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Parallel systems of education: The advantage of choice

Angela McCarthy
University of Notre Dame Australia
This paper is the result of an historical investigation into education in Australia as a background for a thesis on choice of schooling. It offers an overview of education in Australia since the beginnings of European settlement in the 18th century. Special emphasis is placed on education in Western Australia. Each of the Australian colonies established their own educational systems and until the present time they remain responsible for this matter. Throughout this time there have been alternatives to government education through an independent system that has provided a level of choice not widely available in other countries. This paper seeks to explore the reasons for such a provision and the resultant culture of choice that exists in Australian society.


This paper is the result of investigations due to what seemed to be an anomaly in a grounded theory study of choice of schooling. Of the 33 participants, 7 of the 31 Catholics were born overseas and only one of those families sent their children to Catholic secondary schools. One family sent the second of their two children to a Catholic school for the upper secondary grades. As a contextual variation in the study it required an in depth examination of the historical and cultural context of Australian education in an attempt to explain this difference. The resultant examination of the historical context substantially redirected previous understandings.

Pioneering efforts

It is important to know the history of the educational system because it formed the present. In Western Australia there has been a Catholic education system since 1846 when the Sisters of Mercy arrived from Ireland. The first seventeen years of the colony had produced a variety of attempts at educating the children (Mossenson 1972) but did not produce lasting institutions. When the colony was only one year old with just over 1000 inhabitants the government opened a school in July 1830 (1972, p 2). The colonial administration had recognised the need for its involvement in education, an unusual stance for the time. In the Sydney settlement it was not until twenty seven years after the First Fleet arrived that a directive was given by the Secretary of State in England for funds to be applied in the education of the colony's children (Fogarty 1959, p 5).

The Reverend J. B. Wittenoom was the first educationalist in the Western Australian colony and he made several attempts to establish a stable institution (Mossenson 1972, p 4). By 1838 Wittenoom's Classical and English School seemed to be well established but with the retirement of Governor Stirling and the arrival of John Hutt, along with an economic depression, government funds were withdrawn and the school collapsed (1972, p 5). Hutt insisted that the schools be funded by the parents. For those unable to pay for their education, the fees would be paid from the public purse. While this was suitable in England it did not suit the new colony and the lack of education became a concern for the colony (1972, p 6).

Another difficulty for the early settlers in the colony was the lack of labour since it had begun as a free colony with no convicts present. The Swan River colony was proving to be a difficult environment in which to increase one's prosperity and children were often diverted into labour rather than receive an education. As Austin (1972) notes:

Samuel Moore, accepted the dilemma with more phlegm. "A difficulty now arises", he wrote, "my children want schooling and I want pig-feeders and shepherds." (Austin 1972, p. 90)
The experience of the eastern colonies, which had been established for around 50 years at this stage, was also influential. The religious and educational future of the Swan River colony was already largely determined by the experiments and failures of New South Wales (Austin 1972, p. 89). A struggle for dominance by the Anglican Church in the eastern colonies had encouraged impartiality on the part of the Swan River government from the beginning. As it was not a penal colony there was no funding from England as there had been elsewhere for the maintenance of the garrison and convicts and so the dreams of prosperity seemed at times to be unrealistic.

Eastern colonies

In the eastern colonies much of the responsibility for teaching and management of education was placed in the hands of the Church of England, as it had been in England, but this proved unsatisfactory to other groups, particularly the Catholics and the Dissenters who were mainly Scottish Protestants (Fogarty 1959, p 16). The Irish Catholics and the Scottish Presbyterians in particular objected to the dominance of the Anglicans and were determined to preserve their denominations as well as their identity and culture (Potts 1999, p 242). This began the serious social problem of sectarianism and it gained momentum. The government made grants of land available to the different denominations along with funds for salaries and buildings and left the management of the schools to the various church groups (Fogarty 1959, p 26).

With sectarianism dividing the social fabric of education, land that had been set aside for education often had several different denominational schools adjacent and the quality of the schooling was compromised (Potts 1999). In the 1830s state schools were established in the New South Wales colony creating for the first time a dual system of education (Anderson 1993, p 185). The situation in Western Australia differed from the eastern colonies because as outlined above, the government entered into education from the very beginning of the colony without opposition. Mossenson asserts that this was due to the weakness of the Protestant Churches and their lack of resources rather than any great strength of liberal principles (Mossenson 1972, p 7). The Roman Catholics found this unacceptable but the Anglicans, Methodists and the smaller sects were satisfied. As in the eastern colonies, sectarianism raised its head once the administration to this public system was appointed entirely of members of the Church of England. A parallel Roman Catholic school system was then established.

Catholic education begins

The first permanent school in Western Australia was established by the Sisters of Mercy in 1846 (Mossenson 1972, p 8). They had come to Western Australia with Dr John Brady who had been sent to the west by Bishop John Polding of Sydney to look after the small Catholic community in the Swan River colony (McLay 1992, p 7). Brady went to Rome in 1844 to raise money for the colony and greatly exaggerated the needs of the colony. There were only 337 Catholics (Mossenson 1992, p 8, Austin, 1972, p. 93) but Brady said that there "were five thousand European and two million Aborigines awaiting salvation in the colony" (McLay 1992, p 7). Funds wer e obtained from the Propagation of the Faith which was a body specifically set up to fund missionary activity of the Church. Brady arrived with a diverse group that offended the local Anglicans and other religious groups as it seemed very invasive (Mossenson 1992, p 8).
The party was a mixed bunch in that it included the two Spanish Benedictine priests Serra and Salvado, one Italian priest and one layman, a French Benedictine novice and three priests and two brothers of the French order founded by Joseph Libermann, a Benedictine subdeacon from England, and one Irish priest, two students for the priesthood and six catechists. Then there were the six Sisters of Mercy and their prospective postulant. The impact of this assortment of characters was like that of an invasion to the colonists (McLay 1992, p 10).
Brady spoke very poor English as his language of origin was Gaelic and he had been almost exclusively educated in French (Bourke, 1979, p. 8). His personality did not endear him to the colonists and this "invasion" coincided with the instalment of a new governor, Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Clarke, a devout Anglican, who was "appalled by the situation wherein virtually all of the organized instruction available in Perth was controlled by the Roman Catholic Church" (Mossenson 1992, p 9). While the Anglicans complained, they "quietly sent their children to Catholic school until they constituted two-thirds of the pupils in them" (Austin, 1972, p. 93). Mossenson goes on to describe how Clarke energetically began to establish a national education system to compete with the Catholic system and then refused any funding at all to the Catholics. Brady complained eventually to the British government because the national system had actually been set up after Clarke had refused funding to the Catholic schools. Clarke died in February 1847 and his place was taken by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Irwin who extended the efforts of the colony to produce a national school system (Mossenson 1992, pp 9-15). With the establishment of a government supported system it was expected that the Catholic schools would close but they not only continued to function in Perth and Fremantle, but the Sisters of Mercy had in 1850 enrolled 103 of the 148 children in Catholic schools (Mossenson 1992, p 16).

The political difficulties continued with Brady's abrasive nature pitted against the system but because of his complaint to the British authorities, in October 1848 Earl Grey ordered the Governor (by this time Captain Charles Fitzgerald) to "institute public grants for Catholic education based on population numbers" (Mossenson 1992, p 17). Brady and the Sisters of Mercy had pioneered the Catholic school system and through his antagonism had generated sufficient energy among the other colonists to form a workable national system.

Religious congregations

There were some important changes happening in the Roman Catholic Church that made it possible for the Sisters of Mercy to teach and work in the new colony. Prior to the nineteenth century, congregations of religious women were enclosed in monasteries and were only able to teach those who entered their gates. The Sisters of Mercy were founded in Dublin by Catherine McAuley who did not want to be in a religious order but wanted to help the poor of Dublin. When her benefactors died and left her considerable wealth she built a house in 1827 in Baggot Street Dublin. The House of Mercy was designed
to be a house where she and her associates could live, where young women in distressed circumstances could find refuge and vocational training, where poor children could be educated and orphans housed (McLay 1992, p 22).
This was a very different way of administering to the poor with no precedent in Ireland but the Archbishop advised that she needed "to turn her group into a religious congregation if her work was to survive as a church agency" (McLay 1992, p 23). This particular form of religious life made it possible for the Sisters of Mercy to accompany Florence Nightingale to the Crimean War and Catholic education to be firmly established in the Swan River Colony. Since Australia was also considered a missionary area, funds were available from the Propagation of the Faith in Rome for the establishment of Church services, in particular education.

Penal labour

With the introduction of penal labour into the Swan River colony in 1850 (Mossenson 1992, p 19) the proportion of Catholics in the population increased as many Irish political prisoners were sent to the colony and so by 1880 twenty five per cent of the community were Catholics. The parallel systems of education both flourished with the increased numbers but antagonism between the Irish Catholics and the English establishment, although not as rampant as in the eastern colonies, was still a problem (Paull 2001, p 10). The Catholic system continued to receive funds from the government until 1856 when Governor Kennedy terminated state aid (Mossenson 1992, p 25). At this time the enrolment in Catholic schools was almost a third of children in the colony, 279 compared to 590 in the national system (Mossenson 1992, p 21). In 1855 four Sisters of the French Order of St Joseph of the Apparition arrived with Bishop Serra and took charge of the girls school in Fremantle while the Sisters of Mercy opened new schools at Toodyay and York and also pioneered secondary education (Mossenson 1992, p 23).

Changes in Catholicism

Until 1871 when the Assisted Schools Act was put in place, the Catholic and national schools continued to work and expand alongside each other. However, the Church throughout the world was embattled by sectarianism and saw the world as hostile (O'Donohue 2001, p 21). Pope Pius IX's encyclical Quanta Cura in 1864 insisted that education could not be separate from religion. This was reinforced and presented by the Bishops of Australia in 1879 stating that:
The Church condemns, with marked emphasis, those schools, and that method of teaching in which the religious element is divorced from the secular. ...which leads to corruption of morals and loss of faith, to national effeminacy and to national dishonour (O'Farrell 1969, p 390).
The Bishops were very clear in stating that parent had to "send their children, when fit of age, exclusively to Catholic schools" and that in not doing that they would place their children in "danger of perversion" and face "serious guilt".


Anderson, D. S. (1993). Public schools in decline: implications of the privatisation of schools in Australia. In H. Beare & W. Lowe Boyd (Eds), Restructuring Schools. Washington: The Falmer Press, pp184 - 199.

Austin, A.G., (1972). Australian Education 1788-1900. Pitman Pacific Books, Carlton, Victoria.

Bourke, D.F., (1979). The History of the Catholic Church. Vanguard Service Print, Perth.

Fogarty, R. (1959). Catholic education in Australia 1806-1950. Carlton: Melbourne University Press.

McLay, A. (1992). Women out of their sphere. Perth: Vanguard Press.

Mossenson, D. (1972). State education in Western Australia 1829-1960. Perth: University of Western Australia Press.

O'Donoghue, T. A. (2001). The process of education in Catholic schools in Australia, 1922-1965. New York: Peter Lang.

O'Farrell, P. (1969). Documents in Australian Catholic History. Volume 1, 1788-1884. London: Geoffrey Chapman.

Paull, K. (2001). Beyond Dreams in Stone. Perth: Trustees of the Christian Brothers in WA Inc.

Potts, A. (1999). Public and private schooling in Australia. Phi Delta Kappan, 81(3), 242-246.

Summary of argument

Notre Dame web logo
Author: Angela McCarthy, PhD candidate
Centre for Research
University of Notre Dame Australia
19 Mouat Street
Fremantle WA 6160
Email: amccarthy@nd.edu.au

Please cite as: McCarthy, A. (2002). Parallel systems of education: The advantage of choice. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2002. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2002/mccarthy.html

Editorial note: WAIER regrets that Angela Mccarthy's submission, dated 17 August 2002, was overlooked for web mounting and we apologise for the delay.

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