For everyone Celebrating 150 years of public education in Victoria

  • By Louise Swinn
  • This article was published more than 1 year ago.
  • 6 Jul 2022
Left, top: State Library of Victoria. Bottom right: National Library of Australia, A typical Victorian country school, [1904-1909]

Victoria was one of the first governments in the world to make education free, compulsory and secular. We celebrate that historic achievement in this timeline of transformation. 

Before 1872, most of the state’s children were enrolled at government-aided institutions, others attended independent or church schools. A few were educated at home by tutors and, at a time when schooling was neither compulsory nor free, too many received no formal education at all.

The 150th anniversary of public education in Victoria celebrates the fundamental right of every child to access a high-quality education provided by the state. The Education Act, established in 1872, removed state funding of any non-government schools and created an education department with overarching control of Victoria’s government schools. This was Australia’s first public school system – the result of years of pressure from workers and unions.

The Education Act was a world first, making the state responsible for the provision of schooling. All children aged six to 15 years were now required to attend school unless they had a reasonable excuse. The Victorian government, flush from the gold rush, took away the prohibitive costs that had meant many children, including most girls, missed out on schooling. In making education compulsory, children who had had no previous schooling – many coming from parents and grandparents who had also had no education – entered the education system. For some families, who were relying on their children’s wages, this move was met with trepidation.

Did you know?

Bacchus Marsh Primary School was Victoria’s first government school, opening on 3 May 1850, with one teacher and a voluntary enrolment of 34.


“If you’re going to have a properly functioning democratic society, then people need a good education; they need to be able to read and think and to understand how they can participate.”

Former president of AEU Victoria Peter Lord

The rise of education unions

It was 14 years later, in 1886, when teachers met in Bendigo to form the State School Teachers Union of Victoria, quickly gaining 50% density. Splinter groups soon formed, and it took another hundred years for Victorian teachers to again be unified under one union, with the formation of the AEU Victorian branch in 1995.

In the meantime, there was the Victorian Teachers Union – formed in 1926 and ahead of its time with a policy of equal pay for women and men; the Australian Teachers Federation in 1937, a forerunner of the federal AEU; the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association (VSTA); the Kindergarten Teachers Association of Victoria (KTAV); and the Technical Teachers’ Association of Victoria (TTAV), which became the Technical Teachers Union of Victoria (TTUV), among others.

Former president of AEU Victoria Peter Lord applauds the fundamental pillars underpinning public education. “If you’re going to have a properly functioning democratic society, then people need a good education; they need to be able to read and think and to understand how they can participate.”

He says there was a good degree of bipartisan state and federal support for public education for decades, from its establishment in 1872 right up until post-WWII population growth saw a rapid expansion in demand among students beyond the age of 14. It was from the 1960s, when federal and then state governments started funding non-government schools, that resources for public education came under significant pressure.


The Save Our Schools festival and rally organised by Richmond, Northland, Fitzroy and Gravel Hill Schools in 1993.

Defending public education

In the 1980s in Victoria, under premiers John Cain (1982–1990) and Joan Kirner (1990–1992), significant resource improvements and a raft of reforms transformed the state, including the creation of WorkSafe, the TAC and the Victorian Electoral Commission.

This was followed by arguably the most sustained attack on public education in the state, with the election in 1992 of the Liberal Kennett government. Kennett closed more than 350 schools and fired more than 8,000 teachers – 10% of the state’s public school teachers – the ramifications of which are still felt today.

Mary Bluett, who became the president of AEU Victoria in 1998, says: “With 350 schools closed and over 8,000 teachers forced to take voluntary redundancy packages, this had an enormous impact on the public education system. Teacher workload was increased and many teachers suffered burnout. The impacts of the cuts are still being felt today, as many of the people who took packages were the next generation of leaders in our schools.”

While this still rankles, the original vision of the Victorian parliament remains: free education for all, regardless of circumstances or beliefs. It is a democratic right that the AEU has played a central role in defending – and one worth celebrating in this 150th anniversary year.

Contemplating this history, Meredith Peace, president of AEU Victoria, says: “We are proud that Victoria has been Australia’s leading provider of public education, and in all of these years, unions have been the chief voice advocating better public education funding at both the federal and state levels. As a union, we celebrate the extraordinary dedication of those who work in our public schools. They are the people who have been making sure that all students get the best education possible, no matter their personal circumstances, for the past 150 years.”

Did you know?

In 1872 there were 483 schools in Victoria and 172 of these are still operating today. They were all primary schools; the first state secondary school didn’t open until 1905.


Notable union wins

  • In 1941, union campaigns lead to one week of annual leave as a national standard for all workers.

  • In 1971, 24 Maribyrnong High teachers went on strike for 11 weeks in protest at having to work alongside people teaching without qualifications. This ‘control of entry’ campaign led to all Victorian students being taught by qualified teachers.

  • In 1976, Victorian education unions win 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and five days of paternity leave for members.

  • In 1982, the first industrial agreement limits teaching loads and class sizes for the first time.

  • In 1999, AEU Victoria runs the biggest state election campaign in the union’s history to see out the notorious Kennett government by highlighting the huge education cuts.

  • In 2005, the union wins salary parity for preschool teachers, in alignment with teacher salaries.

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