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AEU ACT Foundation Years

In examining the history of the ACT’s public education system as an independent education system – leading to the formation of our own standalone education union – there is one event that stands out as probably the most significant event in both the systems’ genesis. This was the coalition of parents and teachers and academics that formed around Campbell Primary parents and their dissatisfaction with the NSW Department of Education in 1966.

The detailed history of this pressure group and its determination to establish an independent education authority for the ACT is comprehensively recorded and analysed in Elizabeth St. Clair McKenzie’s ANU PhD thesis: A History of the Australian Capital Territory Schools’ Authority, 1966-1980: A Process of Change Frustrated. Elizabeth, who retired as principal of Melrose High School, produced her thesis over a ten-year period to 1992, building on comprehensive analysis of documentation earlier studies and interviews with most of the key players in the formation of both the system and the union.

Elizabeth described ACT parents, teachers and other stakeholders as viewing the NSW Department of Education as an ‘unwieldy, inflexible, bureaucratic administration’, unable to respond to the local needs unable and unwilling to staff schools appropriately because of rigid staffing formulae, a shortage of trained staff, and financial constraints. Concerns about curriculum, the examination system and the significant alienation of senior secondary students from the education process was also of concern.

By November 1966 a planning group of stakeholders had been set up. It began a process that within a year would lead to the publication of a report entitled An Independent Education Authority for the Australian Capital Territory, which became known as the Currie Report after its chair, Sir George Currie. The report argued not simply for independence from the NSW Department of Education but also that any new ACT education system established needed to be based on community participation, with decision making largely decentralised to school communities.

The next five years saw active lobbying by parents, principals, ACT teacher members of the NSWTF and academics of commonwealth Ministers of Education, bureaucrats, the ACT community and the press, culminating with the announcement in 1972 by Education Minister Malcolm Fraser that the ACT would have its own education authority.

Members of the NSWTF in Canberra determined at this time to establish their own union separate from the NSWTF and began to organise to that end, with a mass meeting of NSWTF members funding a dollar per head to work towards the creation of their new union in August of 1972.

While the Commonwealth now began planning for the implementation of the 
new system, work was being done to restructure secondary education under the chairmanship of Dr Richard Campbell, with a report, Secondary Education for Canberra, recommending the separation of the final two years of secondary education into separate colleges. Originally set up by Minister Fraser, the working group was to report in 1973 to PM Gough Whitlam’s Minister for Education, Kim Beasley Sr.

In May 1973, the new Whitlam government working party set up to recommend the structure of the new system under the chairmanship of Phillip Hughes, head of the Canberra College of Advanced Education, released a report: A Design for the Governance and Organisation of Education in the ACT. By October 1973, the Council of the Interim ACT Schools Authority had been established on the basis of the decentralised, participatory principles outlined in the earlier Currie Report.

A significant source of information and analysis used by Elizabeth was an earlier work published by the ACT Schools Authority in 1979 that was a joint MEd thesis by G.J.(Gwen) McNeill and M.E. (Mick) March, ACT Teachers’ Federation, 1972-1976. This thesis, as well as Elizabeth’s, provides rich insights into the personalities and issues of the time that resonate in today’s struggles to maintain and improve the place of the public education system and the teaching profession nearly half a century after the founding of the ACT’s own
public education system and its own teachers union.

The voices of some of the founders can still be heard today, with recent interviews having been conducted with Keith Lawler, our first full time membership elected President;  Peter O’Connor, our first full time membership elected General Secretary (both pictured above); former Vice-President, Schools Authority member and principal of Narrabundah College, Mick March and former principal of Belconnen and Kaleen High Schools, Lance Chapman. Julia Ryan, lifelong activist, has provided her perspectives on the early years, with commentary on the way in which women had to fight to get their voices recognised as the system and the union formed. Dr Barry Price, an early activist and subsequently a senior administrator, has also provided his thoughts through interview and historical papers, again including the voices of founders.

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