Public Instruction Act 1880

Many argued that education should be 'free, secular and compulsory', stating that the state's role in the provision of education should be paramount and that the role of the churches should not be encouraged by the continuance of state education aid.

Moreover, the vast increase in the number of schools saw a growing need for the State's education system to be placed under the control of a government department rather than to continue in the hands of the much smaller Council of Education.

A bill to change the education system in NSW came into force in May 1880. The Public Instruction Act 1880 introduced some significant changes:

  • withdrawal of state aid to denominational schools from the beginning of 1883
  • introduction of compulsory education
  • entry of the state into the field of secondary education
  • replacement of the Council of Education by the Department of  Public Instruction
  • creation of three new types of school; superior public, high, and evening public schools.

Compulsory attendance

Compulsory attendance under the 1880 Act meant parents of school-aged children (6 to 14 years of age) had to ensure that their children attended school for a period of no less than seventy days every half-year. As such, enrolments in government schools jumped in 1880 by 25 per cent. There were also further increases from 1883 when the government system absorbed pupils from denominational schools which had either been converted into government schools or had been closed due to the withdrawal of state aid.

Types of schools

Superior public schools

Superior public schools were identical in structure to present day central schools – combining primary and secondary pupils in the same school.

The first superior public schools were gazetted in 1881, and by 1890 their number had increased to 64.

High schools

High schools first began in late 1883. Students entering high schools had to sit competitive examinations, as high schools initially only offered academic courses for students intent on entering the university.

Relatively high fees for these schools placed them at a great disadvantage to the superior public schools where fees were nominal.

Evening public schools

Evening public schools were designed for young people who had little primary education and wanted to learn the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic. These schools required the attendance of at least 10 pupils aged 14 or over.

Evening public schools operated in the buildings of the local public school, and were normally under the charge of that school's teacher. Evening public schools required students to attend two hours a night, three times a week –discouraging many pupils from attending.

After the introduction of compulsory education and the extension of government schools into most parts of the colony, there were very few areas where children did not receive some minimal literacy education.

House to house schools

The department introduced a smaller variation of the half-time schools to cater for sparsely populated areas.

These house to house schools were to be composed of families residing some distances apart, with each forming a teaching station that could be visited in turn by a teacher employed by the department. However, nearly half of the house to house schools had only two stations, with the only difference between them and half-time schools being the smaller class size.

Separate Aboriginal schools

The compulsory attendance clauses of the 1880 Act led to a greater number of Aboriginal students enrolling in government schools. Unfortunately, this occurrence also corresponded with an increase in protests by Anglo Australian parents over their children associating with Aboriginal children in the same schools. This resulted in the development of a system of separate Aboriginal schools.

After 1940, in line with a newly adopted policy of assimilation, Aboriginal schools were gradually merged into local public schools. In 1968 the title Aboriginal school was abolished and the few surviving schools were given public school status.


  • Historical
  • School operations

Business Unit:

  • Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation
Return to top of page Back to top