Many children did not attend school in the 1850s and those who did often only attended for a few years. Many of the teachers were untrained and education was not highly regarded in the community. In the cities there were 'national' schools, independent schools and religious denomination schools. As schooling was not compulsory, parents decided whether their children went to school and for how long. It was a belief of the time that it was more important for boys to go to school than girls. The main subjects learnt in school were reading, writing, arithmetic, history, geography and grammar.
In 1854, ragged schools were established in Hobart, Sydney and Melbourne for children from poor families who could not pay fees, and who could not attend the national schools. The term 'ragged schools' referred to the ragged clothes of the children.
In Melbourne during the late 1850s, Hester Hornbrook established a system of 'ragged schools', which focused on Bible studies, reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as practical subjects such as plaiting, sewing and technical skills. Hornbrook, with the assistance of a ladies' committee, raised the necessary funds to run and maintain these schools. Ragged schools also received partial funding from the colonial governments. In New South Wales, girls enrolled in a ragged school were taught sewing and plaiting, and how to make and mend their own clothes, and boys were taught how to make paper bags. In Tasmania, drawing, geography, singing and English history were added to the curriculum.
On the goldfields, classes were sometimes held in tents made of canvas and at times educated women held lessons for their own children and that of other families in their own homes or other make-shift constructions.
During this era, private schools were established for the sons of the wealthy who didn't want to go to the expense of attending schools in Britain. These schools were termed 'grammar schools' and emulated the curriculum of the English public schools. Geelong Grammar School (1855) and Melbourne Grammar School (1858) were two such schools that were established during the 1850s.
Melbourne Grammar School
(State Library of Victoria, H41199/4)