Parkes had ushered in through the Public Schools Act (1866). Parkes pointed out the great improvement that this had brought to the education of children, with improved teaching standards and increased numbers of schools.[5] While not disputing Parkes’ assessment of the improvement in the education provided in the Colony, Goodlet was clearly not satisfied for the next day he attended a meeting to found a branch of the Public Schools League (PSL) at Burwood, an adjacent suburb to Ashfield. The PSL came into existence because of the educational issues raised by the great increase in population that had taken place in the colony during the 1870s and 1880s. Despite Parkes’ efforts, this population increase,  and  its  dispersion  across  the  colony,  had  revealed  the  complete inadequacy of the school system.[6]  There was, therefore, considerable public agitation for an improvement in the provision of schooling, for it was evident that the spread of a mix of denominational schools and public schools throughout the colony was not sufficient to provide a universal education system. The State’s financial support of denominational schools weakened the system and Goodlet was among those who, through the PSL, agitated for a ‘national, secular, compulsory and free’ primary education system.[7]

That an educational system would be national and compulsory was what mattered to Goodlet, but he had reservations about the meaning of the word ‘secular’. At the founding of the Burwood Branch of the PSL he said that

he admitted that he had been opposed to the word ‘secular’ at first, until he heard it defined by the League. At the same time he thought the word had been unfortunately adopted, and if the word ‘non-sectarian’ were used it would materially strengthen the league.[8]

In its manifesto, the PSL was at pains to spell out its understanding of ‘secular’ so as to not alienate the support of those like Goodlet. It said that

the League does not seek in any way to depreciate or hinder [religious] instruction, but simply maintains that in a community of various religious faiths, the State cannot justly be the religious teacher of its people. We can have no religious tests of citizenship … and consequently, Denominational education ought not to be supported out of public funds.[9]

Such a position, however, was only acceptable to those like Goodlet if there was still an opportunity for religious instruction within such a public secular education system. Aware of this fact the PSL affirmed that

to the Scripture lessons and other class books, now generally used in our Public Schools, the League has no objection to urge. Nor does it object to special religious instruction being given, provided this can be done without cost to the State, without interfering with the ordinary course of secular instruction, and without favour to any one section of the people in preference to any other.[10]

Goodlet continued his support for a national education system, successfully moving at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the State of New South Wales that ‘in the opinion of this Assembly, no system of education will be satisfactory that is not purely national, and as far as practicable, compulsory.’[11]

John Goodlet was probably one ‘who preferred the denominational system as a matter of principle, or interest, but accepted the compromise of non-sectarian religious instruction’[12] within a secular system. As a practical man he would have realised, as others did, that the churches simply could not, with their limited resources, provide a truly national educational schooling system. He was content that the system of education proposed by the PSL would be such that religion would have a place.

In the Public School Act of 1880, the colonial Government owned its responsibility to implement a universal education system and the fact that ‘the State alone was capable of doing this, for neither the local communities, nor the Churches, nor the existing boards of education appeared to be capable of discharging this national duty.’[13] So the Government placed education in the hands of a department of the State under a Minister of the Crown. Such primary school education was to be ‘free, compulsory and secular’.

The Roman Catholic Bishops strenuously opposed these secularising views of education. Pope Pius IX in Quanta Cura, with its attached Syllabus of Errors (1864), had condemned views that included the belief that education should be ‘subjected to the civil and political power’, and that Catholics could approve of a ‘system of educating youth unconnected with Catholic faith and the power of the Church.’[14] It has been suggested by Austin[15] that the final form in which the secular Act finally passed into law in New South Wales was designed

not to drive religion out of the State schools, but to prevent the Roman Catholic Church from continuing its assault upon the liberal, secular State with the aid of the State’s own resources.[16]

Whether or not Goodlet supported the Act for these reasons is unknown. He was strongly opposed to Roman Catholicism as was shown by his refusal to admit Roman Catholic priests to minister at his private Consumptive Home at Thirlmere and so it would not have been out of character for him to support the Act, in part, for such a reason. His stated reasons were, however, that the colony needed a compulsory universal system of education so that all primary school-aged children could receive an education. That Goodlet, as a devout Christian, supported this object illustrates the truth of Bollen’s view that

the controversies over ‘free, secular and compulsory’ education which engaged the Australian colonies in the sixties and seventies were not set-piece battles in which agnosticism and secularism drove religion from the field. The failings of the denominational system and a positive ideal of liberal education counted for much more than anti-religious influences.[17]

The problem that Maddox raises in her book of an increasing trend in Australia towards a segregated school system of public/private education does need to be addressed. Looking at our historic basis for public education is an instructive reminder of the intention of the founders of our education system. But the results of such an investigation must not be used as an excuse to remove religious instruction from our public schools for that was never the intention of its founders. In New South Wales at least, ‘secular’ meant ‘non-sectarian’ in that the funded schools were to be run by the government and not by any particular sect. Within such a government system provision was envisaged for religious instruction and education according to the tenants of the individual churches who were to provide the teachers for this.

Needs-based government funding of all schools is the way forward for our increasingly segregated school system. For good or for ill the public/private system with government support of sectarian schools that has developed in Australia, contrary to the ideals of the nineteenth century educational reformers, will prove a political impossibility to unscramble.

Dr Paul F Cooper, Research Fellow,  Christ College, Sydney.

The appropriate way to cite this article is as follows:

Paul F Cooper. New South Wales ‘secular’ education and the Public Schools League. Philanthropy and Philanthropists in Australian Colonial History, December 13, 2015.  Available at


[1] Marion Maddox, Taking God to School, (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen and Unwin, 2014).

[2] [accessed September 10, 2015].

[3] Craig Campbell, 2014. Free, compulsory and secular Education Acts. Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and New Zealand (DEHANZ), 28 February. Available [accessed September 11, 2015].

[4] NSW Government Gazette, 1879, page 4708.

[5] SMH, November 17, 1874, 3.

[6] A. G. Austin, Australian Education 1788-1900, Church, State and Public Education in Colonial Australia (Melbourne: Pitman and Sons, 1961), 174.

[7] Goodlet was a financial supporter of the Public Schools League, giving in 1874 a £10 donation which is the equivalent of $1,225 (2011 value).

[8] SMH, November 18, 1874, 5.

[9] SMH, September 22, 1874, 2.

[10] SMH, September 22, 1874, 2. A good account of the views of the Public Schools League is to be found in this article. See also SMH, October 3, 1874, 4.

[11] Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the State of NSW, 1874, Min 48, 16.

[12] Austin, Australian Education, 181; 190-193.

[13] Austin, Australian Education, 177.

[14] Austin, Australian Education, 195.

[15] Austin, Australian Education, 197.

[16] Austin, Australian Education, 197.

[17] J. D. Bollen, Protestantism and Social Reform in New South Wales, 1890-1910 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1972), 2.


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