1884 map of Victoria showing the distribution of state schools after the first 12 years of state education, 1884: National Library of Australia

This is an edited version of the speech given last week by freelance writer Nick Bastow at the Opening of School Days, a new exhibition on the history of education in Victoria:

Being invited to speak at an event because of your genetics is a slightly odd feeling. It’s probably as close as I will probably ever get to being a member of the British royal family.

I am here as the great great grandson of Henry Robert Bastow who was the first Education Department Architect in Victoria.

My son and my nephew both go to local state primary schools, neither of which unfortunately were designed by Henry.This is statistically a bit of an oddity because of the extraordinary level of school building that happened in Victoria in the 1870s and 80s.

The introduction of the Education Act in 1872 introduced compulsory, free and secular education in Victoria. The state was the first colony to do this and it meant that the Victorian government had to build a large number of new schools very quickly.

Henry had trained as an architect in England and he had come out to Australia as an economic migrant. So he was in the right place at the right time as the Victorian Government looked around for someone to design the large number of schools it now needed.

Avoca primary school 1878

And it really was a large number of schools – the rough estimate is that Henry was responsible for designing about 600 schools in the space of five years.

The population of Victoria at the time was 800,000 people – so by today’s population that means government building about 4,000 schools. My rough estimate is that means about five new schools in every Melbourne suburb, which is building an education revolution on a heroic scale

It seems fitting at the opening of an exhibition housed in the Old Treasury building to point out that it was done on the cheap, or at least it was done with some economy. Laurie Burchill’s magisterial book on Victorian Schools notes that in 1882 the amount spent on the new Supreme Court buildings was four times the amount spent on building schools for that year.

Henry’s story didn’t end happily though. He lost his job in the economic depression of the 1890s and moved to Harcourt in central Victoria where he lived in slightly genteel poverty growing apples and died in 1920.

It may have been cold comfort, but the schools he designed would have been visible almost anywhere he travelled in Melbourne and regional Victoria.

The panels in the exhibition show that many of them were very striking and many are still in use. Northcote Primary, Williamstown Primary and Westgarth Primary are just a few examples, as well as the former North Melbourne Primary School, which now houses the Victorian Government Centre for Educational Leadership, also known as the Bastow Institute. There are many more examples in regional areas.

It would be nice to think that they were hugely innovative and years ahead of their time in understanding how the built environment affects learning. I suspect that was not really true and some of them were probably more impressive on the outside than they were on the inside – particularly if you were a small person being drilled in the three Rs.

The pictures in this exhibition give a sense of the physical conditions that students and teachers suffered through. Some of them are visible: empty windows and leaking ceilings. Others are less obvious but just as important: too hot, too cold, too dark.

Indeed one of the interesting things about the new Bastow Institute in North Melbourne, and in the redevelopment of existing schools, is to see how architects now understand how interconnected learning and physical space are.

As anyone who has been in one knows – classrooms are filled with all sorts:

  • the dreamers and the schemers
  • the very loud and the too quiet
  • the sports nuts and the book worms
  • the teachers pets and the teachers nightmares
  • the achievers and the battlers

So when I look at the pictures of the kids in this exhibition, I wonder what they are really like. All school kids quickly learn a face they put on for the official photos. But every now and then you see a glimpse of what they were like in those classrooms.

For example, the eight kids of the decrepit Mallacoota Primary School in 1910 shown in the third exhibit: they’re standing next to their teacher Mr Baker who came for two and a half days every fortnight and then rowed back to his tent 20 km up river to teach at two other schools

As a tribute to all the school kids frozen in time in the exhibition’s panels, I suggest all those adults visiting the exhibition are set some homework to be written in their neatest Victorian Modern Cursive.

Remember that Victorian Cursive means that you will need to keep your lower case b open and put a little wiggle on the end. Likewise, your lower case x’s should be rounded and not a multiplication symbol cross.

Incidentally, there’s a powerful reminder that education was very much a pre-Federation government activity in Australia’s states; all had different cursive fonts, apart from Western Australia who decided to adopt Victoria’s font.

The question you have to answer is: What are three things this Exhibition taught you?

Here are my three answers:

First – We now take the state’s provision of compulsory free and secular education as a given – but it wasn’t always that way. What was just an idea became a reality 150 years ago and is now regarded as a cornerstone of what government provides to its citizens. That change is a reminder of how powerful public policy can be

Second – this exhibition should remind us of the power of collective action. As effective and as efficient as markets can be, I believe that it is more often by our collective action that we define our society from compulsory education, aged care pensions and seatbelts, to Medicare, compulsory superannuation and the NDIS.

 Third – the society that decided to provide compulsory, free and secular education to its citizens was terrible. It didn’t give women the vote for another 40 years. It was still systematically dispossessing Indigenous Victoria of their lands and their rights. It was deeply racist – towards anyone who wasn’t white. It was toe-curlingly, politically orientated toward the United Kingdom and a global empire we saw ourselves as part of.

And yet it made this extraordinary leap forward.

So what this Exhibition makes me wonder is this: if they could make that leap with all their limitations and deficiencies, what could we not do? As we look forward to the immense challenges ahead of our society – family violence, climate change, and entrenched disadvantage – we should also look back to what we have been able to do in the past. Not because it was perfect. But because it shows what we can do collectively through government – if we as citizens demand it.

For more on Henry Bastow, there’s a big collection of photos of his school buildings here and a short video here.

Mallacoota primary school, 1910