Instead of giving the Aborigines Protection Board responsibility for Aboriginal education, Stuart’s government kept that role within the Department of Public Instruction, which was then in a phase of rapid expansion throughout rural New South Wales. The Public Instruction Act of 1880 made it compulsory for all children aged six to fourteen years to attend school. When he introduced the bill, Premier Henry Parkes emphasized that ‘free and fair New South Wales’ would tolerate no discrimination against any children. Government schools would enrol children regardless of sect, faith, country of origin or social standing.
In December 1884, the Department of Public Instruction told the Aborigines Protection Board it would offer two alternatives for Aboriginal children. Where there was a population of children large enough to warrant it, the department would provide a dedicated school for their exclusive use. And where their numbers were not sufficient for this, they could attend the nearest public school ‘provided they are habitually clean, decently clad, and that they conduct themselves with propriety both in and out of school’. Although this was not what it originally sought, the board responded enthusiastically. It believed that schooling would fulfil its own hope for the assimilation of the younger generation into mainstream society.
Peter Read’s histories of the Stolen Generations have never examined the age distribution of Aboriginal children who were removed from their parents. But he said most were taken ‘so young’ they were separated for almost all of their childhood, a period in which many would have forgotten their origins. However, the records of the Aborigines Protection Board reveal one very good reason why it preferred not to remove young children from their parents. It wanted them to go to school.
From the start of its relationship with the Department of Public Instruction, the board pursued this objective with both action and money. It nominated Aboriginal communities where schools should be established and lobbied the department to provide them. The board decided to offer its own incentives of additional children’s clothing and rations to persuade Aboriginal parents to take up the offer.
Any prejudice which may have existed against the admission of aboriginal and half-caste children into the Public Schools will, it is to be hoped, be now entirely removed. We have striven to induce parents to send their children to school, offering every inducement to them to do so, chiefly by providing decent clothing for them and granting a half-ration of food to all who regularly attend.
The results are so far most gratifying: we have received specimens of the children’s handwriting, and are informed that they and their parents are proud of their improvement under instruction, and we look forward hopefully to such children being in time reclaimed from the uncivilized and degraded condition in which they have hitherto existed, and taking their place — as they are well fitted by their intelligence to do — amongst the industrial classes.
When the board was founded, only 20 per cent of Aboriginal children went to school. By the 1920s, it thought the great majority of them received an ‘elementary education’, that is, primary schooling from the ages of six to fourteen. So the board’s chief policy towards Aboriginal children in this age range — a policy it expressed not only in words, but also with actions and expenditure — was not to steal them from their parents but to leave them with their parents, who they tried to encourage, by both carrot and stick methods, to send them to school. This interpretation of its motives is confirmed by the following account of the Aborigines Protection Board’s policies on education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Department of Public Instruction delivered on its promise to provide schools for Aboriginal children. In the 1880s it constructed schoolhouses and provided full-time teachers to the missions at Maloga and Warangesda. By 1893, it was providing twelve schools exclusively for Aboriginal children on reserves and stations at Barrington, Brewarrina, Brungle, Cabbage Tree Island, Cowra, Cumeroogunga (formerly Maloga), Forster, Grafton, Rollands Plains, Wallaga Lake, Warangesda and Wauchope. Numbers grew from 146 children attending school in 1883, to 390 in 1885, to 640 children in 1893, which that year amounted to an enrolment of about 35 per cent of all Aboriginal children of school age in the colony. This figure included 56 children attending schools run by Catholic convents.
The enrolment would have been higher but for three problems. First, some Aboriginal parents, especially those who were itinerant workers, did not send their children to school. ‘There are 274 children living within a 5-mile radius of Public Schools who receive no instruction whatever,’ the board complained in 1891, ‘but owing to the migratory habits of their parents, it has so far been found impracticable to get them to school.’ Second, there were still no schools at all in many areas where Aborigines lived. The board’s census showed that in 1889 some 2103 children, or 51 per cent of all Aboriginal children in the colony, were beyond the reach of any local school, ‘leading camp life, or hanging on to the skirts of civilization’. Third, the parents of white children in some rural areas did not want Aboriginal children in the same classrooms as their own. In 1892, the annual report observed:
The Board continue their efforts to secure the attendance at public schools of children of aborigines camped near European settlements. A large number do so attend, but in a few places it has been found necessary to withdraw them, owing to objections taken by parents of European children, not that they were not clean or decently clad, but simply because they were aboriginal children.
The board said this was a problem in a minority of rural areas — it singled out Gulargambone and Wollar in its 1898 report — observing: ‘That this objection is not general is shown by the fact that at the schools established on several of the aboriginal stations some of the neighbouring white settlers send their children to the station schools.’ The problem actually became much more extensive than the board admitted. Jim Fletcher’s history of Aboriginal education in New South Wales, Clean, Clad and Courteous, records at least sixteen schools from 1902 to 1940 where white parents objected strongly enough for Aborigines to be denied enrolment. Although it publicly disapproved of white prejudices against Aborigines, the board’s reports acknowledged that this remained an issue that always inhibited school enrolments in some districts.
Rather than confronting the parents of these white communities directly and insisting Aboriginal children be admitted, the board’s preferred solution in its early years was to lobby its government for more Aboriginal-only schools. If local whites protested against the presence of Aboriginal children, the department constructed an Aboriginal-only school nearby, even if enrolments were not quite sufficient to justify it. In the 1890s, however, the economic depression caused more Aboriginal families to become itinerant, thereby reducing the school-age population in some communities well below the Department of Public Instruction’s threshold. The schools at Pelican Island, Barrington and Wallaga Lake were temporarily closed for some years during the 1890s, but re-opened when local numbers of children rose again. The total enrolment of Aboriginal children in New South Wales in this decade remained around 600.
It was not until prosperity returned and Aboriginal communities increased in the 1900s that school attendance grew noticeably. By 1909 enrolments had reached 1066, which amounted to 50 per cent of the Aboriginal children of school age in the state that year. The following year, the Aborigines Protection Act, 1909, was gazetted requiring every Aboriginal child in the state under fourteen years of age to attend the nearest public school to which Aborigines were admitted.
In 2008, in response to my argument in a newspaper article that government’s intention was for Aboriginal children of school age to remain with their parents and go to school, Peter Read claimed that the impetus for this movement ceased in the mid-1910s. ‘Aboriginal schools,’ he said, ‘were created only up to 1918.’ This assertion demonstrates again his tenuous grasp on the facts of the period. In reality, the records of government expenditure show the number of dedicated Aboriginal schools increased from 12 in 1900, to 25 in 1910, to 31 in 1920, and to 40 in 1935.
By 1926, the Aborigines Protection Board was boasting it had achieved an enrolment figure of almost 100 per cent: ‘Practically, with very few exceptions, every Aboriginal child receives an elementary education.’ This was almost certainly an exaggeration since the board did not receive attendance figures from the Department of Public Instruction for those Aboriginal children nominally enrolled in ordinary public schools, and it knew that on some of its oldest established communities, such as Cumeroogunga, only about 75 per cent of children regularly attended school. Nonetheless, it seems clear that in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, if not every Aboriginal child then certainly the large majority of them did receive an elementary education in government schools.
It is just as clear that this was both the board’s official policy and its preferred outcome for children of this age. It made sure that the first communities to get a dedicated school were those on its own Aboriginal stations. These were settlements with, typically, between 100 and 200 people established on a village community model with a manager and a matron. These officials were usually a husband and wife team, with the manager in most cases earning an additional salary as schoolteacher.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the number of Aboriginal stations fluctuated slightly, depending on population movements, but there were about twenty in existence for most of the time up to 1940. Some of their managers were members of religious organizations who defined themselves as Christian missionaries, so those stations often became known by their inhabitants as ‘missions’, even though they were funded almost entirely by the state.
The Department of Public Instruction also established schools on those Aboriginal reserves where numbers warranted it. Reserves were Aboriginal settlements with smaller and more sporadic populations than stations and they had no managers. There were 147 reserves in 1904, but their numbers declined to 80 by 1936, and to 46 by 1940, as more of their Aboriginal populations made their way into mainstream society.
Schools became powerful magnets for Aboriginal parents who wanted their children educated. In some cases, the construction of a schoolhouse by the department caused sufficient population growth for the Aborigines Protection Board to turn a reserve into a station, and appoint a manager to it. Before 1920, the board’s annual report published extracts from the reports submitted by each of its station managers. These latter reports often noted that some families had arrived at the station ‘so as to be near the school’ and: ‘The school has been the means of retaining several of the residents on the station, and, indeed, several families took up their residence at Sevington, so that their children might have the benefit of schooling.’
For those parents who needed more persuasion of the benefits of education, the board offered a range of incentives. From the outset, it offered extra rations and clothing. ‘The Board continue to offer every inducement to the Aborigines to send their children to schools’, it wrote in 1898, ‘chiefly by providing decent clothing for all those who regularly attend, and granting them a weekly ration of food.’ For some Aboriginal communities established on islands in the northern coastal rivers, the board provided boats so the children could be ferried to school each day.
In the early 1920s, it pioneered a short-lived boarding school experiment for girls. It transported an old schoolhouse to the Aboriginal settlement at Kinchela on the Macleay River to create a dormitory for girls from families living too far distant to send their children to school daily. However, in 1923 and 1924 it only attracted ten girls, all of whom but one lived nearby. At the same time, the board adopted a more successful program to provide a hot meal at a number of schools, partly to attract the children and partly to make up for some parents’ lack of care.
On some of the Reserves which are not presided over by a Manager, a special arrangement has been made with the Teacher of the School to give the pupils a daily hot mid-day meal. This was found necessary as in numbers of instances it was ascertained that the children did not receive the benefit of the rations issued to them and sometimes arrived at school without having had any breakfast.
The provision of extra rations and hot meals was also part of a strategy to keep uncooperative parents in line. Once they accepted the board’s gifts, these Aboriginal families found they had a strong deterrent against truancy. One annual report explained: ‘The issue of the ration also provided the Board with a lever for the maintaining of a regular school attendance, as the issue is of course withdrawn should irregular attendance warrant same.’ If this didn’t work, the board could still fall back on its legislative powers under the Aborigines Protection Act, 1910, which required every Aboriginal child under fourteen years to attend the nearest school to which Aborigines were admitted. In 1925, the board’s report observed:
Trouble is sometimes experienced with parents withdrawing their children from school without permission and taking them camping on the stock routes, &c. In such cases, when circumstances justify it, the parents are proceded against under a section of the Aborigines Protection Act, and this is found to have the effect of ensuring that children shall have an uninterrupted school career.
The very existence of this state-wide system of schools, teachers and incentives for parents and pupils is, on its own, quite sufficient to refute the thesis that the board had a secret agenda to remove Aboriginal children of school age from their families. That did not mean, however, that the board did not harbour some prejudices against its charges. Indeed, it made one failure of judgment that was just as bad then as it would be today: it approved a curriculum that treated Aboriginal children as second-class citizens. It did not expect, nor provide for, Aborigines at dedicated schools to be educated beyond third grade. This meant that the highest level of instruction offered at these schools, which the children attended until they turned fourteen, was the same as that provided for eight- and nine-year-old white children. The Department of Public Instruction not only approved this decision but colluded with it by producing the curriculum material to be taught at Aboriginal schools.
From its earliest days and for a long time thereafter, the board had information from the teachers and inspectors at the schools on its stations that Aboriginal children had the same average intelligence as white children and, given the right motivation, had the same aptitude for success at school. In 1890, it noted: ‘Reports are constantly being received which tend to show that they, as a rule, make apt and diligent pupils, and in many instances are equally as advanced as European children of their own age.’ In 1894 it observed: ‘The aboriginal children as a rule make apt pupils, and where a regular attendance is maintained they soon become as proficient in their studies as white children of their own age.’ In 1898 the board quoted a departmental inspector’s report about standards at Cumeroogunga: ‘This school is very well conducted, and the results obtained thereat are far in advance of those achieved in several of the ordinary public schools.’ In 1918, a report from the school attached to the Cootamundra Girls’ Home observed: ‘these children compare not unfavourably in their ambition to become proficient in their school studies with the white race.’ Yet from 1893 onwards, the board and the department decided that dedicated Aboriginal schools would have a different curriculum and more limited goals, confined to basic literacy and numeracy. They offered no explanation for this. Indeed, they took it for granted that no reasons were needed:
These schools are inspected periodically by the district school inspectors, and satisfactory reports are received as to the progress made by the pupils. The usual standard for Public Schools being scarcely applicable for schools for Aboriginal children, at the suggestion of the Board, the subjects now taught are confined to reading, writing, dictation, and arithmetic.
From time to time thereafter, the board decreed that Aboriginal children should be given less academic and more vocational training. In 1907, it decided to allocate funding to bring this about. ‘A departure from the ordinary methods of education is proposed so far as these aboriginal schools are concerned,’ it said, ‘and it is intended to impart instruction in the use of tools.’ It provided workbenches and tools for schools at six of its stations. It fitted out an old building at Warangesda as a teaching workshop, set aside gardens for schoolchildren, and supplied a set of cooking utensils for the girls at Cumeroogunga. This pedagogical approach, it should be noted, only applied at dedicated schools and those Aboriginal children who went to ordinary public schools were not subject to it. Nonetheless, this was a racially discriminatory approach that persisted until the late 1930s. The board’s 1935–36 report noted this curriculum had changed only marginally, but still justified it.
The Board has established Schools for Aborigines at forty centres, including the Aboriginal Stations, and in these a Special Syllabus is taught, which are prepared and approved by the Department of Education. Regular annual inspection is made by District School Inspectors, copies of whose reports are submitted for the Board’s information. They disclose that very satisfactory work is being done, the standard of achievement, as compared with similar white schools, particularly in such subjects as manual work, writing and nature study, being most favourable.
This second-class syllabus constituted one of the grievances articulated by the Aboriginal protest movement that emerged in the late 1930s and which attracted considerable publicity in the lead-up to the 1938 New South Wales sesquicentenary celebrations. In a radio broadcast, Aboriginal activist Jack Patten accused white people of having ‘refused to educate Aborigines and half-castes up to your own standard of citizenship’. An Aboriginal deputation to Prime Minister Joseph Lyons in April 1938 gave him a ten-point plan for policy reform. In Point Four, which was ‘to raise all Aborigines throughout the Commonwealth to full citizen status’, the first policy recommended was: ‘Aborigines should be entitled (a) to receive the same educational opportunities as white people.’ These demands led to a New South Wales parliamentary select committee inquiry in 1937 and, in the following year, to an inquiry by the New South Wales Public Service Board into the operations of the Aborigines Protection Board. At the same time, a committee of district school inspectors recommended that the Aboriginal school syllabus should raise its limits from third to fifth grade.
The Public Service Board’s final report went one step further than this. It found that the teacher-managers on most Aboriginal stations were neither trained nor competent to teach at the higher level. It argued that those Aboriginal children still at dedicated schools would be better served if they entered the mainstream public school system. It wanted the role of the Aborigines Protection Board in the education of children wound down.
The Public Service Board considers that the policy should be as far as possible that the children be absorbed into the ordinary schools, and that to ensure proper and sympathetic handling of the question, teachers for schools in which there is a considerable sprinkling of aborigine children should be carefully selected.
With the gradual separation of the functions of the manager and teacher, on stations, the Public Service Board considers that the building and equipment of the necessary schools should gradually be taken over by the Department of Public Instruction, so that eventually this aspect of the problem will form part of the work of that department as in the case of the general community.
The Public Service Board also acknowledged that some white communities in rural districts still retained racial prejudices so that ‘in a number of instances there is a decided feeling of hostility on the part of the general public to the attendance of aboriginal children at the ordinary public schools’. However, the report insisted that these attitudes be rejected.
This is an unfortunate state of affairs, but in the view of the Public Service Board, it is the duty of the administration (whether Public Instruction or generally) to ensure that undue weight is not given to such agitation. It seems to the Board that public education on this point (e.g. by making full use of local committees and the churches) in the aborigine problem is a likely means of overcoming this hostile attitude, but, at the same time, considerable assistance is rendered by sympathetic and firm handling of the situation at each particular school by the headmaster of that school. Numerous schools in the state contain a sprinkling of aborigine children without protest, and, in those districts where there is a large proportion of aborigine children in a school, it would seem that the Department of Public Instruction should continue to ensure that a specially selected headmaster who is temperamentally fitted to handle the problem is, on all occasions, appointed to such schools.
There were three forces that shaped this policy change. First, and most important, was the Public Service Board’s palpable determination to end the existing racial discrimination in education. Academic historians who today toss off the most vile accusations against those government officers who shaped Aboriginal affairs rarely give them their due, as noted earlier, by quoting their words at length or even identifying who they were. In this case, the report was submitted to the New South Wales Chief Secretary under the name of the chairman of the Public Service Board, Ernest Payne, a former Sydney solicitor who had left private practice to become Industrial Registrar, then Public Trustee, before assuming the chair of the board in 1933. This report was possibly his last major public document and Payne deserves recognition for its civilized and egalitarian sentiment that was the genesis of educational reform for Aboriginal children over the next three decades. He signed it in August 1938 before his sudden death in office in May 1939.
The second influence was the publicity and the consequent political pressure produced by the Aboriginal activists’ public campaign. The immediate result of their campaign was the 1937 parliamentary select committee inquiry. Its hearings put the conditions on Aboriginal stations onto the state’s political agenda. That inquiry was a poorly managed affair that did not produce a final report, but its failure led the Chief Secretary to appoint the Public Service Board inquiry in its place.
The third influence was the now-infamous 1937 Canberra conference of Aboriginal protectors, which resolved that Aborigines needed a standard of education to fit them for assimilation into white society. The 1939 annual report of the Aborigines Protection Board specifically acknowledged this resolution as its main impetus and the Public Service Board report paraphrased its wording. It is heavily ironic that the 1937 Canberra resolution which, as Chapter Seven records, is today commonly denounced by academic commentators as a rationale for eugenics and genocide, helped produced such an unequivocally progressive outcome in Aboriginal education. It was this reform that opened the way for the more successful Aboriginal students in New South Wales to go on to the expanding post-war high school system, and once there, from the 1960s onwards, to go on to university and the professions.