Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Frank Tate (1864–1939)

by R. J. W. Selleck

This article was published:

Frank Tate (1864-1939), educationist, was born on 18 June 1864 at Mopoke Gully, near Castlemaine, Victoria, son of Aristides Franklin (usually called Henry) Tate and his wife Mary Bessy, née Lomas, both English born. For nine years after Frank's birth Henry Tate moved his family around goldfields in the Castlemaine area. In his best days he established and managed mining companies and helped to found the Castlemaine Mining and Stock Exchange; in less successful days he kept a shop at Fryerstown. His failure to make a fortune left his son with an abiding concern for financial security. In 1873 Henry moved to Melbourne where his family continued to live while he returned—intermittently and usually unsuccessfully—to the mining districts.

Frank spent most of his school-days at the Old Model School, Spring Street, Melbourne, where he was influenced by the independence and intellectual power of its headmaster Patrick Whyte. Having completed his elementary schooling, Tate enrolled in 1877 as a pupil-teacher at the school; ironically for one who was to become a brilliant teacher, he twice failed the annual examination in the art of teaching. The gruelling four-year schedule of a pupil-teacher did not kill his enthusiasm: unlike nearly all of his contemporaries, he enrolled for a further two-year course at the Training Institution which brought him into contact with stimulating members of staff such as the brave and eccentric intellectual, John Robertson, and the superintendent Frederick Gladman.

Contemporaries remembered Tate as a tall young man with dark curly hair, a powerful and attractive personality, marked skill as a raconteur, an agile wit, a passion for literature and an overwhelming determination to succeed. He began his teaching career in 1884 at Panton Hill State School, having completed at the Training Institution a course which the Australasian Schoolmaster described as being of 'an exceptional brilliancy'. Although a successful teacher, he grew more critical of the narrow curriculum offered in state schools, their stern and sometimes brutal discipline, and the pupil-teacher system which produced defectively educated drudges trained to follow the ways of their elders. Above all, he attacked the system of payment by results which reduced education to a self-protective grind and undermined such professional pride as had survived the rigidities of pupil-teacherdom.

Advancing rapidly through the teaching ranks at schools on the outskirts of Melbourne at Koonung Koonung and Box Hill, Tate showed that he was adept at satisfying the demands of the payment by results system. Nevertheless, he grew impatient with the Education Department's bureaucracy and with the niggardly attitudes of governments towards teachers' salaries. With Gladman's former trainees, such as Charles Long, he helped to found the State Schools Teachers' Union of Victoria which struggled, often ineffectually, to improve the lot of teachers. Tate's anger did not restrict his ambition; in 1885 he began part-time study at the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1888; M.A., 1894), becoming one of the first pupil-teachers to complete a tertiary qualification and confirming his promise as a rising young man in the Education Department.

On 2 October 1888 at Christ Church, South Yarra, Tate married with Anglican rites a former pupil, Ada Victoria Hodgkiss. That month he was appointed to the Central Training Institution (by then known as the Training College). Tate was a stimulating lecturer; he spoke publicly on educational issues, joined the Shakespeare Society and—displaying his own intellectual interests and a wish to improve his fellow teachers—established in 1892 the State School Teachers' Literary Society. In 1893, as part of savage retrenchment measures forced by the depression, the college was closed and he was placed in charge of pupil-teacher classes. Disillusioned, in 1894 he applied unsuccessfully for the chief inspectorship of the Auckland Education Board.

In 1895, after some unexpected reshuffling in the Education Department, Tate was appointed inspector at Charlton. From there he administered a district which contained 136 schools and spread over 5400 sq. miles (13,986 km²) mainly in the Mallee of north-western Victoria. While a professional triumph in such lean times, the appointment entailed personal sacrifice: Tate was often away from Charlton for six weeks at a time as he toured his domain, and was separated for much longer periods from his wife and two young children who had remained in Melbourne.

Performing his inspectorial tasks efficiently, Tate was not content to be a routine inspector and embarked on a personal crusade to revive Victorian state education. He sped through his huge district, winning the loyalty of teachers by his gift for humour, anecdote and epigram, and by his seemingly inexhaustible flow of quotations from English literature, especially Shakespeare. He offered them a vision of a liberal curriculum, imaginative and realistic methods, and a gentler and more constructive discipline; he introduced them to the ideas of the 'new education', a loosely organized reform movement which was gaining popularity in Britain. He showed teachers, as they toiled for meagre salaries in century heat in their tin-roofed schools, that their task, although grossly undervalued by society, was one of importance and dignity. Through them, state-school children, previously offered a narrow and unappealing fare dominated by the three Rs taught rigidly and by rote, could be introduced to the richness and variety of a great culture. As for many of his generation that culture was best exemplified by English literature and history.

Seeking an audience beyond the Mallee through his published annual reports, through public addresses given under the auspices of the Literary Society and the Teachers' Union, and through letters to the Age, Tate attacked the administration of state education. He expressed indignation at its neglect of the country schoolteachers, at the closing of the Training College, at the failure of administrators to keep up with overseas developments, at the block to teacher promotion which followed from the retrenchment measures, and at payment by results. He spoke at considerable risk to himself. At least one of his reports was amended—he accepted the amendment and restated his criticism the following year—as his outspokenness made his superior officers suspicious. His, however, was the voice of the future.

When criticism of government education by Alfred Deakin was supported by the Age, the minister for public instruction (Sir) Alexander Peacock appointed a royal commission on technical education (1899-1901) under the chairmanship of Theodore Fink. He boldly turned the inquiry into an analysis of Victorian state education and produced a series of reports which exposed previous governments and provided a programme for reform. Tate gave impressive evidence to the Fink commission and, by contrast with some senior departmental officials whom Fink attacked mercilessly for conservatism and incompetence, appeared as an exciting reformer. As a result of pressure from the commission, the Melbourne Training College was re-opened in February 1900 and Tate was appointed principal. He held this position for only a short time, but made a striking impression. The Fink commission, wishing to overcome a crippling division of authority in the Education Department, had recommended that its permanent head (to be called the director of education) should have a professional knowledge of education and be given undisputed control. Tate began his duties as director on 26 February 1902.

In the following years Tate pursued vigorous reforms which drew on the recommendations of the Fink commission. He abolished payment by results and modified the pupil-teacher system. In 1902 he introduced a new course of study, much of which he wrote himself, embodying the educational ideas he had espoused at Charlton, and he mounted a campaign to explain those ideas to teachers and the public. From both came the cry that the basics were being neglected for 'fads' and 'frills'. Detecting in this response an attempt to bestow a spurious intellectual value upon the rigidities of the past, Tate pushed ahead with his plans.

Using his membership (1903-39) of the council of the University of Melbourne, as well as the university's dependence on government when a fraud left it financially crippled, Tate forced through the introduction of a diploma of education in 1903 and thus prepared the ground for the better educated teacher about whom he had often spoken. In 1905 he persuaded the government to introduce a Teachers and Schools Registration Act which gave government its first vestige of control over private schools. In 1911—in accordance with a Fink commission recommendation—the Council of Public Education was established, but, as Tate appointed himself chairman, it never fulfilled the role of independent critic which Fink, and Tate in earlier statements, had intended. In 1913, after protracted negotiations with the university, Tate helped to establish a Schools Board which secured increased influence for government schools.

In the first decade of his directorship the introduction of state high schools provided Tate with his greatest challenge. Governments were unwilling to incur additional expense; some church groups were dubious about extending secular education beyond the elementary school; and the private schools, recognizing the threat to their own livelihood, fought bitterly against Tate's plans. When legislation failed, Tate resorted to subterfuge and in 1905, at his persuasion, the Bent government established the Melbourne Continuation School which he defended as a means of providing an improved education for students intending to be teachers. In fact it immediately placed itself in competition with the private secondary schools, offering the same or a wider range of subjects and publicizing its matriculation results with similar pride. Defenders of the private schools like W. H. Fitchett denounced this state intrusion into education as 'simply Socialism', arguing that scholarships could provide for the bright child of poor parents. Tate gradually developed the argument that the state should enter secondary education to ensure that it was equally available to all children.

In 1907 Tate went abroad and next year produced his Preliminary Report of the Director of Education Upon Observations Made During an Official Visit to Europe and America. Departing from the convention of a neutral civil servant, Tate used the report to argue a passionate case for state secondary schooling, basing his claim on the educational benefits it conferred on individuals and on Australia's need for a skilled and educated workforce if it were to become a modern industrial democracy. In 1909 Tate persuaded the government to introduce a bill which allowed the open establishment of state high schools. It was redrafted and eventually passed as the 1910 Education Act. By late 1914 Tate presided over forty-three state schools, offering either a complete or a partial secondary education.

He paid a price for his invocation of the needs of industry when it became obvious that students from the new high schools preferred professional employment to industrial and technical occupations. He conceded the need for junior technical schools to cater for children who had finished elementary (or, as it was increasingly called, primary) school but who were too young to enter the technical colleges. There thus developed a dual system of post-primary education. An advocate of liberal education for all students, Tate was ensnared in a web of his own weaving: having invoked economic needs in support of his plans for state high schools, he could not disregard them when they took him in a direction he had not envisaged.

In 1914 Tate's expansionary plans were curtailed. He flung himself into the war effort, using the departmental machine to assist patriotic causes. The Education Department's School Paper brought news of the war into every classroom, state school children raised large sums of money and honour rolls began to record their frightening message. Although aggressively Australian when faced with English condescension, Tate was convinced of the rightness of the Imperial cause and regarded Daniel Mannix's campaign against conscription with horror and anger.

After the war Tate strove to expand the State's secondary schools, making some improvements in teacher education and fighting a series of political battles with governments bent on economy. In the last years of his directorship Victoria stumbled towards another depression. If no longer at the forefront of educational thinking, he kept in touch with modern ideas and encouraged the efforts of younger colleagues. His political toughness, administrative shrewdness, personal charm and wit, and his longevity—during his directorship he served sixteen ministries and nineteen ministers—won him respect in Australian educational circles.

He also earned a reputation overseas. His eloquence, experience and intense commitment to education made him a leading figure at Imperial Education conferences in London in 1923 and 1927, and he was invited to conduct commissions of inquiry in New Zealand in 1925, Fiji in 1926 and Southern Rhodesia in 1929. For so ardent a servant of Empire, this was sweet recognition. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1919 and a chevalier of the Légion d'honneur in 1927.

Tate retired as director in 1928. His wife, to whom he was deeply devoted, died in 1932 and three of their six children predeceased him. Throughout these personal griefs Tate continued to work for educational causes. He played an important part in the establishment of the Australian Council for Educational Research (president, 1930-39), attracting money from the Carnegie Foundation and using his persuasive abilities and reputation as the elder statesman of Australian education to overcome the interstate jealousies which surrounded this venture. Again with the assistance of Carnegie money, he created the opportunity for Ralph Munn, director of the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, and Ernest Pitt to produce their influential report, Australian Libraries (1935). He added to these activities an extraordinary amount of voluntary work for social, artistic and cultural causes. Tate died at Caulfield on 28 June 1939 and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £5582. A portrait by W. B. McInnes is held by the University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • J. O. Anchen, Frank Tate and His Work for Education (Melb, 1956)
  • R. J. W. Selleck, Frank Tate (Melb, 1982)
  • Tate papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

R. J. W. Selleck, 'Tate, Frank (1864–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 June, 1864
Castlemaine, Victoria, Australia


28 June, 1939 (aged 75)
Caulfield, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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