Recollections of a Scholarship Teacher

The Scholarship Examination consisted of a series of tests of knowledge that were said to measure the worthiness of primary pupils to undertake secondary schooling in Queensland, Australia. The tests applied to Mathematics, English, History and Geography. If candidates managed to indicate that they knew at least half of the answers to direct questions, and answered some general questions that received a pass-level subjective opinion-based score, they received free tuition at a Secondary School for two years.

The idea had been started by the Ipswich and Brisbane Grammar Schools early in the history of the colony to capture potential academics before they headed off for jobs at the end of compulsory schooling. The leaving age was 14 and most pupils left school then. The notion of blanket state tests of scholarship was legitimised in 1860. Private schools grew in number. It was considered right and proper that church and grammar schools, in the British tradition, should offer courses that had tertiary qualifications in view.

There were few government secondary schools around until the 1960s, so the money before this time was usually paid direct to non-government schools to supplement their fees, although the number of successful candidates depended on the allocation of money from the Treasury. This manipulation of the number of successes became a political issue in the 1930s.

It was an intense contest. The pupil’s chances of further schooling relied on it as did the family honour and the teacher’s reputation. The school’s reputation depended on the number of successes and this was especially important for non-government primary schools. Non-government schools tended to nominate only those candidates they trusted to pass. [In the author’s class those not nominated sat apart from the rest of the class and were referred to as “mugs’ alley”.] State schools were not supposed to do this, but there were ways.

In certain places, schools were constructed to encourage special enrolment and were openly exam-oriented. They were called Intermediate Schools and contained only two levels of schooling: Sub-Scholarship [Grade 6] and Scholarship [Grade 7]. There is still evidence of them in parts of Brisbane and majors cities of the state. The Administration building for QUT at Kelvin Grove is one such building.

The age of the candidates ranged from 12 to 14 years of age, depending on when the pupil started school and how often one had been ‘put down’ during the earlier years of primary schooling. The age of admission to school varied, so most scholarship classes had this wide range of ages. The 14 year olds who were not nominated or who failed the examination or whose parents could not afford the cost of textbooks tended to leave school at the end of their scholarship year. The younger usually continued schooling to contest the Junior Examination two years later, hoping that the extra schooling provided better chances of obtaining employment. The fear-of-failure orientation ensured a high drop-out rate. Of the 43 pupils in the Scholarship class of the author, three continued to contest Senior.

As with any form of externally-imposed blanket-testing, the pressure on schools was enormous. Because only testable aspects of schooling were included and public pronouncements were to be made, the schools concentrated its efforts only on these aspects. The school week concentrated on Arithmetic, Mathematical Problems, Mensuration, English Expression [Pick the Essay], Grammar, Latin & Greek Roots, the Novel, Geography [Pick the Map], Historical dates, British Bills and Statutes. Out went what was commonly called the ‘airy-fairy’ subjects….music, art, physical education, intra-school sport.

Such curriculum offerings were tight, very tight. Non-government schools were able to arrange this better. They could rid their time-table of the not-needed subjects during the Sub-Scholarship year, as they did, and concentrate on the essentials. State schools had to wait until the Inspector has visited the school in the final year before they were tossed out. He [usually male] had to guard the general curriculum and check out all parts of it during his annual visits. It was a lucky school who had the Inspectorial visit early in the year. The scholarship classes could then spend full time practising to beat the examiner. It was, after all, a contest between examiner and teacher and had little to do with developing learning habits.

For any form of human activity, the more one practises, the better one gets and, since blanket-tests can only deal with lower cognitive skills, as much time as possible was spent on the examination essentials. Few primary pupils ever learned to play a musical instrument, for instance, even in their own time. If they did, they were asked to desist from wasting their after-school time with such pursuits. The author’s non-government school demanded attendance on Saturday mornings. This was when the set novel was dissected and probable answers practised. He knew of a one-teacher school whose two candidates spent each Sunday in school while the teacher and parents played tennis. Cards of sums were handy for this kind of activity. There was a variety of such ways to beat the system and any way was considered fair in such a demanding contest.

The teaching techniques were generally described as ‘bang, crash, and wallop’ strategies with plenty of practice, practice, practice.

The schools day was generally divided into three parts. The time table was simple. The morning activities centred on Mathematics, the middle section on Geography and History and the afternoon on English grammar. When Geography and History combined to be called Social Studies [referred to by Professor Schonell as “…the hybrid outcome of an unhappy marriage between Geography and History”], it occupied the same time allocation. There were variations from time to time.

The scholarship examination itself was usually conducted in a central location in each town or suburb, starting on Tuesday of the week preceding Christmas Day. The schools were available because all other classes had finished on the previous Friday.

English Test

This test lasted 2½ hours on the Tuesday morning. The first item was the construction of a Composition, as it was called, of about forty lines. Candidates chose one from a list of six. Most classes learned to write five paragraphs, each of eight lines. The week-end essays during the year tried to ‘tip’ something from the six topics offered. A publication called ‘The Student”, published by McLeod’s which each child bought for sixpence had some hints of possible essays and the publication of its dummy examination papers made excellent week-end homework.

A monthly English Sheet from McDonald & Rosbrook’s, Toowoomba that pupils purchased for one penny, was also a useful work sheet for homework and afternoon exercises.

The author’s teacher gambled on an autobiography for this test. He made up one about an umbrella and the class learned it by heart with encouragement to add personal variations. There was no autobiography listed that year. Tough cookie. The author tried it himself with his scholarship class some years later and it worked. Yippee! Beat those sadists down in Brisbane.

Another trick was to have pupils write an essay on about five teacher-chosen subjects arranged in the usual five paragraphs, give a title or short description to each paragraph and learn the lists for each topic off by heart prior to the examination. It eased the tension to have some pegs upon which to hang the story.

The analysis and parsing question assumed an importance far beyond the level of damage that it did to the appreciation for the beauty of arranging a sentence. It occupied a great part of each afternoon of the school year. There were so many variations for sentences that had to be emasculated and analysed. For parsing the innards of a word, there were so many words that could be placed in a variety of places in a sentence that the recognition of the part of speech was quite difficult. Examiners could also be very tricky people. Try “I saw him take aim carefully.”

In the English paper were usually some questions of Syntax, some corrections of sentences [that most sports commentators today would fail], a punctuation test, a Latin and Greek Roots exercise, some questions on the School Reader and on the novel. The test paper covered a wide range.

It was a busy 2½ hours and the year’s practice, practice, practice helped some youngsters to survive. It did not help pupils to develop a love for the language nor encourage its proper use in written or oral form.


This 1½ hour long test on Tuesday, following a two hour break was a similar kind of contest. Picking the map was the essence of the year’s contest with the examiner. The first and most important question on the paper demanded the drawing of a free-hand map “…as large as a sheet of foolscap will allow and be reasonably accurate in shape.” The map was customarily one of the British Commonwealth countries: British Isles, Canada, India, South Africa, New Zealand or one of the Australian states. No other countries were studied during the scholarship years. Free-hand drawing skills were a bonus.

Since Ascot State School was replete with expert ‘scholarship teachers’ its November trial examination was highly regarded for tipping purposes; and it was also thought that someone there might have some ‘inside’ knowledge. Whatever map it chose was soon known throughout the state and it received panic attention in the few days before the big contest.

Mathematics Test

Back to the examination centre on Wednesday with one’s own pen and ink or fountain pen for another 2½ hour contest, this contest could provoke no forms of tipping. It was a straight-out grind and it depended solely on how much practice had been undertaken before-hand. The early sections of the test presented some convoluted calculations involving vulgar and decimal fractions, measurement of length, area and money. There was always a bill in the introductory question, so the number of cards of sums that one finished through the year helped. Each card ended with a complicated bill.

The exam moved into some detailed problem sums, then mensuration, a bit of algebra and geometry. Very, very little ever applied to real life activities…not even the bill. Each question was a riddle of some sort. Try to solve this simple equation 5x-4=2x+17 for yourself. What purpose?

History Test

This test usually started at 1.30 on the Wednesday afternoon. It was divided into two parts: Australian History and British History. Some candidates only contested the Australian History section and their papers were collected at 2.30 p.m. The rest spent the remaining hour dealing with questions about bills and statutes, moots and witans and model parliaments and other fascinating accounts of mother England’s story.

Those who did not have to contest the British History section were those country pupils who attended for one day each week the Manual Arts and Domestic Science sections of nearby Rural Schools [primary schools with these facilities], or schools in the local town with secondary departments. One is not sure what message this state of affairs conveyed. Was British History of such little importance that it could be completely ignored? Did schools that retained their scholarship pupils for the full day hold an advantage over the country pupil, for they spent an extra day on the important examinable subjects?

Demise & Reflection

The Scholarship Examination disappeared in 1962. It only measured some narrow curriculum items in one hit at the end of schooling. Its narrowness was destructive, as blanket tests are.

Keen on providing universal secondary education for all, the Minister for Education, later Premier Jack Pizzey, who boasted that he had failed Scholarship on his first attempt, wrote it off.

Its existence though provides hints on how to handle the forthcoming blanket test program highlighted during 2008, an outcome of the Rudd-Gillard-Nelson nostrum. Schools will have to make judicious choices as to how the school day is spent. The school system is changing. LOTE, talented and gifted programs, inter-school sport on week-days, multi-cultural education, outdoor education, excursions, agricultural projects, perhaps music, especially instrumental music, and art will have to disappear or be put on the back burner of importance in child development as will those million bits imposed from elsewhere such as road-safety, stranger danger, drug education, health issues and so on….which only state schools are obliged to teach. Time spent on testable items is of enormous importance for each school and its operators. It cannot be wasted on the inconsequential, previously called ‘airy-fairy’ subjects.

Learnacy has little part in a third-party sciolist-controlled testing regime. It’s got to be practice, practice, practice.

These imposed tests, morally indefensible and superficial, are too important these days to be taken lightly. The efficacy hawks have struck. Politically driven, they thoroughly kitschify the processes of schooling. It’s a new model of schooling. In kitsch terms, they create an avant-garde schooling masterpiece using a perceived cause to exert political muscle without expert consideration. The Harry Callahan symbol of the gun at the head portrays the revolution; and lunacy overtakes learnacy.