The Education of the Country, with some Suggestions on the Subject.
Published by George Robertson Melbourne Elizabeth Street.
Education of the Country.
I do not deem it necessary to offer an apology for coming forward at this particular crisis with some thoughts and suggestions on the subject of Public Education. Besides being a minister of the gospel, deeply interested in whatever concerns the mental, moral, and religious well-being of the community, I am the citizen of a free country, and have the right as well as the privilege to express my sentiments on any topic which may occupy the public mind, and all the more when it is one upon which it is so needful that the community at large should be fully and correctly informed.
It is now thirty years ago since I began to turn my attention to this question; and from that period to the present I have been more or less engaged in its active agitation. I mention this simply to show that the question is not new to me, and that whatever may be the views which I advance, or the strictures which I offer, they are not the result of hasty or superficial consideration, but the fruits of matured thought and study.
Arriving in Victoria at the close of 1862, I had the pleasing satisfaction of congratulating the late lamented Mr. Heales on his having succeeded in carrying that Act of public instruction which is associated with his honoured name, stating to him how happy I felt in finding myself in a colony which had made such marked and gratifying progress towards solving not a few of those educational problems which were still perplexing and dividing our statesmen and our ecclesiastics at home.
That Act, which is designated the "Common Schools Act," and which is the one at present in force, has never, I have frequently said, received from the people of this country that praise to which it is entitled; nor has it, I conceive, been thoroughly appreciated in regard to its real aims and objects by any who have since attempted to improve on it. It has its defects and omissions, and time has demonstrated that additional legislative provisions must be enacted in order to facilitate the ultimate ends which it contemplates; and it will be my object to show how this, our Common Schools Act, can be perfected so as to meet all the exigencies and requirements of the case.
This Act, when framed, had to deal with schools established prior to its introduction, so that the field was not then clear for an entirely new system. In these circumstances, our Common Schools Act contemplated a twofold object. The first was to provide a good secular education for the children of the colony, and the second, to initiate and encourage a class of public schools page 4 which might gradually lead to the absorption of all our denominational schools into national ones; and thus place the whole public educational system of the country where it should be—not in the hands of the sects, but of the citizens. The policy which it embodies is virtually the same as that which is now being pursued by our ablest and most enlightened British statesmen. At this moment they are utilising the denominational schools that exist, and which cannot all at once be suppressed; and yet at the same time making provisions for the ultimate adoption of a completely national system, whereby the denominational schools will be superseded by schools not in any way bound up or connected with churches, but based on the suffrages, support, and management of the people themselves.
As I have observed, Mr. Heales' Act is not free from imperfections, which have impeded its full and successful operation. Of late, however, since the attention of the Board of Education has been turned to these, they have to some extent been rectified; not, however, by an Act of Parliament—which I consider was the only true constitutional course that should have been followed—but by what is called a special educational vote of the Legislative Assembly. For example, the Common Schools Act, as it stands at present, does not admit of any grants of public money being given to schools which have not an average attendance of twenty scholars; but by this special educational vote of the Legislative Assembly, the Board of Education is now supplied with certain sums whereby it has been enabled to plant what are termed Rural and Half-time Schools in the more thinly-populated districts of the colony, and which, as might have been expected, have proved an immense boon to the settlers.
There is still, however, a great defect felt on the part of the Board of Education, and that is power to amalgamate on equitable conditions schools where amalgamation is imperatively demanded, such as at Brunswick and elsewhere, there being about 300 schools throughout the colony which could with advantage be amalgamated into 150. To obtain this power, a draft Bill has been prepared by the Board, which for the last three years has been waiting the adoption of Parliament, which has as yet clone nothing in the matter.
Such being the case, it is not at all surprising that the Board has been growing in favour, and that there are many who have no desire whatever to see it interfered with, but merely assisted in its work. Among those inclined, or lately inclined to this course, are the leaders of the Wesleyan body, and those belonging to the Church of England, whom Bishop Perry represents; together with the Board of Education itself, which in the Report of 1870, as well as that of 1871, submitted to His Excellency the Governor, gives it as its unanimous conviction that if the draft Bill drawn up by the Board for the approval of Parliament were passed, including in it a compulsory, tentative clause in regard to educa- page 5 tion, "the wants (that is, the educational wants) of the country would be adequately met." The members of the Board of Education who gave this as their conviction in 1870, were the Hon. George Harker, the Hon. Michael O'Grady, the Hon. Angus Mackay, and Henry Henty, Esq. Since that period, Mr. Harker has resigned, and Mr. Richardson has been gazetted in his room, while Dr. Cutts has succeeded the late excellent Dr. Corrigan, whose death proved so great a loss to the cause of public education in this colony; but whilst the Board has undergone these changes, the newly-issued Report of 1871 unanimously reasserts its previously-recorded conviction, that if the recommendations submitted by the Board in its Report were adopted by Parliament, "the educational wants of the country would be adequately met."
Now, here I must express my sympathy with the Board of Education, in the extremely difficult and delicate circumstances in which it has all along been placed. It is, from the very nature of the system it administers, a mixed denominational Board, consisting of representatives of the various religious bodies of the colony; and in carrying on its operations it has been hampered and restrained by its own inherent weakness, as well as by the outside denominational interests and feelings which it has had to consult and to contend with. No one, therefore, acquainted with what that Board, constituted as it is, has had to do, but must render it that meed of commendation which it has, especially of late, so justly merited; but with all the regard which I have for the members of that Board, and with every confidence in its secretary, Mr. Kane, whom I have found to an able, liberal, and advanced educationalist, I cannot concur in the let-alone policy which some would recommend.
The Board itself even, to deal impartially and successfully with new matters of internal denominational contention that have recently arisen, must be emancipated from the fetters with which its action is cramped; and, now that the Ministry of the day has taken up the subject, the country ought to insist on a thorough investigation and settlement of the whole question. Had the Ministry now raised to office let it alone, it probably would have been in vain to hope for the formation of such a public opinion as would have enabled us to settle this question at once and for ever; but now it is different, the question is stirred and should not be allowed to rest until it is put on a fair and permanent footing. "There is a tide," says the great dramatist, "in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood leads on to fortune." Such a tide is now beginning to set in on this question, and if we can but seize it at the flood the friends of an enlightened and unobjectionable system of public instruction will be borne on to victory. This is not indeed, as I hold, a question of party, to be taken up for party purposes. On the contrary, it is a subject for the calm consideration of the citizen, the Christian, and the senator; but while this is the case, experience shows that it is only through the conflicts of parties page 6 that the community can be awakened from its lethargy, and led into a full knowledge and just appreciation of the real merits of those public social questions which it is called upon to decide. I look very little, or rather I do not look at all, to mere parties for the adjustment and settlement of this Educational question. Party is a passing and too often a one-sided, biassed, prejudiced thing; principle, however, is permanent and true, and must ever triumph in the long run, so that no party, political or ecclesiastical, need hope to have it in its power to settle this question irrespective of the views and interests of the community as a whole. This is a people's, not a party's question—a parents', not a priests'—and as such must be discussed and determined.
What, then, it may be asked, is the vital point at issue, or what is it in our present educational system that requires immediate eradication or reform? It may be summed up in one word—Denominationalism. Destroy it, remove the denominational element from our system of public instruction, and place the education of the people in the hands, not of the sects, but of the citizens; do this, and you will take away the cause of all the evils and complications that exist, and go far to make this colony, in the matter of public instruction, the first and foremost in the world. In spite of adverse circumstances, some progress has been made in this direction already; but it is slow, and does not promise to be more rapid in the future. The number of public schools, or schools vested in the Board of Education, has increased since 1862 from 193 to 457. I take my facts from the Report of 1870; but there are still 434 denominational schools, including a few private schools which also receive State aid. These denominational schools have diminished, it is true, from 513 to 434, but this is by far too large a number to have upon the list at this advanced period in the history of the Common Schools Act; while from various causes, which I need not particularise, the number is not likely in future to be very largely or speedily reduced. It cannot be so with Roman Catholic schools, which are still slightly on the increase, and which will, of course, multiply with the growth of their denomination; and if the other bodies do not add to the number of their denominational schools, it is simply because it is not deemed wise or expedient at present to do so. The Presbyterians, indeed, have all along from the first displayed a willingness to merge their schools into national ones, but of late they have been refusing to do so, except in a few exceptional cases not worth retaining; the reason for this change of policy on the part of the Presbyterians being the avowed tendency of some of our leading politicians towards a pure and exclusive secularism.
Denominationalism, therefore, if not dealt with now and vigorously, instead of growing weaker will become stronger; and the country, if not roused to energetic action on the subject, will have for many a long day to regret its supineness.
But how can denominationalism, it may be asked, be rooted out, page 7 and our public system of instruction purged from this permeating element? Did not Mr. Higinbotham first of all attempt it, and signally fail? He did; but do you know the reasons why? Mr. Higinbotham—than whom one more capable of grappling with this question is not to be found in this colony—did not receive from his colleagues in the Ministry that support to which he was entitled, while his Bill itself was liable to the most grave objections. Not to speak of his insisting by legislative enactment on the kind of religious instruction to be allowed by the local committees in the schools—an error for which I blame, not so much Mr. Higinbotham, as the members of the Royal Commission, of which he happened to be the chairman, Mr. Higinbotham committed two other fatal mistakes. In the provisions of his Bill for the elimination of the denominational element, he required, first, that all schools aided in future by the State should be vested in the Minister of Public Instruction—to many a very doubtful, and, in my opinion, a most dangerous proposition. This was to be done within five years after the passing of his Bill, and then if not complied with—which it would not have been, at least by the Roman Catholics—Mr. Higinbotham gave the country to understand that it would then be an open question for Parliament to consider whether, in such a case, the denomination that did not go into this arrangement might not, after all, have their State aid continued to their schools, although not vested in the Minister of Public Instruction. The Protestant denominations were not to be caught—they foresaw the danger, and were resolved to keep their own schools in their own power, rather than permit the Roman Catholics to become masters of the situation, after their own Protestant schools had slipped through their fingers. Hence the failure of Mr. Higinbotham's well-meant and, in many respects, admirably-conceived measure. But he has acquired experience from the failure, and when the proper time comes, I have no doubt he will head the movement that is now looming in the horizon.
Next after Mr. Higinbotham's failure came the attempt of the M'Culloch Administration. The draft Bill which they drew up with the same view—namely, the destruction of denominationalism—was, if possible, still more objectionable. It contained propositions which one could perceive at a glance to be utterly impracticable, such as no Minister of Public Instruction that might have been appointed could have carried into execution, while it would have involved an amount of expenditure which the country never would have sanctioned.
So much for the past, now for the present. A new Ministry, pledged to make the Education question a Cabinet one, has just been invested with office, and the Attorney-General is employed in framing a measure by which they intend to stand or fall. This is at least manly on their part, while to me and others, to whom it is a matter of comparative indifference what party is in power, provided the best interests of the country are advanced, the page 8 resolution of the present Ministry is a subject of unfeigned satisfaction. What, then, is their scheme? From what fell from the lips of the Chief Secretary, their measure will resemble neither that of Mr. Higinbotham nor that of Sir James M'Culloch's Administration. It will not, in fact, attempt to grapple with denominationalism at all, so far as the immediate destruction of it is concerned, but will allow things to continue in this respect as they are, or rather, more correctly speaking, to develop themselves in the way in which they have been so slowly doing under the administration of the Board of Education; the only difference, and it is slight, between the policy of the Board of Education, as set forth in its reports, and that of the Ministry, as announced by them, being simply this, that they, the Ministry, besides making education free without fees, will stop the further increase of what they call sectarian schools. The Board of Education, after all that has been said against it, may congratulate itself upon having its policy thus endorsed by the Ministry; but will this scheme satisfy the country? So far as the Wesleyans, the Church of England, and even the Presbyterians are concerned, it will not trouble them much, having already got all the denominational schools they care to have in the meantime. The only denomination it will touch will be the Roman Catholic one, who will receive no State aid to whatever new schools they may erect. But is this a vigorous, comprehensive, or far-seeing policy? The stoppage of aid put to the very slight increase of Roman Catholic schools may be deemed by many a masterstroke of policy, both for what it smites and what it spares; but I doubt if it will prove so in the end. With education free, and a compulsory law brought to bear on the community at large, we shall have the Roman Catholics placed in this singular position, either they must send their children to the public schools, or they must send them to those which they themselves establish. If they send them to their own they must pay for them, but if they send them elsewhere they will get their education for nothing, so that the Roman Catholics when this measure comes into play will be dealt with after this fashion—namely, they will be compelled like us Protestants to educate their children, but, unlike us, they will not get education free, not even the secular branches, if they prefer to receive this secular education in their own schools, rather than in those which the Government alone will assist. This, unquestionably, will mark a new era in our colonial history, and introduce an order of things for which it will be impossible in the wide world to find a precedent.
I can hardly believe that the Government seriously intend to agitate the country for such a paltry object as this; and am therefore led to conclude that they are but feeling their way after a wider, more worthy, and statesman-like scheme than that which has been indicated. Indeed, one would be apt to imagine that if this were really the scheme they seriously contemplated, it was nothing more nor less than an artful device, under the pretext of page 9 terminating denominationalism at some indefinite period, to rivet it more closely round our necks, by giving the denominationalism that at present exists full time to strike its roots so deeply into the virgin soil of this young and rising colony, as to make it next to impossible for our coming statesmen to eradicate it.
Denominationalism is doomed, but its existence may be needlessly prolonged; and certainly if such a scheme should be adopted by Parliament, denominationalism will hold up its head in this colony for many more years than this generation will witness. I am for its immediate extinction. Our politicians indeed may probably point to England and Scotland, where they are not so much abolishing as utilising denominationalism; but no one who is aware of the complications and difficulties which are experienced in the old countries from the long-standing denominationalism that cannot now be suppressed, would ever counsel a young colony like this, with its mixed and increasing population from all lands, to retain denominationalism in any shape or to any extent in their system of public instruction, for a single instant beyond the time it is in our power to eradicate it.
But is it in our power to eradicate it at present? I maintain that it is, that the present is the most favourable period for doing it; that it can not only be done, but done at once without delay, without involving any additional expenditure to the country; and what is better still, without prejudice or disadvantage to any denomination, but the reverse, including our Roman Catholics among the number. But before unfolding my plan, I shall first brush away some of the fog into which not a few of our public men have got, who cannot see any way of escape out of denominationalism except by the ultimate introduction of a universal, exclusive, and purely secular system.
This call for secularism proceeds in most cases from not understanding properly what our Common Schools Act is. So far as the Government is concerned, it is as pure a secular system as can possibly be had. Nothing could be more out-and-out secular than our present system of public instruction. There are four hours for secular education prescribed by the Act, and for secular education alone, and there are no hours whatever prescribed in the Act for religious instruction. The religious instruction may or may not be given outside the four hours for secular education; this is for the local committees and parents of the children to decide, and in which the Government is in no way concerned. Government takes no cognisance of it, and gives no pay for it. Accordingly, the Board of Education, which administers the Common Schools Act, wholly ignores it. The instructions given by the Board to inspectors of schools are very explicit. They are enjoined "to bear in mind, in performance of their duty as inspectors of Common Schools, that the Board's superintendence extends only to the temporal regulations and secular efficiency of the schools, and that they are therefore carefully to avoid all interference or expressions page 10 of opinion either to the teacher or local committee, respecting their arrangements, if they have any, for imparting religious instruction."
No procedure on the part of the Board could be more in harmony with the spirit and letter of Mr. Heales' Act, which leaves the committees at full liberty—no matter whether of vested or denominational schools—not only to say whether or not religious instruction should be imparted, but to determine, likewise, both the kind and amount of it that should be given.
Surely our secular friends do not mean that this discretionary power should be withdrawn by Act of Parliament, so that no religious instruction can be taught by any one, or at any time, within the walls of our public schools. This is not, I should hope, what the Ministry mean when they speak of an ultimate system of secular instruction.
First of all, such a system exists nowhere, and secondly, it receives no countenance whatever from the firmest friends of civil and religious liberty. The Dissenters of Scotland have ever stood foremost in the ranks of this noble army, and what are their views on this subject? In a declaration issued in 1839, by the Scottish Central Board of Dissenters, and which has been faithfully adhered to ever since, the following resolutions are set forth:—"Any system (says that manifesto) of universal education, which is based on the Legislature giving its sanction to a particular system of religious doctrine and worship, and which is carried into effect by grants of public money for the religious education of the community, is irreconcilable with the rights of conscience and the principles of religious liberty.
"On the other hand (it continues) no system of education can be considered as complete or even safe, which does not contemplate the religious and moral, as well as the intellectual improvement of its subjects. To exclude religious instruction from a system of universal education, if practicable, would be very undesirable; and even if desirable would, in the state of the public mind, be impracticable. The only means (adds this manifesto) of gaining the end (uniting the two kinds of instruction in our national schools) seems to be to provide for the appointment of a local committee in every district where a school is established, consisting of persons chosen by the heads of families, to whom it shall belong to say what kind and measure of religious instruction shall be in the school, and to settle what additional fee should be payable for such instruction. Provision also should be made that where there is a minority who object to this course of religious instruction, their children shall not be subjected to it, nor liable for the additional fee."
Now, this declaration, with the exception of the additional fee for religious instruction which is not insisted on in this colony, proposes substantially the very system in operation amongst us, and I trust there is no intention to depart from it.
No objections in Scotland would be raised against the prin- page 11 ciples embodied in our Common Schools Act. As to England, the Nonconformists, arising from circumstances into which I do not enter, have lost ground in the educational controversy that is being now waged in England, and some of them seem disposed to fall back upon secularism; yet no one who is at all familiar with the facts, but knows that pure and unalloyed secularism has not the ghost of a chance in England, any more than in Scotland, neither with the people nor the Parliament.
A third, and still weightier reason against secularism is that it would fail in effecting one of the main objects for which a national education is called for.
As Christians we ought not to ignore our own Christianity in our own schools. But not to speak of ourselves as Christians, what is it, which, as citizens, we ask from the State? Is it not security? among other things, security for character, property, and life. For this purpose we have our courts of justice, civil and criminal. But of what use would these courts of justice be in the way of protection, if these courts had no means of securing us against false witnessing? It is by means of the solemnities of an oath that this object is attained. Now, what is an oath? The oath which we citizens swear is not a heathen but a Christian oath, and embodies some of the most vital truths of our holy religion. It implies for example, a knowledge and belief in God, in a future state, in a universal judgment, and in a final adjudication of rewards and punishment—while he who takes an oath solemnly avows that, as he shall have to answer at the last unto God, he shall tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Now secularism would exclude from the teaching of our public schools all the truths which go to the construction of an oath—the very security which, as citizens, we require for the proper administration of law and justice between man and man. Occasionally we hear or read in newspapers of persons so ignorant that they have no idea either of the nature or meaning of an oath, and whenever a case of this kind occurs there is sure to be a cry for more education—and especially for compulsory education; and yet these secularists who probably are the loudest in the cry, could not on their principles allow a child to be taught in our public schools the truths implied in an oath, or if they did they would contradict themselves by permitting that very religious instruction to be given to which they so inconsiderately object.
Another point to which I would briefly refer is the intention, if I have interpreted the Chief Secretary's remarks aright, to release the teachers of our public schools from the giving of such supplementary religious instruction as the parents may desire their children to receive. I contend that no teacher should be eligible to a school, whose moral character and habits are not unexceptionable, and who is not qualified to impart a knowledge of the simple, primary, elementary truths of morality and religion.page 12
It is well known to those who are conversant with the facts that in not a few of our schools there is no religious instruction at all, partly from the indifference of local committees, who bestow comparatively little attention to the affairs of the schools entrusted to their charge; and partly, and in some instances chiefly, to the indisposition, aversion, or moral unfitness of the teachers to the work. In the report of one of the inspectors of schools, dated Castlemaine, 17th January, 1870, the following statements are made in regard to an extensive and important district, with which I myself have had connection:—"The good schools," says this inspector in his report, "are 35 in number, 65 schools are entitled to be called 'moderate.' The thoroughly bad schools are 15 in number. Of these, it may be said, they are generally placed in low neighbourhoods, taught by low teachers, and often controlled by committees even worse than the teachers. The work of regenerating these schools is hard, especially where the committees are themselves averse to the process, apparently valuing a teacher in proportion to his capacity for perjury and strong drink."
Will such statements be believed, and yet I am quoting from a public document which has actually been presented by the Board of Education to his Excellency the Governor, giving an account of the state of educational matters in the colony? It is time that a system which permits of such committees and teachers being tolerated ought to be reformed, and that no teachers should have committed to them the training of youth whose characters are of the description given in the Board of Education report.
So far from doing anything to lower the moral and religious character of our teachers, we should take care to have our system of public instruction, so framed and administered that our teachers should be men who will find it to be, not their aversion, but their delight to have the opportunity of imparting to their scholars the elementary truths of morality and religion.
Besides, the idea which the Chief Secretary seems to entertain of handing over the religious instruction to the ministers of the various denominations, is not only unworkable except in rare and exceptional cases, but would introduce in its worst and most objectionable form the very sectarianism he is so anxious to extinguish. After the four school hours, the secular teacher, according to the Chief Secretary, is to take his departure, and the ministers of religion are to step into the field. Of course the scholars must be arranged under their different ecclesiastical banners, and either in separate rooms or on different days, the work of supplementary religious instruction will have to be carried on. Thus, the first lesson the children are to receive at school is a lesson in denominationalism, and no doubt they will soon come to know each other in these professedly non-sectarian schools by the distinctive appellations of the sects to which they respectively belong. Happy device, ingenious mode of banishing denominationalism from our public schools!—a mode which I trust, if ever seriously contemplated, will page 13 be departed from by those who have undertaken to grapple with this all-important question.
Having cleared the way by these preliminary remarks for the consideration of my scheme for the entire and immediate elimination of that denominationalism which is clogging and impeding the full and successful operation of our present public system of instruction, and which I believe the proposed measure of the Government will tend rather to perpetuate than annihilate, to aggravate than subdue, I now submit my plan.
My first intention was to present it in the shape of an Amended Common Schools Act, but as this would have thrown it into too technical and legal a shape for popular apprehension, I shall content myself with stating it in a few easily-understood propositions.
There are, then, three prominent things in the system, as now existing, from which the denominational element should be extracted.
The first is, the Board of Education; the second, the local committees; and the third, the inequalities made in the distribution of aid between the two classes of Common Schools, the vested and the non-vested ones.
As to the first—the Board of Education—it is a mixed denominational one, consisting of five laymen; no two of whom, according to the Act, can belong to one and the same religious denomination. As might have been expected, it has had a difficult and delicate task to perform, having had internal denominational contentions to struggle with, as well as outside feelings of the same class to consult and contend with. This Board, which administers the system of public instruction, demands to be speedily reconstructed, and to have its members taken from the citizens, and not as at present from the sects. It should, therefore, when the amended Act comes into force, say a year hence, be dissolved, and a new Board substituted in its stead—to be called the "Education Department," having likewise, as the present Board, a Secretary and a President.
The President should be a member of Parliament, and should be styled "The Minister of Public Instruction," whose duty it should be to preside at the meetings of the Education Department, to give in its yearly reports to Parliament, and to answer in his place such questions as may be put to him. I may simply add that the new Act "for public elementary education in England and Wales" designates the ruling authority by the title I propose, namely, the "Education Department."
As to the local committees, the second thing I mentioned, the sooner we get quit of them, the better for public education in this colony. All along one round of complaint has been heard from the Inspectors of schools, and even now, although somewhat improved by the recent action of the Board, they are still spoken of hopelessly as mere makeshifts for want of something better to put page 14 in their place. I would terminate them at once, substituting for them district boards, having, instead of only one school, several schools under their charge. Besides the present local committees proving in general a failure, they are practically denominational in all the non-vested schools; and to the extent to which any denomination may succeed in establishing schools, to the same extent it has in its hands the educational patronage of the colony. All teachers may be legally entitled to apply for vacant schools, but does the country imagine that these vacancies are filled up irrespective of denominational preferences and connections? Give to the district boards the powers of the local committees in the selection and appointment of teachers, and you put an extinguisher on this peculiar species of patronage at once, by placing all teachers on the same level, and giving to each and all of them a fair and equal chance.
Now, this idea of district boards is one which has often been thought of by educationalists; it has been taken advantage of by Mr. Forster, in his measure for England, while it has been unanimously approved of by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria, which adopted the following resolution:—"That school districts should be formed, and that the board for each district should have the supervision of all the schools in its district;" and that the members of these boards "should be elected by the ratepayers and parents for a specified period, and that a certain proportion of them should retire annually, parents being ratepayers having a double vote."
Such district boards would, as the Rev. Mr. Nish, of Sandhurst, remarked to Sir James M'Culloch, "work well in this colony, and would have a dignity and responsibility which local committees do not possess."
In these district boards you would have men who would really advance the cause of education, while a seat in these boards would be coveted by the best portion of our citizens as much, if not more than a seat in Parliament itself, both for the honour and usefulness it would bring.
The third, and not the least important amendment I would submit is the placing of all schools that receive Government support on precisely the same footing, whether vested in the Education Department or not. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church suggests that all vested schools should be the property of the district in which they are situated; but whether the property of the districts or vested in denominational bodies, these ought, I conceive, to be treated alike in regard to grants for repairs, &c. The vested schools are privileged in this respect, and it was done purposely to induce the denominations to merge their schools into national ones, and in several instances this has succeeded, but it will not succeed now. The fact is that the denominations are beginning to feel that the possession of their schools is making them the actual masters of the situation, and hence the extreme page 15 tenderness with which it is proposed to deal with them in the present proposed measure of Mr. Francis' Cabinet, in which the Church of England schools and those of the other denominations are to be continued with this proviso, that no more sectarian schools are to be permitted to go upon the public exchequer—by which it is well known the Roman Catholic schools are chiefly aimed at, although the increase of such schools can be but small. Such an attempt to abolish denominationalism is not deserving of the name of an attempt, it is rather a confession of impotence; an acknowledgment that they are afraid to touch denominationalism, except in the infinitesimal way they have indicated, marvellously harmless to the Protestant sects, but somewhat needlessly provoking to the Roman Catholics, giving them, however, just that sufficient amount of fighting ground, which they will no doubt turn to profitable account in that earnest struggle which the ministerial proposals will originate, but cannot possibly terminate. The programme of the ministry as shadowed forth by them, may be policy as practised by politicians in this colony, but it is unstatesman-like and short-sighted. Boldly face the question, and deal with it, not on the passing prejudices and party expediencies of the hour, but on the broad and enduring principles of equity and truth. Applying this maxim to the case before us, abolish the Board of Education as now denominationally constructed, and establish a non-sectarian Education Department; sweep away the local committees as being hindrances, not helps, in the way of a progressive and well-conducted system of public instruction, and substitute district boards in their place; and then, having freed the system from the noxious element of denominationalism, put all your schools, vested and non-vested, on the same level, treating them alike as to building, repairs, &c.; and not only as to this, but likewise in regard to their right of standing on the same platform—the vested schools having no greater claims on the Education Department than the non-vested—a thing which is not done, for reasons already stated, under the present system, but which will now, after what has transpired, lead in future, if persevered in, to serious complication and most bitter sectarian animosities. If vested schools are to have a preference over non-vested in the giving or withdrawing of aid, it requires little penetration to perceive how this can be brought to bear, not only on the future schools that may be established, but on those that already exist; not only those of the Church of Rome, but of the Church of England as well. The result of the whole in this case would be that all our non-vested schools will by-and-bye be turned into private ones, and with a higher course of instruction and with a superior class of teachers, the public schools will be driven to the wall, or converted into mere charity schools for the children of the poorer portion of the community.
But it may be said, if you give grants for repairs, &c., to the page 16 non-vested schools, the owners of these may withdraw from the control of the Education Department, and a great deal of money lost to the country. I would insert a clause in the amended Act to prevent this, to the effect that in the case of any common school, not vested in the Education Department, desiring to withdraw from it, due notice should be given of this intention, and a valuation made of what ought to be refunded to the Education Department for the grants for repairs, &c., that have been allowed to the school.
Now, such a power of withdrawal is essential, I contend, to the efficient working of a system of public instruction. The late Dr. Chalmers used to say that an Established Church required a body of Dissenters to keep it right and active; so unless there be freedom of educational action there will be no sufficient security against inertness, and it may be departmental wrongheadedness, or it may be improper Ministerial influence and abuse.
Having made these suggestions as to the Board of Education, the local committees, and the vested and non-vested schools, I do not intend to complicate the matter by any further suggestions, except to submit for consideration the propriety of doing away entirely with all the limiting clauses of the Common Schools Act, as to the average number of scholars required, the distances between schools, &c., all which restrictions are not only fettering the freedom, expansion, and flexibility of our public system of instruction, in a country which, above all others, is subject to constant changes and fluctuations in population, and towns, &c., but which limiting clauses are not needed, especially when the Education Department will have to meet the wants of the country in regard to schools, not on denominational grounds, but on the simple merits of each case; and when this department, directly responsible to Parliament, will have to satisfy the country, through its representatives, as to the equity and necessity of its procedure.
In conclusion, an amended Act, embodying the propositions I have stated, would require to give immediate power to the Board of Education to prepare the way for the new Act coming into force, by mapping the country and towns into school districts, and taking steps for the coming election of the district boards.
Thus, in the course of a single year, we might enter on a new era of educational progress and improvement, freeing this young and rising colony from the curse of national animosities and of sectarian strifes, keeping our rulers to the task which properly falls to them, and which involves the most sacred trust that any order of men can have committted to them in a free and democratic country, that is, to protect us in our civil and religious rights, and to deal out justice between man and man, and between all of us alike, on the safe, enduring, and unassailable ground of an equal and a common citizenship.
Mason, Firth, and M'Cutcheon, Printers, Flinders Lane West, Melbourne.