Protesting School Access for First Nations Communities, 1900s-1950s

Picture: Country School House No. 1557, John Henry Harvey, State Library Victoria

Schooling today, as in the past, is a central site of protest and struggle for First Nations self-determination and justice. First Nations’ leaders have repeatedly identified Australia’s schooling system as a root cause of failed social transformation. As scholars of contemporary Indigenous education have shown, the Australian school system continues to discriminate and disadvantage First Nations students. This paper examines historical protests over school access for First Nations students. It uses school protests to explore the range of clauses, policies and other mechanisms embedded in the development of formal school systems in Australia, which have worked to exclude and segregate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from state schooling. The first half of the twentieth century saw settler communities protest the attendance of First Nations students in every state and territory. These protests were often successful, especially when they included school strikes or boycotts. Yet, they were also regularly met by the protests of First Nations families, who contested exclusion and segregations, sometimes with successful outcomes. Focusing on protests and the importance of locality—influenced by settler economies, labour markets and land use—provides ways to interrogate claims of indiscriminate provision of schooling to all children in education legislation. This paper argues that examining contests over schooling can inspire new ways of understanding how historical conditions continue to shape and influence First Nations’ students schooling experiences.

Dr Beth Marsden is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Research Centre for Deep History, School of History at the Australian National University. Beth has published on the history of education and childhood, and works on connections between colonialism, racism, and education systems. Currently, Beth is writing a monograph on the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s experiences and engagement with school systems across Australia. In 2023, Beth was the inaugural recipient of the Early Career Researcher Fellowship from the Australian Historical Association.

Please note that the School of History seminars will run in-person only this semester.

Date & time

Wed 11 Oct 2023, 4.15–5.30pm


RSSS Auditorium, Ground Floor (Level 1), RSSS Building, ANU, 146 Ellery Crescent, Acton, ACT 2601


Dr. Beth Marsden


School of History


David Romney Smith


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