Overview of the Development of ACT System

Key themes and principles

  • To get localised control of the system, especially with regards to staffing, because large centralised systems fail to meet a diversity of needs.
  • To be obviously different from the extant State systems, especially NSW.
  • Canberra has a distinctive character: professionalised workforce, affluent, “cultural maturity” (Burnett Retrospect, 11), and rapidly changing. It therefore requires a system to meet its specific needs. As the Canberra Times editorial put it: “flexible, experimental, capable of absorbing ideas, ” and “should involve people of the ACT at all levels.” (Retrospect, 20)
  • Committed to localised school management and curricula so that schools can develop specialties that reflect the identity of the local community.
  • Against an audit culture: no school inspectors.
  • Education is a fundamental concern of the whole community, therefore school decision-making should involve the whole community in relevant ways.
  • Teachers should be highly qualified and respected, and have the freedom to experiment and innovate.
  • The role of the teacher is considered to be genuinely professional and their responsibilities reflect this.
  • To develop earlier patterns of leadership in Year 10, and increase student motivation in final years of schooling.
  • To better accommodate a range of future professions for students: technical and professional.
  • The drivers of the new system considered themselves unashamedly progressive in their thinking and approach, and had very high aspirations for the new system.
  • The new system was conceived during a time of financial opportunity and growth. There is no mention of “value for money” or affordability; there are no financials in any of the early reports. People didn’t appear to irk at the thought of building new schools. In fact, it was persuasively argued (by Prof Butlin, cf. Retrospect) that less had been spent on ACT education than it needed and could afford.


  • Canberra was growing rapidly at a rate of just under 10% per annum. There were kids everywhere. [I have a hunch that there’s a fair bit of work about this elsewhere.]
  • In response to rapidly growing class sizes, high teacher turnover and a lack of relief teachers, the NSW Department established a minimum enrolment number for primary schools to be able to qualify for a non-teaching principal: if you didn’t have the numbers, your principal would have to teach a full load in addition to their usual management duties. (Blakers, Pioneers)
  • The Campbell Report cites teacher turnover as up to 20% per year and attributes this to a growing Commonwealth Public Service. (26)
  • In June 1966 class sizes were raised to 40, and then in 1967 they were raised to 42. (Blakers, Pioneers; Burnett Retrospect, 10)
  • Campbell Primary P&C (and spearheaded by Cath Blakers) kick-started the grassroots campaign for an independent education authority for the ACT.
  • Growing parent dissatisfaction with the NSW administration resulted in a public meeting in November 1966 at the Adult Education Department of the ANU, chaired by Sir George Currie. One outcome was the establishment of a working party to examine and report on the possibility of an independent ACT education authority. The Commonwealth Government stayed out of it, but the Department of the Interior appointed an observer.
  • 1967 The Currie Report is published.
  • Then 5 long years (1968–73) of working party campaigning to change public opinion with panel seminars and newspaper editorials (again spearheaded by Blakers and Editor of the Canberra Times, John Allan). During this time, there was continuous dialogue what the ACT population valued in schooling, and what the philosophy of a new system should be.
  • In 1968 Minister for Education and Science announces that teacher training would begin in Canberra in 1971 at the new College of Advanced Education.
  • The ACT Education Working Group, an informal association of teachers, parents and other Currie working party members, came together at the end of 1969. Together they pushed-on with and professionalised the campaign.
  • Commonwealth Government spokesmen were not enthusiastic about the idea of an independent system for the ACT. Senator John Gorton, Minister for Education and Science is reported as staying that a separate education system in the ACT was “almost inevitable, but not yet.” His successor, Malcolm Fraser was also not immediately amenable to the idea.
  • In 1970 South Australia decided to progressively reduce its staffing commitment to the Northern Territory, to be free from responsibility to NT schools by 1975. In October 1970 the Commonweath announced the plan for a Commonwealth Teaching Service.
  • At the same time, it was decided against an inquiry into an independent ACT authority, against the advice of the Department. This was met with wide public indignation and a meeting of protest at a pack-out Albert Hall titled “ACT Education––What Now?”.
  • Later in 1970 the Commonwealth Department of Education released the discussion paper on secondary education proposals, which led to the establishment of the Committee on College Proposals (with Richard Campbell as chair). [Aside: I can’t work out exactly where the college idea came from and how it got momentum, but my guess is that at some stage someone proposed it and from there it became part of the public discussion. Further research into the Canberr Times articles might reveal more.] The interim Campbell Report was released in May 1972, and the final report in November of the same year. Again, Fraser wasn’t exactly supportive of this report––he thought it was too radical––but eventually agreed to work with it, after some edits (cf. Pioneers, 19–20).
  • Commonwealth Teaching Authority was formerly established in 1972 and assumed responsibility for staffing ACT schools.
  • In July 1972, Fraser announced: that a statutory authority to administer government schools would be established; that the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the ACT would hold an inquiry to decide the form and timing of the authority; that the ACT would become responsible for its own education from the beginning of 1974.
  • When the Labour Party took Government in December 1972 The Working Group had a submission waiting on new Education Minister Kim Beazley’s desk. Beazely was enthusiastic and agreeable to the plan, partly because of the opportunity to achieve something within a few months of taking office.
  • In March 1973 Beazley announced that the Joint Parliamentary Committee inquiry would not proceed. Instead, his Department issued a discussion paper on an education authority and he appointed the Panel, chaired by Phillip Hughes, to analyse reactions and make recommendations for the form of a new education authority for the ACT.
  • The Hughes Report, published in May 1973, provided the blueprint for what was to become the ACT Schools Authority.
  • There were tight time-constraints to establish the Authority and open new colleges, the effect of which was…
  • Long delays within Government followed, which meant that there time-constraints to establish the Authority and open new colleges.

Two other points

  • School Without Walls (1973–1997): established as something of a pressure valve for the system by teachers and parents, although maybe before people reaslied just how much more freedom would be possible within the new system. No Principal, run by teachers and students; non-compulsory; average 45 high school students and 20 college students. [Feminist Julia Ryan delivered a talk at Canberra and District Historical Society about SWOW last July, if you ever wanted to look into this in more depth; also, Marian May at UNSW used to teach there.]
  • There seems to have been disagreement as to how much autonomy schools should have with the curriculum. Hughes and Campbell were both in favour of very clear guidelines from the Authority that matched with what was going on elsewhere around the country. In the end, it as due to time constraints that a wholly school-based curriculum was implemented. Milton ‘Mick’ March said that this would only possible because Campbell was overseas at the time (Pioneers, 26) Later, Hughes thought that they got the balance wrong with curriculum and there should have been more direction form the Authority. (Pioneers, 12)

Assistance of A. Pippard 2013