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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Jean Edna Blackburn (1919–2001)

by Bill Hannan

from Canberra Times

Jean Blackburn was an outstanding figure in Australian education at two of the turning points in its history. The first was in 1972 when the newly-installed Whitlam government appointed her deputy chair of the Interim Committee of the Australian School Commission. The second was in 1983-85 when she chaired the Ministerial Review of Post-compulsory Schooling in Victoria. The first of these established her as the leading advocate of equity in schooling. The second set the pattern, still to be fully realised, for the final expansion of universal secondary education in Australia. Although in each case it could be said that she was around at the right time, it can also be said that without her the possibilities of the times might not have been seized. To a significant degree her work was prophetic. Born Jean Edna Muir in Melbourne and educated at University High School and Melbourne University, Jean Blackburn spent most of her life in Adelaide where her husband, Dick, moved for work in 1946. At the university, she had joined the Labour Club and then the Communist Party. On graduating she worked as an economist in the Department of Postwar Reconstruction but once settled in Adelaide took up education, first as a teacher of history and English at Presbyterian Girls College, then as a teachers' college lecturer. Already disillusioned by the authoritarian and patriarchal party, she finally left the Communist Party in 1956 when the Soviet Union suppressed the uprising in Hungary. Although she was more likely to be appointed to positions by Labor governments, Jean was entirely her own person, scholarly in her approach to policy and passionate in the search for truth and justice. She accepted the responsibility that comes with public life and the personal costs involved and while realistic about what could be achieved through public policy, refused to toe a line. Wryly envious of those "on whom the mantle of critique has fallen" she sought always to propose improvements rather than delineate problems. Most consider Jean's major work to have been for the Commonwealth Schools Commission of which she was a full-time member between 1974 and 1980. She began in 1972 on the Interim Committee of the Commission as deputy chair to Peter Karmel with whom she had already worked in South Australia in 1969. On the interim committee she did the major work on its report, Schools in Australia. This work essentially established the school system we now have, with its three sectors (public, Catholic and independent) all funded by government and funds distributed in accordance with need. The eloquence and persuasiveness of the report betrays Jean as its chief author. Subsequently she wrote major parts of the Schools Commission's key reports of which Girls, Schools and Society gave her the greatest satisfaction. Above all she became identified as the architect and advocate of special programs for disadvantaged schools. Jean's conscience was such that failures tended to loom over success. Like the best of her generation she was charitable but intellectually aggressive, idealistic and easily disappointed with the world. To work with her you had to be prepared for some deep troughs. A few days of surging thinking could be undone by dark thoughts one night and a declaration next day to drop the lot. The process of writing was always dogged by doubts and despair, though the logic of it, as she liked to say, seemed simply to fall out of the facts. In fact, it fell out of frequent and ruthless drafting. For all that, her output of papers, reviews and reports was very large and typically she was still writing and re-drafting in her last days. With this frame of mind, Jean inevitably worried deeply about what others saw as her triumphs. She deeply and frequently regretted the way in which funding for all sectors has strengthened exclusive schools without establishing a powerful public and democratic sector. She parted company spiritually with the commission when it espoused a choice and diversity policy. For Jean, choice was secondary to the imperative to provide a rigorous education for everyone. She also regretted that the Disadvantaged Schools Program turned out to be soft on accountability. Jean's work 15 years later in Victoria also continues to touch generations of students across Australia. The Blackburn Report of 1985 established the Victorian Certificate of Education and set in motion the modernisation of secondary school structures. It documented what was in fact a national problem of young people leaving school early and it proposed a solution that was eventually followed in every Australian state: a rigorous common certificate that embraced both general and vocational education. Memorably, the report saw schools as 'the meeting ground of a generation' and urged the establishment of senior campuses and colleges with an 'adult atmosphere'. When the review was commissioned in 1983 just over a third of students stayed on to Year 12. Ten years later, the figure was close to 80 per cent, exceeding even the Blackburn targets. Once again she had both anticipated and shaped the future of schools. As she entered her seventies, Jean was appointed Chancellor of the University of Canberra and Chair of the Victorian State Board of Education. Her appointment as Chair of South Australia's Suffrage Centenary Committee testified to her very high standing among women. Although she had to wear the reformer's mantle, Jean essentially honoured scholastic traditions. Schooling should deal both with the skills that prepare for work and with the 'important achievements of the human mind, imagination and spirit to which all have the right of access'. Betraying trust, especially that of young people, was her worst fear. This turbulent and hugely productive intellectual life ended peacefully in Adelaide during the night of December 1 at the age of 82. Her children, Bill, Susan and Hugh, survive her.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Jean Edna Blackburn

  • Australian, 12 December 2001, p 16, by Dean Ashenden

Additional Resources

Citation details

Bill Hannan, 'Blackburn, Jean Edna (1919–2001)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 27 May 2024.

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