The changing face of teachers over Canberra’s first 100 years

By:  A. Sasha Tait, PhD 

1913 marks the founding year of the Federal Capital Territory. A snapshot of a typical new primary school teacher in this region in 1913 would show two styles of teacher. One would be an adolescent of 17-18 years old that trained as a pupil-teacher. The other would be a little older having spent some time attending a teachers college. The college trained teachers would have studied in Sydney and been transferred to the region, whereas the pupil-teachers would likely have been local. The preservice training of both types of teachers would have been minimal and they would be considered poorly educated by todays’ standards. With no secondary schools in the region, there would not have been any high school teachers employed here. High school teachers were considered better educated than the primary school teachers, having had a university education, but their preservice training was limited as well.

Over the years, as the city of Canberra was established and grew, so too did its educational sector. Growth not only occurred in the primary and secondary school system but Canberra saw the development of tertiary education as well. This included the founding of two preservice teacher training colleges, initially offering primary level teaching programs. These facilities eventually became universities offering primary and secondary teaching degrees and diplomas. The primary and secondary school teachers in Canberra today are more highly educated than there earlier counterparts, yet they are facing pressure to meet ever increasing levels of professional standards. The focus of this paper will be the changes that have occurred in the preparation of primary and secondary teachers from the rural beginnings in 1913 to the modern city of Canberra in 2013.

Schooling and preservice teacher training in 1913

In order to understand the changing face of primary and secondary teachers over Canberra’s first 100 years, we must first outline a brief history of the region and then examine what schooling was in 1913. The area that was designated for the Federal Capital Territory was located on the Southern Tablelands of NSW, next to the prominent town of Queanbeyan and between Goulburn and Yass. The area was primarily agricultural land with a large portion of the adults over 15 years old working as or for farmers (Wood, 2009; Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2013a). Being predominantly agricultural, the population of approximately 1700 individuals was dispersed (ABS, 2013a). There were several existing primary schools in this region in 1913*. Typical of rural areas, school attendance was often intermittent due to commitments to the family business, where chores were considered a higher priority than education. Distance to school was also a contributing factor to low attendance. Together with the dispersed population, many of these schools operated as either half-time or provisional schools (Gillespie, 1999; Wood, 2009). A half-time school needed at least 10 pupils and one teacher would be responsible for two schools. A provisional school had 15-25 pupils with one teacher. In both situations, the one teacher would be responsible for teaching all year levels. An example of a school that operated this way was Mulligans Flat Public School. Between 1913 and 1931, this school operated as either a provisional school or a half-time school related to the high variability in the surrounding population (Archives Australian Capital Territory [ACT], 2010). At the same time, other schools operated at a full-time level (greater than 20 students) such as Tharwa and Hall public schools (Archives ACT, 2010). As public high schools were not common in rural NSW at this time nor were the student numbers sufficient to support government funding to establish them, students aiming for a university education had to travel to Goulburn or Sydney to undergo secondary education (Gillespie, 1999; Wood, 2009). Because of the costs associated with travel and board, it would have only been students from wealthy families or those that had a benefactor who had this option to attend a high school.

The structure of the school system in 1913 was established by reforms put in place by Peter Board from the NSW Department of Education over the first two decades of the 1900’s (Hughes & Brock, 2008). As specified by the Public Instruction Act of 1880, schooling was compulsory for children aged 6 to 14 years old. At 6 years old, children started a three year infants program (K-2) followed by four years in a primary program (3-6). The infants program was loosely based on Montessori principles, being predominantly play-based learning activities and arts and craft, with some instruction in basic literacy and numeracy (Turner, 1943; Boardman et al, 1995; Hughes & Brock, 2008). In the primary levels, children were exposed to higher levels of reading, writing and arithmetic (the three ‘R’s), and some science, music, commercial (boys) or domestic (girls) practice. At age 11-12, students could either continue into a 2-year super-primary program (7-8) or sit for a Qualifying Certificate to gain entrance into high school. After two to three years of high school, students could sit for the Intermediate Certificate, which allowed entry into agricultural colleges, technical training colleges or even Sydney Teachers College (Boardman et al, 1995). This certificate was also used by potential employers to gauge suitability in commercial or technical fields. Students wanting to go to university could undergo a further two years of high school and sit the Leaving Certificate. Both the curriculum of public high schools and the administration of the exams were regulated by the University of Sydney (Bassett, 1962; Campbell, 2001; Green & Reid, 2012). At the level of the public primary schools, the curriculum and administration of the qualifying exams were regulated by the NSW Department of Education (Bassett, 1962; Hughes & Brock, 2008).

The teachers in 1913 were very different to modern teachers and would have even been consider poorly educated. Up until 1905, many rural primary teachers would have trained as pupil-teachers (Boardman et al, 1995; Hughes & Brock, 2008; Green & Reid, 2012; NSW Department of Education and Communities [DEC], 2013). This system allowed students between the ages of 13-16 years old to start a paid apprenticeship under a mentor teacher. They would have taught a full load of lessons throughout the day then undergone an hour of teacher instruction after school. They sat annual exams that monitored progress and after a four year apprenticeship, the preservice teacher could be employed as an assistant teacher by the NSW Department of Education. The quality of this training would have been highly dependent on the quality of the mentor teacher so these pupil-teachers were closely supervised by Department Inspectors. An example of what these pupil-teachers studied included the English language, geography, arithmetic and algebra, science (basic physics and biology) and school management (Boardman et al, 1995). Although this system of apprenticeship was phased out in NSW in 1905, teachers that trained through this system would have still been working in the region in 1913.

In 1906, the NSW Department of Education under Peter Board mandated that all preservice training of primary teachers was to be completed at the Sydney Teachers College (Hughes & Brock, 2008). The initial training courses ranged from 3 months to 1 year, with primary teachers from small rural schools needing only to complete a six month course (NSW DEC, 2013). By 1913, the requirement had changed where all preservice primary teachers had to complete a two year certificate program but this would have only impacted teachers in this region after 1915. Also during this time period, the NSW Department of Education raised the education requirement of applying students, initially to Intermediate Certificate and then to the Leaving Certificate level (Green & Reid, 2012). Not only did this requirement increase the baseline level of education of the preservice teachers, it also raised the age and thus maturity of these individuals. One of the failings of the pupil-teacher training system was that the adolescent teachers were just not experienced enough to handle the responsibilities of being a teacher (Boardman et al, 1995; Green & Reid, 2012).

Preservice teachers attending Sydney Teachers College around 1913 would have studied a core subject base of the theory of education, English, music, drawing and manual arts, with the choice of electives such as languages, social sciences and nature study (Boardman et al, 1995; Hughes & Brock, 2008). The students would also have completed 15 days of practicum in their first year and 60-70 days in their second year. The main differences between these teachers and the pupil-teachers from the previous decades were age and thus maturity, but they also underwent a more structured exposure to educational theory and a more supported exposure to their practical component.

Although there were no secondary schools in this region in 1913, it is important to understand what secondary teacher training entailed. A secondary school teacher would have finished high school, completed a university degree and then undergone an add-on year to be awarded a diploma of education (Hughes & Brock, 2008). During this year, the preservice teachers would have attended classes on educational theory and practice and methods and techniques of teaching in secondary schools. They would also have undergone a practical component but this only involved observing other teachers (ABS, 1954). As these individuals had the right aptitude required to complete a university degree, they were considered by society to be of higher caliber than a primary school teacher. Combined with their many years as a student, these individuals were considered to have “absorbed” the ability to teach. Thus the single year add-on was considered appropriate to finish their preparation (Green & Reid, 2012).

The majority of preservice teachers attending Sydney Teachers College in 1913 were sponsored by the Department of Education (Turner, 1943; Biggs, 1977; Boardman et al, 1995). The payment was to cover university fees and general living costs for the students. Awarding the scholarship was merit-based but also afforded the Department the ability to screen the potential students. This screening process involved medical, intelligence and personality checks. It also bonded the teacher to the department for a set time period allowing the department to regulate the number of teachers. Secondary teachers could also be awarded a training scholarship and in this way, the department could dictate which subjects they studied in their degree (Turner, 1943).

Schooling and preservice teacher training in 2013

Over the last 100 years, Canberra has slowly established itself as the predominant city in the southern tablelands region of NSW. In the last census, there were around 357,000 individuals in the ACT (ABS, 2013b) of which, approximately 68,000 children were enrolled in a local school in 2013 (ACT Education and Training Directorate [ETD], 2013). This growth in both Canberra’s population and educational needs has occurred over a period of major educational reforms. Through the Wyndham Reforms in the 1960’s, changes were made to the high school system in NSW that led to increased student participation in secondary programs over the following decades (Bassett, 1962; Hughes & Brock, 2012). Under the Menzies Government, a binary system of tertiary education was introduced following the Murray Report (Moses, 2003). This system provided for trade qualifications (technical and further education), vocational programs like nursing and teaching (colleges of advanced education) through to the theoretical and research-driven programs (universities). The binary system was then replaced by the unified national system under the Hawke Government in response to the Dawkins Report (Moses, 2003). Both of these national reforms resulted in an increase in the level of student involvement in both high school and tertiary systems from the 1970’s onwards. More recently and more specifically to Canberra was the establishment of the Interim ACT Schools Authority in 1973 followed by self-government in 1989, during which time Canberra took sequential steps to gain full control of their own schools, teaching staff and curriculum (Price, 2007).

The school system in the ACT in 2013 (ACT ETD, 2013) is generally divided into four sections: (i) early childhood or preschool, (ii) primary (K-6), (iii) high school (7-10) and (iv) college (11-12). Compared to 1913, children still attend a year of kindergarten followed by six primary school levels but high school has been extended to include a four year program followed by a two year program (Hughes & Brock, 2008). There is no longer the requirement to pass a qualifying exam to enter high school and what was the Intermediate Certificate became the NSW School Certificate (Hughes, 2001) and is now the ACT Year 10 Certificate. The Leaving Certificate was changed to the NSW Higher School Certificate in 1967 (Hughes, 2001; Hughes & Brock, 2008) but as Canberra gained educational independence from NSW in the late 1970’s, matriculation from high school has evolved. In 2013, students are awarded the ACT Year 12 Certificate which is based on a ranking designated by their school (ACT Board of Senior Secondary Studies [BSSS], 2013a). This ranking is determined from a students’ accumulated effort over years 11 and 12. Those students wishing to attend university must also sit the ACT Scaling Test (AST) in year 12, administered by the ACT Board of Senior Secondary Studies (ACT BSSS, 2013b). Based on the results from the AST, the school rankings are normalised over the whole ACT and a student is assigned a tertiary entrance score. Universities no longer regulate the secondary school curriculum or matriculation exams. In the ACT in 2013, children from kindergarten to year 10 are taught from a variety of curriculums but mainly Every Chance to Learn, International Baccalaureate primary year and middle year programs or the new Australian Curriculum (ACT Department of Education and Training, 2010). At the level of year 11 and 12, the predominant curriculum is from the ACT Board of Senior Secondary Schools but there is also the International Baccalaureate diploma program and the NSW Higher School Certificate (ACT ETD, 2013b). Where the universities do retain some control is by specifying subject prerequisites or recommendations required for specific degrees.

In response to these changes in the education system, there have been considerable changes to primary preservice teacher education. In 2013, all teachers are required to have completed a university degree, with primary teachers completing a four year bachelor’s program (Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership [AITSL], 2011). With this extended program, preservice teachers are exposed to a more in-depth review of curriculum and content knowledge, teaching techniques and practice, sociology and educational philosophy, and childhood and adolescent developmental biology (Connell, 2009). Included in their teaching techniques and practice training, preservice teachers are given the opportunity to explore all the new technologies that evolved over the last 30-40 years. Along with this strong theoretical training, preservice teachers also undergo a practical component of between 80-100 days over the four years but graduate teachers are not considered fully proficient until they have completed 1-2 years of employment (AITSL, 2011). Once a teacher has reached this level, the age range of the teachers will be 23-30 years old, which is 5-10 years older than the teachers seen in 1913. Combining this age with the more extensive preservice training, modern primary school teachers are viewed as being much better prepared for their role.

Interestingly, there have only been minor changes so far to the preparation of secondary school teachers over the last 100 years. In 2013, as in 1913, an individual already holding a university degree that covers a school key learning area (KLA) need only undergo a one year add-on diploma of education to be eligible to apply for secondary school teaching positions. The one-year diploma program today offers basic teaching techniques, some educational philosophy and sociology, and some practical component. This diploma training is as limited as the training was in 1913 but again, it is assumed that having been exposed to teaching over such a long period, the student will have absorbed the ability to teach (Australian Education Council [AEC], 1990; Green & Reid, 2012). However, the system is changing with the one-year diploma being replaced with a two-year master’s program in 2014 and many universities now offer a bachelor’s degree for secondary education, where the preservice teacher chooses to major in specific KLAs (AITSL, 2011). This program would be just as intensive as the primary teacher program, with the difference being the content knowledge and school curriculum exposure.

Prior to the 1960’s, primary school teachers working in Canberra most likely underwent preservice training at a teachers college in either Sydney, Armidale (established 1928; Boardman et al, 1995), Wagga Wagga (established 1947; Charles Sturt University [CSU]-Wagga, 2013) or Bathurst (established 1951; CSU-Bathurst, 2013). Secondary teachers employed by the NSW Department of Education would most likely have completed their Graduate Diploma of Education at Sydney Teachers College linked to the University of Sydney. However, with the growth in Catholic schooling across NSW and Victoria in the 1950’s, Canberra saw the establishment of its first teachers college in 1963 (Buckingham, 2010; Clarke, 2013). Signadou Dominican College of Education was founded to prepare Catholic Sisters for primary schools but within three years, twenty percent of the preservice teachers were lay females and the first male preservice teachers joined the student body in 1975. In line with the national reforms in tertiary education, Signadou was granted equal status with the colleges of advanced education in 1979 (Moroney, n.d.) and was amalgamated with other Catholic teachers colleges in 1991 to form the Australian Catholic University (Clarke, 2013). After years of focusing on primary education, Signadou recently entered into preparation of preservice teachers for secondary schools, with the first cohort of 35 students entering into a Graduate Diploma of Education program in 2005. Four years after Signadou began, the Canberra College of Advanced Education opened, providing a four year diploma for primary preservice teachers (AEC, 1990). Under the Unified National System of Higher Education introduced after the Dawkins Reforms, the Canberra College of Advanced Education became the University of Canberra in 1990 (Scott, 2004). As a university, both Bachelor degrees for primary and eventually secondary teachers were offered as well as the Graduate Diploma of Education for secondary teachers. The arrival of these two preservice teacher education facilities to Canberra would have boosted the number of trained teachers willing to work in Canberra, as locals would have been more inclined to regard teaching as a possible career. And considering the locals are generally of a higher educational level compared to the whole of Australia (ABS, 2013b), one could construe that the teachers in Canberra are of a better standard then those seen across Australia.

There are many factors that contributed to the need for changing preservice teacher education over the years but there are two areas that stand out: the quality of the preservice teacher applicant and the public perception of what makes a quality teacher. Since its inception, it has been observed that the majority of applicants for primary preservice teacher training at the Sydney Teachers College, have come from families with minimal education and thus lower social economic status, and were low academic achievers (Turner, 1943; Biggs, 1977; AEC, 1990; Boardman et al, 1995). For this group, teacher training offered the chance to be paid while studying and to some extent, there was guaranteed employment. The potential of a career with a stable and reasonable income could also enable one to advance social status. But coming from this social and low academic background, one could question the values of these potential teachers, such as whether they truly valued education. Yes they could demonstrate some level of intelligence by passing exams but without valuing the role and purpose of education, could they really teach? Some of the mechanisms used to raise the standard of the applicant included increasing the number of years of high school completion to that of the Leaving Certificate (Turner, 1943; Boardman et al, 1995). Elevating the entry requirement coincided with increasing the value of preservice training from certificate level, to diploma, to the current degree level. However, with the Commonwealth reforms that expanded the interest in university education from the 1960s through to the 1990’s (Hughes & Brock, 2008), there were a greater number of students completing high school, including individuals from the lower social economic status levels. With the more recent reports that tertiary entrance ranks have been falling (Short, 2002; Preiss & Butt, 2013), indicating that universities are lowering their requirements to encourage enrollment quotas, it is now easier to enter teacher education courses rather than being more selective. One way Australia has now chosen to tackle this problem is to impose on teachers the requirement to meet specific qualities upon graduation and beyond, through a teacher registration process.

Teacher registration is not new in Australia. Victoria introduced teacher registration in 1905 (Turner, 1943) and when the Signadou Teachers College was established in Canberra in 1963, their teacher education programs were aligned to the Victorian Council of Public Education, to ensure its graduates could work in both Victoria and NSW (Turner, 1943; Clarke, 2013). In NSW, teacher accreditation was only introduced in 2004 (NSW Institute of Teachers, 2012) however graduates of the teachers colleges prior to the 1960’s were certified at a specific grade that indicated both academic performance and teacher readiness (Turner, 1943; Boardman et al, 1995). This grading impacted the graduate teachers’ starting salary level and potential for promotion. Teacher registration in the ACT is very recent and came about after the Federal Government initiated the National Partnerships to Improve Teacher Quality program in 2008 that led to the establishment of the Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) in 2010. Through this national framework, professional standards for teachers across Australia have now been set. In Canberra, the organisation responsible for ensuring teachers meet these specified standards is the ACT Teacher Quality Institute and it was established in 2011. By combining the more in-depth training at university with the need to meet specific standards related to work-place performance, society believes the quality of the graduate teachers will be improved and thus the performance level of the school student will be increased.


Over the last 100 years, Canberra has seen a dramatic change in their teachers, from adolescents with minimal education and training, to adults with four year university degrees. This change has coincided with major reforms in the education system originating in NSW then moved Australia-wide. These reforms have reshaped both the school and university systems but most importantly the preservice teacher education systems. With the move to self-governance, Canberra has taken the necessary steps to gain control of its schools, teachers and curriculum. As Canberra moves into the future, teachers in Australia are being molded into a new framework of professional standards that will lead again to a new face of teachers in Canberra.

* For details please visit the Hall School Museum database.


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