The Influence of the Irish National School System on Australian Educational Policy

Book Review by Paul Bloom


ISBN: 9781925556452

RRP: $30An-Ungodly-Generation-1542860405-400x400.jpg

Those with a reverence for history already believe in the importance of an awareness of the past to have a better-informed view of the present. Max Waugh’s An Ungodly Generation is a valuable example of the veracity of this belief. In reading this carefully researched history of the influence of the Irish National Schools system in colonial Australia, one feels a certain familiarity with the key education arguments of the era, from what schools should be built and funded from the public purse down to the setting of curriculum and teacher training standards. The key arguments together with the voices of their ideological proponents echo across the centuries to the present day.

The text is divided into four parts with logical progressions between each of them. As the subtitle indicates, Waugh’s brief is not to debate the merits of the current Australian education system but to highlight the significant influence of the Irish National Schools system in colonial times in paving the way for the provision of public education in Australia.

In Part One, Waugh focuses on Ireland, taking the reader through a chronological narrative of the significant historical circumstances giving rise to the Irish National Schools system. As he states,

the beginnings of mass schooling were profoundly influenced by centuries of English repression and neglect, poverty, famine, religious bigotry and social upheaval.

Many would be familiar with the existence of Hedge Schools from the time of Cromwell to the easing of penal restrictions against Catholics when, in the words of Seamus Heaney, ‘the priest lay behind ditches with the tramp’. Waugh provides an interesting overview of Hedge Schools and makes the important point that

the Irish peasantry had a passionate desire for learning, particularly literacy, and the English endeavours to deprive them of education made them even more determined to educate their offspring.

In the latter part of the eighteenth century, English ‘endeavours’ in education were more to do with proselytising than educating with the prevalence of voluntary societies such as Sunday schools and others such as the Association for Discountenancing Vice (now that’s an ambitious brief) and the London Hibernian Society which concerned itself with ‘fomenting bitter anti-Catholic feeling’. These groups stood in stark contrast with the Kildare Place Society which had a commitment to a religiously mixed education.

Waugh presents considerable detail on the efforts to educate the masses subsequent to the Act of Union 1801 with such education seen as a means of promoting social control, restraint and order. (It would appear that this view has been channelled by current political figures as their reaction to student climate change activism).

The eventual establishment of a National Board and the growth of the National School system fulfilled Chief Secretary of Ireland Lord Stanley’s desire to ‘unite in one system children of different creeds’. There are detailed but all too familiar tales of power struggles between vested interests, religious or otherwise, and arguments over religious instruction. Promises of funding brought ultimate compliance but the system was, in the end, undermined by the churches so that it became a ‘de facto denominational system’.

Part Two is concerned with New South Wales. In Part One, Waugh provided a snapshot of Ahane National School in Limerick whose significance lay in its patron Sir Richard Bourke, subsequently Governor of New South Wales and whom Waugh credits with laying the groundwork for the eventual establishment of National Schools in NSW based on the Irish model. Though Bourke was unsuccessful in his quest to establish a national system, Waugh is lavish in his praise for his efforts in the face of trenchant opposition particularly from Anglican Archbishop Broughton. Once again, the power struggles seem familiar, with supporters divided on religious lines and newspapers churning out propaganda to promote their particular agenda. The work of Bourke and his successors Governors Gipps and Fitzroy to bring about the introduction of a national school system, as painstakingly documented by Waugh, suggests that these men should be far better known and remembered than as merely street and place names. There is a fascinating chapter devoted to the heroic work of George Rusden who travelled the length and breadth of the country on horseback drumming up support from patrons in establishing schools in their areas, interspersed with amusing quotes revealing the religious bigotry of those opposed to him.

Part Three deals with the Victorian experience in establishing a National schools system. The political machinations follow a familiar pattern with fights over Board composition and the reluctance of the churches to cede any control. This part of the text deals extensively with detail about everything from textbooks, school buildings, curriculum content and teacher training.  While interesting, this detail can be a little dry but it is enlivened by anecdotes of the exploits of the more colourful characters involved as teachers and administrators. Those readers with a background in teaching will no doubt find many of the comments on teacher training and recruitment amusing, particularly those of the first  Victorian education inspector William Miller who didn’t foresee any difficulty in recruitment of schoolmasters from the ranks of unsuccessful ‘diggers’ who ‘will gladly avail themselves of the relatively easy task of teaching children’.

The final part of the book deals with the demise of the National schools system from funding disputes and denominational opposition. Waugh reiterates the importance of the Irish blueprint in hastening the development of free, compulsory and secular education in Victoria and beyond. There is an epilogue dealing with recent efforts to revive a multi-denominational system in Ireland. Whilst this is of some interest, it may have been more fitting to provide some brief comments on education in Australia after the demise of the National Schools, in particular the era’s relevance to the State Aid debates and the current and constant arguments over the levels of funding of public and private schools. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble and Waugh’s book remains of value to any reader interested in how the debates of the past can inform the decisions of the present.

Paul Bloom was born and raised in Toowoomba, in south-east Queensland where he was educated by the Christian Brothers. He worked as a solicitor in Queensland and Victoria before moving into education. He taught English, Literature and Mathematics in the Victorian State Secondary system with a particular focus in Gifted Education. In the latter part of his career, he was an Assistant Principal at a large State Secondary College in Melbourne’s north west. His interests include literature and history. Given his surname, Paul has accepted the inevitability of his involvement with the works of James Joyce.