Theme Kindergarten Teaching and Pre-school Education


Written by Deborah Towns, Swinburne University

In Australia, kindergarten teaching was introduced over a century ago by innovative and enlightened educationists, entrepreneurs and philanthropists. In the early 1900s, it was considered an essential part of the New Education espoused by leading educationists, including the New South Wales and Victorian directors of education, Peter Board and Frank Tate, but it proved too expensive to implement. Nevertheless, the movement for kindergartens had begun, though it was dependent upon women educators and philanthropists prepared to work voluntarily or for a pittance. Australia's first kindergartens were supported by community leaders, notably first-wave feminists. Throughout the 20th century, kindergarten teaching was led by professional, practical, devoted women but it remained marginal to mainstream educational discourse and administration. Many of the earlier kindergarten leaders, however, appeared to prefer the independence this gave them.

From the beginning, kindergarten teaching was seen as 'women's work' and remained so for decades. Not until 1969 did this begin to change with one male entering a kindergarten teacher training course at the Queensland University of Technology. Being a feminised career added to its marginalisation but, paradoxically, it created one of the few professional areas that women have always led. For decades kindergartens lacked government funding and remained largely dependent upon volunteers. Quality kindergarten learning is expensive to implement owing to of the need for specialised teacher training, a small student-teacher ratio and unique learning devices.

Beginnings: 1900s-1960s

Histories of the Australian kindergarten movement have acknowledged the continuing influence of particular women from the past on present pre-school organisation and practice (Mellor, 2008; Waters, 2002; Waters, 2000; Brennan). One of the notable pioneers was NSW feminist, philanthropist and teacher, Maybanke Anderson (Kingston, She introduced her first kindergarten at 'Maybanke', her private school, in the 1880s. In 1895, she established Australia's first free kindergarten in Woolloomooloo. The first Free Kindergarten Union (KU) in Australia began with Anderson as inaugural president and she continued to be associated with it into the 1920s. In 1899, in Victoria, one of Australian first kindergartens was opened by Annie Westmoreland at her private school, Ruyton. The innovative Emmeline Pye was appointed mistress of infant method to Melbourne Teachers College, where she lectured in kindergarten and infant teaching from 1902 to 1918. She established Victoria's first state-funded kindergarten in 1907 (Factor, Educationist Mother Mary Gonzaga Barry established the Loreto order's first free kindergarten in Australia in South Melbourne in 1912 (McTigue & Palmer,

Undoubtedly, however, the most significant early kindergarten leader in Australia was Lillian de Lissa, an international and national pioneer in the field (Jones, She qualified brilliantly from the Sydney Kindergarten Teachers College (KTC) in 1903. She worked with Anderson and then visited Adelaide, where her efforts led to the establishment of the Adelaide KU. She was director of the first Adelaide free kindergarten and the South Australian KU's president. With feminists, particularly Catherine Helen Spence's niece, Lucy Morice, de Lissa fought for independent kindergarten teacher training in SA and was appointed Adelaide KTC's first principal in 1907. After being invited to Perth in 1911 by feminist Bessie Rischbeith, she oversaw the beginnings of Western Australia's kindergartens. From 1917, she worked in England where she led kindergarten teaching for many decades.

The Free Kindergarten Unions gained greater significance when Victoria joined their network in 1908 with Pattie Deakin, the prime minister's wife, their first president. Among notable committee members was Methodist missionary, Sister Faith, who established a free kindergarten for disabled children in 1918, marking the beginning of Yooralla. By the end of the second decade of the century, every state had a KU and free kindergartens, and most states had a fee-paying KTC, all headed by women.

Though seen as women's work, kindergartens provided opportunities for local, state and national leadership not readily available to women at this time. In 1903, Mary Agnew was appointed as the inspector for kindergarten work in Queensland, making her one of Australia's first woman inspectors (Grieshaber, NSW's first woman inspector was the kindergartener, Martha Simpson, appointed in 1917 (Mitchell, Another pioneer was Ann Clark, who lectured at the Brisbane KTC and established her own kindergarten, Chiselhurst, in Toowoomba, in 1939, where she was the director until 1963. Her leadership is honoured at the Queensland University of Technology by her portrait.

The 1930s Depression and World War II turned government attention to the health and educational needs of the nation. At this time, well-placed committed women lobbied for pre-school demonstration centres, arguing convincingly that they would help to fulfil the government's goals. Thus, in 1939, the government funded a new national organisation for children, which continues today as Early Childhood Australia (ECA). Led by teacher and community activist Ada a'Beckett as inaugural president, it influenced the establishment of Lady Gowrie Child Centres (LG) in every state (Marginson, Their development was supervised by Christine Heinig, a KTC principal, who was appointed the first federal officer of childcare (Mellor, From the beginning, LGs represented a benchmark for the best standards of childcare and pre-school education, and they were the only childhood centres to receive Commonwealth funding for decades. Other kindergartens continued to increase in number despite insufficient government funding, with 87 free kindergartens throughout Australia by the end of World War II, all affiliated with their state's KU. Non-affiliated kindergartens in private schools or local communities were increasing too.

Gladys Pendred, a WA KTC principal, followed Heineg from 1944, and was a relentless federal officer until she died in 1964 on the eve of her retirement (Mellor, During the war years, Isla Stamp began her national and international career. She was the inaugural director of Hobart's LG 1940. She gained a doctorate in New York in 1953 and was principal of both the Perth and Brisbane training colleges. Later, in Melbourne, she established the Preschool Guidance Program- a world first. In 1974, she was vice-president of the Asia-Pacific region of the World Organisation for Pre-school Education, the Organisation Mondiale pour l'Education Prescolaire (OMEP). Another new career created during this era was that of Margaret Graham. In WA, she presented Kindergarten of the Air on the local ABC radio station to thousands of grateful children, as kindergartens were closed during the war years (Graham-Taylor, It was later successfully modelled by a national ABC Melbourne-based program and presented by Anne Dreyer, until the 1960s.

From the war years and into the 21st century, the kindergarten movement continued to be affected by government decisions concerning educational priorities. As Kaye Colmer, educationist and director of SA's LG for fourteen years found, 'changes in programs structure', over 70 years in Gowrie Centres were 'directly linked to funding' (Colmer, 6). Pre-school leaders tried not to lose the momentum created by the war-time attention. They continued their lobbying and funding applications and recognised the need to promote and professionalise their work. One of their innovations was a professional journal, launched by Jean Adamson and Phyllis Scott in 1960. It was deliberately named The Australian Pre-School Quarterly, a title that emphasised education rather than childcare. In 1952, the Victorian government appointed Beth Stubbs as the chief pre-school supervisor in the Health Department. Her career traced the pattern and extent of developments in local kindergartens. When she began, there were 166 kindergartens in Victoria, almost all built and managed by local communities. In 1980, when she resigned, there were 1,125 kindergartens. By this time, there were 33 pre-school advisors and she had a senior position as director of a new separate Division of Pre-School Child Development.

Challenges and Changes: 1970s - 2000s

The 1970s appeared to begin well for the pre-school leaders. As a result of intense lobbying prior to the Whitlam Labor government's election, the 1972 Childcare Act was passed and an investigation into early child-care and education established. This produced the Fry Report, named after its chair, the leading kindergartener, Joan Fry. Previously she had created controversy among her colleagues when she commented in 1969 that mothers should have the choice to go out to work or stay at home. Many kindergarteners retained traditional views about mothers not working and used John Bowlby's attachment theory to support their beliefs. Fry's report recommended that funding should be used for training in early childcare education and that most funds should go to pre-schools. This quickly led to the government's new funding plan to ensure every Australian child's access to pre-school education. But pressure from feminists and other lobbyists, together with the economic importance of women's work, led the government to direct its funding to long-day childcare centres instead.

This change of emphasis during the 1970s challenged the traditional philosophies and expertise of pre-schools leadership, which had dominated childcare until the 1970s. However, undaunted by this questioning of their views, they made sure changes were afoot. In 1976, they changed the name of the APA's journal from Australian Pre-School Quarterly to the Australian Journal of Early Childhood, which, according to educationist Manjula Waniganayake, 'was an indicator from within the early childhood profession, heralding the growing recognition of the importance of adopting an integrated approach to early childhood' (Waniganayake, 6). In Victoria in 1978, in response to community needs, the state FKU opened its Commonwealth-funded Multicultural Resource Centre with Priscilla Clarke as the director. This centre has expanded under the leadership of Clarke, among others, and liaises with state and Commonwealth departments. Today their bilingual program includes over 200 bilingual staff.

In the community and in government, interest in early childhood was experiencing a renaissance as childcare became a mainstream issue. Thought there were many shifts in policy and discourse, increased funds were available, which the kindergarten leaders used to their advantage. In the 1980s, the LGs began providing childcare places for the first time since World War II. In 1990, the former CEO of Melbourne's LG, Sue Harper, was appointed to the interim National Accreditation Council that produced the 1994 Quality Improvement and Accreditation System for Australian long-day-care centres. The LGs, through their new Resource and Advisory Programs, were now producing resources and training programs. The terms 'quality' and 'leadership' entered into their traditional discourse of child-centred teaching. In 2009, the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed on the long-awaited National Reform Agenda for Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC). In particular, the federal government announced plans to ensure that every child will have pre-school education provided by fully trained pre-school staff by 2014. The Australian Children's Education and Care Quality Authority (ACECQA) has responsibility for implementing these changes. One of the board members is Professor Pauline Harris, the Lillian de Lissa Chair of Early Childhood (Research) at the University of South Australia. In this way, de Lissa's name, as a pioneer of quality kindergarten teaching, lives on at the highest level of education and government. The Australian government's leadership, instead of focusing only on childcare's 'affordability and availability', is driven by 'quality' (Logan, Press & Sumison, 2), which was the philosophy behind the 'independent' kindergartens established by the pioneering kindergarteners a century ago. The vision of the early education leaders- Tate, Board, and others- and of the kindergarteners who saw the importance of quality child-centred education and childcare for the youngest children in the Australian community has been fulfilled, after a century of leadership from women.

For over 20 years, Pam Cahir, was the indefatigable CEO of ECA, which continues after 74 years as the peak early childhood advocacy association. She recently discussed the areas of 'care' and 'education' that had wrongly been perceived as separate. Now, she states: 'What many early childhood practitioners knew all along, that young children's social, emotional, and cognitive growth go hand in hand is becoming much more widely accepted' (ECA Report, 2010). 'Language is important', she argued, and 'That's why I want to bring an end to "childcare" and call it what it is, early childhood education and care' (ECA Report, 2010). It is important to be reminded here that the first kindergarteners also saw these areas as one and the same in their approach to pre-schooling. The false division seems to have appeared over time as philosophies and government funding priorities changed. Cahir, who retired in 2012, was described by ECA's president, Margaret Young, as possessing the 'great ability to work towards achieving goals for young children' (Johnston). Surely this could also be said of the first women who led the ECA and the others who held pre-school leadership roles during the past century. We should also remember the pioneering young women 'directors' of the early kindergartens and the directors today who continue to lead children's first experiences of 'education' in schools and local communities. And, perhaps with some shame, we should also note that one of the first jobs of these women every year, was, and continues to be, organising the voluntary community and parents' committee for fund-raising and maintenance.

Additional sources: Telephone interview with Kaye Colmer, CEO, Gowrie, SA, October 2012. Interview with Beverley Morwood, Retired Kindergarten Director, Geelong, October 2012.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Blake, L.J., Vision and Realisation: A Centenary History of State Education in Victoria, vol. 1, Victorian Education Department, Melbourne, Victoria, 1973. Details
  • Brennan, Deborah, The Politics of Australian Child Care: From Philanthropy to Feminism, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1994. Details
  • Cumpston, J.H.L. & Heinig, Christine M., Pre-school Centres in Australia: Building, Equipment and Programme, the Lady Gowrie Child Centres, Commonwealth Government of Australia: Department of Health, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 1945. Details
  • Early Childhood Australia, Our future on the Line-Keeping the Early Childhood Education and Care Reforms on Track: A State of the Sector Report by Early Childhood Australia, ECA, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, 2010. Details
  • Gardiner, Lyndsay, The Free Kindergarten Union of Victoria, 1908-80, Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), Melbourne, Victoria, 1980. Details
  • Mellor, Elizabeth, A Centenary History 1908-2008: FKA Children's Services, FKA Children’s Services, Melbourne, Victoria, 2008. Details
  • Power, Kerith, Storylines of Indigenous Women's Leadership in Early Childhood: A Genealogy of Australian Indigenous Women's Leadership in Early Childhood Education, Lambert Academic Publishing, Saarbrücken, Germany, 2010. Details
  • Stubbs, Elizabeth, For Pre-school Children and their Parents: Aspects of the History of Pre-school Education in Australia 1900-1950, Lady Gowrie Child Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2000. Details
  • Waters, Joan, Sowing Seeds of Peace: Australia and the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education, OMEP Australia, Melbourne, Victoria, 2006. Details

Book Sections

  • Faragher, Joan, 'Anne Westmoreland 1865 - 1921', in Joan Waters (ed.), With Passion, Perseverance and Practicality: 100 Women Who Influenced Australian Children's Services, 1841-2001, OMEP Australia, Melbourne, Victoria, 2002, pp. 104 - 195. Details
  • Waters, Joan, 'Jean Suthrland 1903 - 1983', in Joan Waters (ed.), With Passion, Perseverance and Practicality: 100 Women Who Influenced Australian Children's Services, 1841-2001, OMEP Australia, Melbourne, Victoria, 2002. Details
  • Waters, Joan, 'Martha Simpson 1865 - 1948', in Joan Waters (ed.), With Passion, Perseverance and Practicality: 100 Women Who Influenced Australian Children's Services, 1841-2001, OMEP Australia, Melbourne, Victoria, 2002. Details

Edited Books

  • Turney, C. (ed.), Pioneers in Australian Education, Vol.3, Studies in the Development of Education in Australia 1900-1950, Sydney University Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 1983. Details
  • Waters, Joan (ed.), With Passion, Perseverance and Practicality: 100 Women Who Influenced Australian Children's Services, 1841-2001, OMEP Australia, Melbourne, Victoria, 2002. Details


Journal Articles

  • Logan, Helen, Press, Frances & Sumison, Jennifer, 'The Quality Imperative: Tracing the Rise of 'Quality' in Australian Early Childhood Education and Care Policy', Australian Journal of Early Childhood, vol. 37, no. 3, 2012, pp. 4-13. Details
  • Waniganayake, Manjula, 'Transient Times and Nurturing the Pride of the Profession', Australian Journal of Early Childhood, vol. 26, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1-5. Details

Online Resources