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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McRae, James (1871–1939)

by Andrew Spaull

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

James McRae (1871-1939), educationist, was born on 19 November 1871 at Ascot, Victoria, tenth child of Scottish parents Christopher McRae, farmer, and his wife Mary Ann, née McDonald. He attended the local state school and Creswick Grammar School, matriculating in 1888. That year he joined the Education Department as pupil-teacher at Coghills Creek State School and subsequently taught in other rural schools. At the Presbyterian Church, Avoca, on 5 May 1898 he married Margaret Louisa Tuck.

Although at Coghills Creek he had been poorly rated by the local inspector, 'Jock' McRae proved a capable teacher with real affection for his work and pupils. Later inspectors' reports described him as 'a schoolmaster of striking merit' who did 'full justice … to every pupil'. In 1904 while at Glenpatrick he was selected as one of twenty outstanding rural teachers to attend evening classes at the University of Melbourne. He graduated B.A. in 1907 and M.A. in 1909, sharing the 1908 exhibition in logic and philosophy. At the Teachers' Training College, where he had obtained his diploma of education in 1906, he was impressed by J. Smyth's emphasis on the educational virtues of the small school and on the child as the centre of the learning process. He also formed a friendship with Frank Tate whose children were McRae's pupils at Kew East Rural Practising School.

In 1908 McRae was appointed master of method at the Training College and in 1909 second lecturer. He was a brilliant exponent of classroom practice and teacher of philosophy and experimental education and proved, in 1913-22, a loyal and effective vice-principal. A district inspector from 1910, he was appointed chief inspector of primary schools in 1922 and chief inspector in 1925.

McRae had pioneered school correspondence lessons in 1914; in 1922-32 he initiated vocational guidance programmes, junior farmers' clubs and the platoon classroom system (on a limited basis) and helped to establish special classes for backward children. He also encouraged W. J. Elijah to publish Principles and Methods of Teaching (1924), the 'teachers' bible' for the next twenty-five years. McRae gleaned many of his ideas as Education Department travelling scholar in 1926. His report reveals keen observation of British and North American practices; but his loyalty to the basic Victorian education system remained firm, an attitude well demonstrated by his rejection of the North American vogue for small-school consolidation. His views unfortunately helped to maintain another two decades of poorly trained teachers and teacher shortages in city schools.

In 1932 McRae became acting-director and then director of education, succeeding M. P. Hansen. He provided his department with much-needed stability, healing the rifts between the department and ministry and between those authorities and the teachers. He publicly supported the teachers' union claims for salary restoration and a tribunal, but could make little headway against government Depression policies. Conscious of his own first teaching days, he fought a brave, losing battle to reconcile school inspector and teacher. Having helped to prepare the 1911 and 1922 primary school curriculum revisions, he presided over the introduction of its major revision in 1934, only to see it flounder because of lack of funds and misunderstanding of its progressive intentions. He retired, disappointed with his efforts, in 1936.

A tall, gaunt man with trim moustache and piercing eyes, McRae had a biting wit which found occasional expression in official publications. Always a hard worker, enthusiastic and idealistic, he reserved his greatest passions for his demonstration of classroom techniques, his support of Carlton football team, and for gardening. Widowed in 1926, he married a divorcee, Mabel Irma Donald, née Williams, former acting secretary of the Victorian Teachers' Union, on 31 March 1934.

McRae died in Melbourne of cancer on 13 June 1939 and was cremated. His wife and his son and three daughters of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. D. Spaull, ‘John Smyth, principal Melbourne Teachers College 1902-1927’, C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, vol 3 (Syd, 1983)
  • Education Department (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • R. J. W. Selleck, Frank Tate (Melb, 1982)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 27 Nov 1934, 16 Feb 1935, 19, 28 Nov 1936, 13 June 1939
  • James McRae Career Outline (compiled by Education History Services, Education Department of Victoria, Melbourne).

Citation details

Andrew Spaull, 'McRae, James (1871–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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