Creating the Education System of the Nation’s Capital

By: Ebony Donohoe

The years following World War Two were a time of great change in Australia’s national capital. There was a giant leap forward from the series of small farming camps of yesteryear towards the city that we know today. These great changes were not only in population numbers but also in the characteristics of the population. With a change in focus from agriculture to white-collar employment came a new dimension to Canberra bringing fresh ideas about society, community and education.

Pre-World War Two, Canberra was home to a population of less than 10 000 residents. Many of these people resided on farming properties and were dispersed across the region. The township experienced an influx of public servants and diplomats during the war that took the population to over 13 000 residents. The move of diplomats to Canberra during the war was an effort to keep important figures from other nations shielded from the risk of attack from the sea – Australia’s hardest border to defend. The relocation of Australian Public Service (APS) positions from Melbourne to Canberra had commenced in the 1920s and with the country at war the push to relocate these jobs was increasing [1]. After peace was established the population continued to increase albeit at a slower rate. The 1954 census data indicates the Australian Capital Territory’s population at that time to be just over 30 000 residents [2].

From 1938 – 1957 an advisory body, the National Capital Planning and Development Committee, worked to develop a policy outlining the action steps required to enhance the work being done in creating the national capital. Their recommendations were outlined in the ‘Nation Capital Development Commission’ [3].

The goals of this commission were to:

  1. Complete the establishment of Canberra as a seat of government,
  2. Develop Canberra fully as the administrative centre of Australia,
  3. Create buildings, parks, lakes and thoroughfares that were appropriate for Australia’s National Capital and,
  4. Design living areas with high standard amenities and attractive surrounds.

After the war the government of Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies commenced implementation of a number of recommendations made in this commission. The first major project undertaken was construction of the iconic Lake Burley Griffin, completed in 1964 [4]. In line with these goals and with the view of achieving efficiency, the Menzies government instigated the move of thousands of APS jobs from Melbourne to Canberra, the now burgeoning Nation’s Capital. The 30th June 1966 census indicated that at that time there was a population of more than 93 500 living in the Australian Capital Territory in both urban and more rural settings. This indicates a threefold increase in the number of people settling in Canberra in the years that Menzies was pushing to establish Canberra as the national capital [2][5].

Nineteen sixties Canberra was definitely abuzz with growing opportunities and new communities. The move of APS positions to Canberra was paralleled by a growing need for infrastructure. As Australia’s only pre-designed city Canberra’s layout was de-centralised and four original townships were planned, each separated by hills or greenery and each with their own services. The Menzies push to develop Canberra saw an increase in expansion and a high demand for skilled workers. At the same time an influx of politicians made Canberra their new home as the area was established as the seat of the Australian government. One of the first big departments to be moved from Melbourne was the Department of Defence [6].

So who was coming to Canberra during this time? Government officials and their families, as well as employees of the Australian Public Service moved into the Australian Capital Territory. Most of these individuals were educated and working in professional positions. Many developed a keen sense of community having moved to such a small and growing area where amenities and clubs were just beginning to form. Like any burgeoning region the local schools proved to be a meeting place and a location where developing community relationships were fostered. Many of the families moving to Canberra were enrolling children into local schools and becoming involved in school communities. The majority of these parents were well equipped to make educated decisions and were willing to campaign for what they believed to be important.

Up until 1973 Australian Capital Territory schools were staffed and organised by the New South Wales Department of Education and Training (NSW DET). The NSW DET developed the curriculum taught in the ACT schools during this time and they also controlled staffing decisions right down to determining the teacher to student ratios. According to NSW DET records in 1973 there were 30 457 pupils attending 58 government schools in the national capital [7].

Along with their other governing roles the NSW DET was responsible for defining the roles and responsibilities for key staff members at schools including principals. Throughout this time of schools being managed by the NSW DET the Commonwealth government was responsible for the provision of appropriate school buildings and facilities. Starting in the mid 1960s there was a push to separate the ACT schools from the NSW DET curriculum and staffing arrangements. Finally in 1974 the ACT took on the role of managing it’s own school curriculum and staffing after a period of strong campaigning by the stakeholders of ACT schools.

The push to separate the ACT public schools from the NSW DET came about during the time of rapid growth in the national capital spurred on by the Menzies government. It was also at this time that the NSW DET was introducing the Wyndham Scheme, which extended schooling to minimum four years post primary school with the option of a further two years. The Scheme also had a focus on highly qualified teachers, especially in mathematics and science, and smaller class sizes [8][9]. At this time the NSW DET was experiencing difficulty in providing the appropriately qualified teaching staff required by the Wyndham Scheme to all of the schools in NSW and ACT. As such they were implementing a number of strategies in order to reach the class size goals that they had been promising. One such strategy was the strict adherence to guidelines on whether a principal was classified as ‘teaching’ or ‘non-teaching’. This classification was dependent on the number of students enrolled in each particular school. In many ACT schools, especially primary, the principal was classified as ‘teaching’ because student numbers were initially small. However, as the population of Canberra grew so too did the enrolments at local schools that placed extra demand on principals. The movement of Defence Force families to and from Canberra for training had a large impact on school enrollments over this period of growth. These ‘teaching principals’ were allocated a full time teaching load but were also required to perform administrative tasks for each new enrolment at the school in addition to their teaching load [10].

Parents of students in the principal’s class were concerned about the quality of education their children were receiving without access to continuous teaching from a stable teacher. The students in the principal’s classes were often shared among the other classes in order to give the principal time for their other, more administrative duties. Campbell Primary School was one such school with a teaching principal and a number of concerned parents. After filing a request to the NSW DET to be allocated an extra teacher to provide cover for a principal who was extremely busy with enrolments, and that request being denied, the concerned parents at Campbell Primary decided that something needed to change [10].

In the mid 1960s the Campbell Primary School P&C created a sub-committee charged with starting a campaign regarding the teaching principal issue and other concerns regarding the state of public education. One of the key parents involved with this push was Catherine Blakers, whose four children were attending ACT public schools. Mrs. Blakers was appalled by how insufficiently schools were resourced with aging buildings, crowded classrooms and a limited number of qualified teachers. She was one of the steadfast supporters of the ACT government taking responsibility for the education of ACT students. Mrs. Blakers worked tirelessly over a number of years to maintain the group advocating on the issue. A number of key members worked to keep their concerns in the public eye through the Canberra Times and to keep their efforts organised and united [10].

The push was also supported by Sir George Currie who chaired a public seminar on ‘An Independent Education Authority for the ACT’ following appeals to the NSW DET that failed to reach positive conclusions. The ‘Currie Report’ led to a push for an expert inquiry into education in the ACT [11].

Eventually, after years of activism from ACT parents and political figures the responsibility for schooling in the nation’s capital was handed over from the NSW DET. The ACT was now able to find their own staffing solutions and create their own curriculum – a key difference between the ACT and NSW education systems. The people responsible for this monumental achievement were the passionate grass-roots advocates who moved to Canberra as it was developed into the thriving national capital of today. They believed in and fought for a better schooling solution for their children and students.


[1] Canberra & District Historical Society, Chronology of the ACT.

[2] Carver, S. R. (1954). Census of the Commonwealth of Australia, 30 June 1954. Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Canberra, Australia. Retrieved from$File/1954%20Census%20-%20Volume%20VII%20-%20Part%20III%20AUSTRALIAN%20CAPITAL%20TERRITORY%20Population.pdf

[3] Australian Government – National Capital Authority. History of the Capital. Retrieved from

[4] National Archives of Australia. An Act to establish a Commission for the Development of the City of Canberra as the National Capital of the Commonwealth, and for related purposes (Act 42 of 1957). Retrieved from

[5] O’Neill, J. P. (1966). Census of Population and Housing, 30 June 1966, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Canberra, Australia. Retrieved from$File/1966%20Census%20-%20Volume%205%20Population%20and%20Dwellings%20in%20Localities%20-%20Part%207%20NT%20and%20ACT.pdf

[6] Robert Menzies ‘In Office’, National Archives of Australia. Australia’s Prime Ministers. Retrieved from

[7] NSW Government, Department of Education and Communities. Government Schools of New South Wales from 1848. Retrieved from

[8] Hughes, J. P. (2002). Harold Wyndham and Educational Reform in Australia 1925-1968. Education Research and Perspectives, 29(1). Retrieved from

[9] Wyndham, H. S. (1957). Report of the Committee Appointed to Survey Secondary Education in New South Wales.

[10] Price, B. (2005). Pioneers of the ACT Government School System. Archives ACT Research Guide. Retrieved from

[11] Currie, G. (1967). An Independent Education Authority for the Australian Capital Territory: Report of a Working Party, (Currie Report), Australian National University.