A Century of Traditional Schooling. With More to Come

Mal Lee

Around 1920 the model of schooling we’ve known all our lives was standardised across the developed world.

A century later the structure of the model remains the same, with no hint it is about to change.

If anything, the permanence of what Tyack and Cuban (1995) aptly called ‘the grammar of schooling’ has solidified

Most schools in the future, on present trends, will be structurally the same as todays.

The model is so strongly woven into the fabric of most nations and economies it is likely the structure can never be fundamentally changed.

A 100 plus years of vast investment of thought and effort globally in school change has brought only the most minor of sustained variations. The major dents made, particularly in the 1960’s and 1970’s, have been largely been rectified, with the traditional model used worldwide.

Even a global pandemic, that obliged schooling for the first time in human history to abandon its traditional physical site-based operations, and to work digitally has been unable to change those structures.

Indeed, it has re-affirmed their global importance, and nation’s dependence on its young being physically within schools most days of the year.

What however Covid-19, and the experience online did reveal was how easy it was to use the 1920 structures to provide an apt contemporary education for all, in a rapidly evolving digital and socially networked world. 

While the structures will remain constant the digital enables the teaching therein to readily change. That is if schools recognise the benefits of the asynchronous learning and don’t revert to only in-class teaching.

Standardising the model

By around 1920 the standard form of today’s schooling was in place.

While the model had been existent for years it took until the 20’s to standardise the approach.

The political skirmishes of the previous 50 odd years, the recognition of the need to better educate the young, the growing influence of a burgeoning middle class, the lessons of the Great War and the concerted efforts by a body of ‘educational experts’ combined to see developed nations like the USA, England, Scotland, Australia and Canada adopt a remarkably similar model of schooling (Campbell and Proctor, 2014) (Curtis and Boultwood, 1962), (McClure, 1971) (Tyack and Cuban, 1995). 

The ‘education experts’ within the new education bureaucracies, aided by the new university education faculties took charge of the schooling, deciding the mission, the structure of the schools, their location, organisation, curriculum, testing regime, staffing and operations.

They also took charge of teacher training.

The community, parents and invariably the church, were eased out of the decision making.

The schools they created are those you know well.

The students attended a physical place called school, at set times, within state determined term dates, with the students organised into age cohorts and taught in class groups, by a solitary teacher.

They moved in a lock step manner through their years at school, all taught using a common curriculum prepared by the experts, all assessed by paper-based exams, with all the major exams externally set.

The focus was strongly academic. Success equated with academic performance.

They were schools where the socially economically advantaged families of the society were further advantaged, and the marginalised, the labourers, indigenous, coloureds and migrants further disadvantaged. 

Core to the model was the sorting and sifting of the students, the schools charged with identifying the perceived future leaders while winnowing out the lower quality and non-compliant. 

The nature of the school buildings, with their corridors of teaching rooms, was much the same as today. Indeed, likely most schools of the 1920s remain in use today. Think of the schools in the older parts of the cities and country towns, and how many were built around the 1920s or earlier.

Structurally the schools were linear, strongly hierarchical organisations, that drew heavily upon Industrial Age manufacturing thinking and processes. The high/secondary schools particularly were segmented, loosely coupled (Weick, 1976), with a strong division of labour, where the subject teachers taught their speciality to students moving along the ‘production line’.

The principal was all powerful, using ‘his’ position and the hierarchy to unilaterally control every facet of the school’s operation. 

Throughout the 20’s and 30s the burgeoning university education faculties and bodies like the National Education Association (NEA) used their expertise internationally to assist the emerging education bureaucracies refine the model.

Simultaneously local, provincial and national governments and education authorities codified and entrenched the model. Legislation was passed, regulations put in place, operational manuals prepared, working conditions determined, pay rates struck, the curriculum mandated, teachers’ colleges opened, and school inspection and accountability arrangements implemented.

It bears remembering that until the 1950’s only the socio-economically advantaged young, most of whom were boys, completed high school and went to university. Most left school to work before 15.  


The post Second World War years placed immense pressure on the model, but by the 70’s, fifty plus years on from the standardisation, it was apparent it had become so embedded that it would remain the norm for many more years.

The rise in births and social aspirations after the War, saw a surge globally in school building, teacher numbers and the imperative of schools educating an ever wider cross section of society.

Russia’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 sent shock waves through Western education, seriously challenging its ability to provide a schooling superior to the USSR. 

When combined with the imperative of better catering for a wider socio-economic profile schooling globally was obliged to examine closely the effectiveness of the standard model, and to test alternative structures.

Most were eventually found wanting, with the standard model being accepted as part of modern life, even with its recognised shortcomings.

Joyce writing in the then highly prestigious 1971 National Society for the Study of Education (NSSE) Handbook observed:

…It is not entirely outlandish to compare the giant education bureaucracy with the postal system except that instead of taking mail from one place to another, it receives people when they are children and delivers when they are young adults into the adult economic family, and the social and political systems. As in the case of the postal system things are delivered much as they are mailed (Joyce, 1971, p308).

In education, it is the characteristics of the children and parents that account for most of the character of the delivered product (Joyce, 1971, p308).

The children will be more, when they leave school, of what they were when they came to it (Joyce, 1971, p344).

A quarter of a century later, 75 years on from the standardising of the school model Tyack and Cuban (1995) noted the continued use of the core structures:

The basic grammar of schooling, like the shape of classrooms, has remained remarkably stable over the decades. Little has changed in the ways schools divide time and space, classify students and allocate them to classrooms, splinter knowledge into ‘subjects’ and award grades and ‘credits’ as evidence of learning (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p85).

Indeed, the grammar of schooling had been accepted by societies globally to be what schools are (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p85).

……Established institutional forms come to be understood by educators, student and the public as necessary features of ‘real’ school. They become fixed in place by everyday custom in schools and by outside forces, by legal mandates and cultural beliefs, until they are barely noticed. They become just the way schools are (Tyack and Cuban, 1995, p86).

In 2020 the century old core school structures remain the norm.

In 2019 its graduating group was still assessed, 100 years on by external hand-written exams.

Despite being stress tested in manner like never before by the Covid 19 pandemic the grammar of schooling remains as strong as ever, with societies worldwide better understanding the strength of the standard model’s structures, but also more aware of the opportunities within those structures to better educate all children 24/7/365 in and for a digital and socially connected world.

The Strengths

The great and enduring strengths of the traditional model relate in the main to its facility to simultaneously develop and care for most of the nation’s young in a secure, safe physical site, for much of the year. 

It frees young parents to work, to make a significant contribution to the national productively, while also providing families the monies to live the desired life.

The national importance of the latter was highlighted during the 2020 pandemic, with economies worldwide obliged to operate largely in a holding pattern until the physical places called schools could re-open.

Importantly the model performs that role relatively efficiently, combining as it does educational development, care, social growth and increasingly personal well-being.

The related strength is that the model gives society what it expects of schools. It is a politically and socially acceptable model.

Importantly, as evidenced by the changes over time, and during the pandemic, while the structures might not change what occurs within them can, in often significant ways.


The digital allows teaching to readily transcend the physical site called school, and to be networked, without having to vary the school structures or plant.

The digital enables schools to significantly change their shaping vision, learning environment, culture, staffing, modus operandi, relationship with their community, resourcing and to abandon their insularity without changing the standard model, building new schools or needing to tackle the mass of legislative, legal, cultural and historical constraints inhibiting structural change.

When obliged in early 2020 to go digital most schools in retrospect handled the crisis remarkably well.

Revealingly few watching the world’s young readily use their home digital ecosystem made any comment. It had become the new normal.

A new normal that couldn’t have occurred a decade ago, when in early 2010 there were no iPads, Chromebooks, Zoom, Android apps store, little national broadband connectivity and very few primary age students having normalised the use of the digital. 


In 2020, as the Covid 19 pandemic affirmed schooling is well placed to move to a digital operational mode, but it will have to do within the existing century old school structures.

  • Campbell, C and Proctor, H (2014) A History of Australian Schooling.Sydney. Allen and Unwin
  • Curtis, S.J and Boultwood, M.E.A (1962)An Introductory History of English Education Since 1800.London. University Tutorial Press
  • Joyce, B.R (1971) ‘The Curriculum Worker of the Future’. In McClure, R.M (1971) The Curriculum: Retrospect and Prospect.The Seventieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago. University of Chicago Press 1971.
  • McClure, R.M (1971) The Curriculum: Retrospect and Prospect.The Seventieth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago. University of Chicago Press 1971.
  • Tyack, D and Cuban, L (1995). Tinkering Toward Utopia. Cambridge. Massachusetts. Harvard University Press.
  • Weick, K (1976) ‘Educational organisations as loosely coupled systems’. Administrative Science Quarterly21 1976