School records guide

An overview of education in New South Wales 1788-c.1979 and a list of the main record series

building plan from the Broken Hill Public School file

Schools: what the files can tell you

School files very strongly reflect the growth or decline of towns and are an excellent source for your local history research

Page from Crooybar school file

Search the index 1876-1979

30,000+ entries include administrative files & records such as admission registers, punishment books & inspection books

A group of teachers in training pose for a photo

School teachers guide

Records that relate to teacher employment in the Government sector between 1788 and 1979


The earliest government assisted schools in the colony were established to provide literacy skills, religious instruction and domestic or industrial training for destitute children and those whose parents could not afford to provide them with a basic education.

Orphan Schools

The Female Orphan School was established in Sydney in 1801 under Governor King and the Male Orphan School in 1819 under Governor Macquarie.

Church Schools

Government involvement in education was primarily concerned with the provision of funding for church schools. The establishment of the Clergy and Schools Lands Corporation in 1826 reinforced this link between government and church. Salaries of schoolmasters were drawn from the proceeds of land controlled by this corporation.

Records covering 1788-1848

Colonial Secretary

NRS 1286
[Fiche 446-613] 
Colonial Secretary: Returns of the Colony Listed under Education, the returns cover both Sydney and country schools.See the item list »
Surviving correspondence concerning schools can be be found in the Index to Colonial Secretary's Papers under the headings: Schools and Education.

Surveyor General

Crown PlansMany plans for the sites of early schools c.1831-1853 are listed under the headings Church Lands and Church and School Estate. The Select List and Supplement of the Crown plans are also available in the reading room.Search the online index » 

Clergy and School Lands Corporation

Letters received from clergymen, catechists and schoolmastersThis series of correspondence covers a broad variety of subjects concerning the day to day running of the early government assisted church administered schools.


Between 1848-1866, education in New South Wales came under the joint control of the Board of National Education and the Denominational School Board.

The Board of National Education was responsible for:

  • the establishment of the public school system
  • appointing teachers
  • teacher training and classification, and
  • the setting up of model schools

The Denominational School Board was responsible for the distribution of government subsidies to church schools.

Records covering 1848-1866

Board of National Education

NRS 613 (Reels 4001-4038)
Miscellaneous Letters Received This series includes correspondence concerning the establishment of government schools, the provision of teachers etc.
Letters and Blank cover Memoranda received by the Secretary from the Chief InspectorThese letters and memoranda are arranged chronologically with indexes at the front of the volumes.
Blank cover memoranda received by the Secretary from District InspectorsThese memoranda are largely concerned with inspectors' reports as to the suitability of land for school sites.
Fair Minute Books,1848-58, 1863-66Indexes to these minute books are available at NRS 638.
1848-1858, 1863-1866

Denominational School Board

Inspectors' ReportsThese reports are of inspections of Roman Catholic primary and high schools and Church of England primary schools.
Minute BooksThese minute books contain minutes of weekly and special meetings of the Denominational School Board.


The Council of Education was established under An Act to make better provision for Public Education, 1866 (30 Victoria, Act No. 22) to assume responsibility for the centralised administration of government schools in New South Wales. Both provisional schools and half-time schools were created under the Council of Education. School sites, buildings and furniture for these schools were provided by the parents of enrolled pupils.

The Council of Education controlled:

  • expenditure and government grants
  • the establishment and maintenance of public schools
  • the appointment, training and examination of teachers.

Teacher training was conducted at the Model School, Fort Street and a grading system for the certification of teachers was introduced.

Records covering 1866-1880

Council of Education

Miscellaneous letters receivedThis correspondence is arranged alphabetically by name of school. Reels 1784-1796, 1798, 1802-1803, 1844-1850See the item list »
Copies of letters sentThese are arranged chronologically and include letters and memoranda sent to teachers.See the item list »
Letters and memoranda received from InspectorsThe arrangement of this series is alphabetical by district and then chronological. Reels 1798-1799
Abstracts of quarterly and annual returns of public and denominational schoolsThese returns are arranged alphabetically by school district and then chronologically.

Government Architect

Plans and Specifications of Schools and School ResidencesThe listing gives location of school, description of plan and date. Arrangement is alphabetical by school.

Surveyor General

Catalogue of plans of land for national and public schools, 1849-87This catalogue is in rough chronological order.


In 1880 the Minister for Public Instruction assumed responsibility for education in New South Wales. The Public Instruction Act, 1880 (43 Vic. No. 23, 1880) which repealed the Public Schools Act of 1866 provided for:

  • the establishment of Public Schools, Superior Public Schools, Evening Public Schools, Provisional Schools
  • separate high schools for boys and girls, and
  • a system of teacher training

The Department of Public Instruction was responsible for both the introduction of compulsory education and the withdrawal of government funding from denominational schools.

Department name changes

  • 1915: the Department of Public Instruction changed its name to the Department of Education
  • 1989: the name changed to the Department of School Education
  • 1997: the Department of School Education was amalgamated with the Department of Education and Training Coordination to form the Department of Education and Training.
  • The Department is now known as the Department of Education and Communities.

Records covering 1880-c.1979

Department of Education

Subject filesThese include information on individual teachers concerning promotions, resignations and retirements.See the item list »
School filesThese files are arranged by name of school. They contain information concerning teacher appointments, leave, examinations and occasionally details of complaints about teachers by parents and inspectors. The files after c. 1950 do not contain detailed information about teachers.The publication Government Schools of New South Wales is a useful companion to these files.The schools are listed in the online index »View a sample of digitised school files
Copies of letters sentThese letters cover administrative areas such as the establishment of new schools, buildings and their upkeep and general financial matters.
Copies of letters sent concerning the administration of public schoolsThis series contains correspondence concerning general administrative matters such as applications from teachers and promotion and classification of teachers, as well as admission of children into the orphan schools.
Copies of letters sent by the Chief Inspector

School sites

The following selection of records may provide useful information for those researching particulars of school sites.

NRS 3965[11/15313-15316]
Registers of deeds of school sites These registers are arranged by name of school. They give a description of the site, a sketch plan and date of deed. A good site plan normally accompanies the entry.
NRS 3969[11/15322-15326]
Register of school sites This register gives name of school, location of site, area and portion, date of acquisition and how obtained.
Card catalogue of leased propertiesThis catalogue provides the name of school, type of building, area of site, name and address of lessor, term of lease, expiry date and annual rental.
Site register cardsThese cards record details of school sites purchased and disposed of after 1880. Some give details of buildings constructed and generally include a site plan.

Types of records

School files (NRS 3829) include:

Note post-1939 records are strictly administrative.

Applications for the establishment of schools

Application forms contain details of prospective pupils, together with information relating to the proposed site and building. Letters from promoters of schools concern the site, building, teacher and a variety of other matters. Inspectors' reports deal with the prospects of the district and the viability of the proposed school, and contain recommendations relating to the site, the permanent building and if necessary the temporary building, teachers, etc.

The schools progress and its physical provision

Letters and memoranda deal with changes in school status, closures and re-openings, and the adequacy of the site and buildings (ranging from routine repairs to new buildings). Valuable information on the progress of the district and on conditions in the school is often included.


Amongst the maters dealt with are appointments, transfers and promotions, examinations, leave, complaints by parents and inspection reports. There were no teachers' personal files as such prior to 1940 and papers relating to individual teachers were filed amongst the records of the school at which the teacher was currently employed.

See more information on teachers.


Relatively little correspondence deals with pupils or courses of study. Much can be gleaned, however, from letters dealing with a variety of aspects of the schools operations

Sketches / Plans

Some school files may contain hand drawn sketches through to professionally drawn architects plans of schools, classrooms and teachers' residences showing buildings, improvements and additions.

The plans are listed in the online index and you can also find a listing in the Maps and Plans Index in the reading room.

Related records (post-1900) include:

Only a small percentage of admission registers, punishment books and examination books have survived. In some instances the school may still hold the registers.

Admission registers contain some of the most useful details concerning pupils. They usually record pupil's name, age, name of parents / guardian, address, occupation, date of admission, year and class grade, date of leaving last school and sometimes reason for leaving or next school to be attended.

Examination books The contents of examination books vary. Some record pupils' personal details, examination results for each subject, total marks and place in grade. While others contain samples of examination questions.

Observation books consist of inspectors' general observations on the operations of the school. They do not generally contain mention of individual pupils.

Programme and lesson registers list of the lessons and curriculum which were followed by various classes in a school. They cover the whole range of subjects taught to a particular class.

Punishment books consist of details of punishments meted out to pupils and include: name; age; nature of offence; amount of punishment; instrument of punishment; and by whom inflicted. These records are Closed to Public Access (CPA) for 50 years.

The punishment books are listed in the catalogue under the name of the school e.g. Punishment Book [Ardglen Public School].

Visitors' books record the names of any visitors and any remarks made by the visitor such as 'incidental visit', 'ordinary inspection', or 'very pleasant afternoon'.

Proposed school files most of the material in this series consists of unsuccessful applications for schools, as well as applications which were granted but did not come to fruition. There are also acquisitions and disposals of unused sites, and letters and reports relating to private schools subsidised by the department. The Proposed Schools Files also contain application for schools in areas close to existing schools and declined for that reason, and these often throw light on schools which did operates.

Most records which can be linked to schools that actually operated have been placed in the School Files, NRS 3829 (above). An example of this would be an unsuccessful application - predating even by many years - a successful application.

Photographs (NRS 15051)

See examples at top of page. The History Unit of the Department of School Education collected these photographs when preparing school histories, research for public relations, or giving presentations. The collection consists mainly of photographic prints showing school buildings, pupils, teachers, or educational activities. Most include an identifying caption and date.

This is an ongoing series digitisation project and you can browse what has been digitised in the Collection Search.

Further reading

More historical information on Education can be found in our catalogue under:


Family history guides

Handwritten list of baptisms and marriages in Newcastle in 1818

Births, deaths & marriages guide

Historical information and sources for baptisms, deaths and marriages

Births, deaths & marriages registers, 1787-1856

A list of the Registers of Births, Deaths and Marriages, 1787-1856 which can be viewed on microfilm

List of possessions from a deceased estate file From the deceased estate file of Ralph Greig. State Archives Collection AF00190047  INX-15-155710

Deceased estates guide

A brief overview of the administration of the collection of death duties - Deceased estate files - and how to find the records