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William Taylor McCoy (1866–1929)

by B. K. Hyams

This article was published:

William Taylor McCoy (1866-1929), by Frank A. McNeill

William Taylor McCoy (1866-1929), by Frank A. McNeill

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 3911

William Taylor McCoy (1866-1929), educationist, was born on 13 October 1866 in Sydney, son of James Smith McCoy, bootmaker and prominent Methodist, and his wife Eliza, née Wilson, a schoolteacher. William was educated at Cleveland Street Public School and in 1881 began as a pupil-teacher at Ultimo Public School. He attended Fort Street Training School for a year in 1885; several brief appointments followed. Teaching at Redfern in 1890-93, he also studied at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1894). He married Rachel Armstrong, a teacher, on 27 December 1894 with Presbyterian forms. McCoy was head teacher in schools at Glen Innes, Armidale and Burwood and in 1905 became inspector for the Lismore district of 120 schools.

During McCoy's career as inspector his most noted contributions concerned in-service work for teachers and a drive to gain more parental and public interest in schools' activities. Both were part of a campaign to advance the reformist 'New Education' cause, associated with the director of education Peter Board. When controversy forced W. L. Neale to resign as Tasmania's director of education in 1909, McCoy replaced him next year.

Neale had laid the foundations of administrative reorganization and curricular innovation, but there was still much to do. Tasmanian public education fell short of that on the mainland, especially in the infant and post-primary sectors, facilities for remote areas, and teacher training. McCoy's challenge was to improve the system while placating the community and teaching service. Early salary increases and a system of classification to regularize promotion made teachers receptive to other sweeping changes. McCoy convened and addressed meetings of teachers throughout the State, explaining his changes to the regulations and primary school syllabus. He accompanied the 1910 revised syllabus with copious notes of advice. Both the method and the substance of such innovation owed much to Board's example. There was an adherence to the psychological concept of transfer of training; and an emphasis on morality, respect for property and social stability, and national pride. McCoy's pedagogic reforms did not reflect deep theoretical knowledge or originality, but he implemented others' ideas effectively. His skill in mobilizing the inspectorate as a means of curricular change was crucial. This showed in his new policy of recruiting inspectors on grounds of intellect and personality rather than seniority, and in his use of inspectors more as diagnosticians and less as assessors.

A notable achievement was the establishment of post-primary education. Persuading the University of Tasmania to relax the subject requirements of the junior public examination, he encouraged larger primary schools to develop 'super-primary' classes. The first two state high schools were opened in 1913 in Hobart and Launceston; intermediate high schools followed at West Devonport and Burnie in 1915 and a new system of bursaries helped country children seeking secondary schooling. McCoy also directed attention to educational goals for working-class children. The Tasmanian government was planning hydro-electric expansion and growth of electrolytic zinc works and advocated technical education for these purposes. But the form it took grew from McCoy's ideas: technical education was brought under the Education Department and in 1918 a system of junior technical schools was introduced.

Teacher training was transformed. In his professionalization of the teaching service McCoy was assisted by the establishment in 1911 of the Philip Smith Training College near the university. The state secondary schools enabled the teachers' college to shift from completing a secondary education to the professional preparation of standard recruits; for those recruits for small schools who had customarily by-passed the college, a short intensive training course was established at East Launceston School in 1913. By 1919 public education in Tasmania resembled the centralized systems on the mainland.

In October 1919 McCoy became director of education in South Australia, where morale was low and a sense of educational stagnation was reflected in the press. Initially he impressed teachers by a reclassification scheme that removed major promotion barriers, a liberalization of the inspectorial system and an increase in salaries. He reformed the primary school syllabus in 1920 with an emphasis on social-moral goals and an increased dose of patriotism. In 1921 he supported a bill to introduce religious instruction into state schools, but it was opposed in parliament and by teachers; on its defeat, and during later attempts to revive the issue in the 1920s, McCoy was silent.

The changes most clearly associated with McCoy in South Australia related to vocational and teacher education. In 1925 he introduced central schools, primary school annexes offering post-primary courses in commercial, junior technical and homemaking work. Faced with conflicting assessments of the venture, McCoy defended it as a suitable compromise between the technical school's vocationalism and the academic emphasis of the high school. In teacher education a scheme introduced in 1920 raised entry qualifications and attacked the old notion of apprenticeship by insisting that training be completed before the commencement of teaching.

McCoy's decisions on innovations (such as Montessori's experiments in infant education, the use of radio in schools or specialist guidance for school leavers) were cautious rather than radical. But once convinced, his implementation of reforms demonstrated energy and tact. He produced two centralized, smooth-running school systems between 1910 and 1929. He made a mark with ideas and discussion at the Imperial Education conferences in London in 1923 and 1927, but his contribution had been mainly within Australia. McCoy died suddenly of hypertensive cerebro-vascular disease in Adelaide on 12 August 1929 and was buried in North Road cemetery; his wife, daughter and son survived him. He was remembered for his idealism, efficiency and justice; the president of the Public Teachers' Union said 'union and teachers had lost the best friend they ever had'.

Select Bibliography

  • B. K. Hyams, ‘W. T. McCoy, Director of Education, Tasmania, 1910-19
  • South Australia 1919-29’, in C. Turney (ed), Pioneers of Australian Education, 3 (Syd, 1983)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 13 Aug 1929
  • D. V. Selth, The Effect of Poverty and Politics on the Development of Tasmanian State Education, 1910-1950 (M.A. thesis, University of Tasmania, 1969)
  • W. G. Richards, W. T. McCoy and His Directorship of Education in South Australia 1919-1929 (M.Ed. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1973).

Citation details

B. K. Hyams, 'McCoy, William Taylor (1866–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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