The Margaret Bailey case: High school activism, the right to education and modern citizenship in late 1960s Australia

Isobelle Barrett Meyering (Department of Modern History, Politics and International Relations, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Article publication date: 6 November 2019

Issue publication date: 11 November 2019



In March 1969, Brisbane student and political activist Margaret Bailey was suspended from Inala High School – ostensibly for “undermining the authority” of her teacher – prompting claims of political suppression. Through a case study of the subsequent campaign for Bailey’s reinstatement, the purpose of this paper is to explain the emergence of the high school activist as a new political actor in the late 1960s.


The paper draws on newsletters and pamphlets produced by Brisbane activists, alongside articles from the left-wing and mainstream press, to reconstruct the key events of the campaign and trace the major arguments advanced by Bailey and her supporters.


Initiated by the high school activist group, Students in Dissent (SID), the campaign in support of Bailey lasted over two months, culminating in a “chain-in” staged by Bailey at the Queensland Treasury Building on 8 May. Linking together arguments about students’ rights, civil liberties and democratic government, the campaign reveals how high school activism was enabled not only by the broader climate of political dissent in the late 1960s, but by the increasing emphasis on secondary education as a right of modern citizenship in the preceding decades.


This is the first study of the campaign for Bailey’s reinstatement at Inala High School and one of the only analyses to date of the political mobilisation of high school students in Australia during the late 1960s. The case study of the Bailey campaign underlines that secondary school students were important players in the political contests of the late 1960s and, if only for brief periods, were able to command the attention of education officials, the media and leading politicians. It represents an important historical precedent for contemporary high school activism, including the global School Strike 4 Climate movement.



Barrett Meyering, I. (2019), "The Margaret Bailey case: High school activism, the right to education and modern citizenship in late 1960s Australia", History of Education Review, Vol. 48 No. 2, pp. 183-197.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

On 8 May 1969, Brisbane high school student Margaret Bailey chained herself to a balustrade inside the Queensland Treasury Building. She remained there for over ten hours, only leaving after special branch police used bolt cutters to remove her (The Courier-Mail, 1969b). Bailey’s “chain in” followed a protracted battle with the education department that had begun two months earlier when she was suspended from Inala High School, ostensibly for “undermining the authority” of her teacher[1]. Bailey argued that her suspension was in fact a targeted act of political repression, aimed at silencing the newly formed high school activist group, Students in Dissent (SID). Like a handful of similar organisations established in other Australian cities around this time, SID sought to raise the political consciousness of high school students and mobilise their support for radical change. Bailey, who had also attended several anti-war marches, had joined the group just a few weeks before the incident at Inala High School. The timing of her suspension seemed more than coincidental to Bailey and her supporters, notwithstanding the vehement denials of the education department.

If the purpose of Bailey’s suspension was to suppress this new source of student opposition, then it was surely ill-conceived. For a brief period, Bailey’s public struggle with the department put this otherwise little-known group at the centre of a political controversy that eventually garnered national attention. The spectacle of the “chain in” added considerably to the media appeal and is suggestive of the growing use of the “political gimmick” as an activist tactic in the late 1960s (Scalmer, 2002). However, the novelty of Bailey’s status as a secondary school student was perhaps even more important in generating interest. Her case signalled the emergence of the high school activist as a new political actor who had the potential to challenge established hierarchies in the education system and wider Australian political culture.

This new figure owed much to the broader climate of political dissent that characterised this period, one often recalled as a time of generational upheaval. In particular, the rise of student activism on university campuses served as an important model and source of support for younger activists in schools (Barcan, 2011, pp. 85-86; see also Gerster and Bassett, 1991, p. 102; Mansell, 1994, p. 57). Yet, high school activism, I argue in this article, was not simply a product of the radicalising effects of the protest era but of broader shifts in secondary education in the preceding decades. As we will see, Bailey’s defence ultimately rested on a more mainstream development: the increasing emphasis on secondary schooling as a right of modern citizenship. By framing Bailey’s treatment in these terms, she and her supporters were able to transform her case into a test of democratic principles and mount a broader challenge to the legitimacy of the conservative Queensland government. This case study of the Bailey campaign is thus revealing not only of the historical forces that helped produce the new phenomenon of the high school activist, but the centrality of education to Australian debates about citizenship more generally in the second half of the twentieth century.

Despite the common characterisation of the late 1960s and 1970s as a moment of generational revolt, the political mobilisation of high school students has been accorded very little attention by Australian historians. The Bailey campaign is a case in point: despite the involvement of some of Brisbane’s leading new left figures, the campaign does not even bear a mention in key accounts of the city’s radical history (e.g. Evans and Ferrier, 2004; Prentice, 2005). Most of Bailey’s peers have not fared any better, although there are some important exceptions. The most notable is Craig Campbell’s examination of the political activities of high school students in Adelaide, including the 1973–1974 “Willcox Affair” that culminated in a royal commission into a series of suspensions of junior student Jacquelynne Willcox from Woodville High (Campbell, 2002)[2]. This case prompted similar debates around students’ rights and school disciplinary procedures, although unlike Bailey, Willcox does not appear to have been part of an organised network of secondary school activists. High school students also appear briefly in the literature on the anti-war and other protest movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, although rarely as central actors (e.g. Barcan, 2011, pp. 85-86; Gerster and Bassett, 1991, pp. 95-102; Mansell, 1994, pp. 56-60; Murphy, 1993, pp. 257-258; Percy, 2005, especially pp. 99-104, 113-114, 269-272; Scalmer, 2002, p. 146).

By comparison, there is now a burgeoning literature on the high school movement in the USA, whose actions were a significant source of inspiration for Australian students in this period. Following the early example of historian Gael Graham (2006), this work has documented a broad spectrum of issues taken up by students, including dress and hair codes, outdated school curriculum and assessment policies, censorship of student publications, and gender and racial divisions (e.g. most recently, Fountain, 2015; Hale, 2016; Ides, 2014; Lovell, 2016). High school activism was also a feature of political unrest in other parts of the world during this period, from France’s famed May 1968 strikes (Kurlansky, 2004, p. 217; Singer, 2002, pp. 110, 158; Zancarini-Fournel, 2011, p. 181) to the nationwide uprisings against the military regime in Brazil that followed the shooting of school student Edson Luis de Lima Souto the same year (Langland, 2013, ch. 3). However, reflecting the strong US orientation of the Australian new left more generally, high school activists in the late 1960s were more inclined to see direct parallels between their situation and that of their peers in the USA than other countries and modelled at least some of their arguments on US campaigns.

This case study of the Bailey campaign provides important evidence of the links between Australian and US high school activism, as well as highlighting differences between them. One of the key features of the US movement was its use of legal avenues to advance students’ rights. Students were able to make a case for increased freedoms based on their First Amendment rights, a strategy that was especially successful when it came to matters of freedom of speech and assembly, but also extended to questions of dress and self-presentation. This approach produced a distinctive discourse around students’ rights as an extension of their rights as citizens and resulted in some significant legal wins, even if courts did not rule “consistently enough to establish solid parameters for students’ rights” (Graham, 2006, p. 106). While this strategy of framing their rights in constitutional terms was not available to Australian high school activists, this did not stop them from borrowing and adapting the legal rhetoric of their US counterparts in various ways. Indeed, as I return to below, Bailey and her supporters referenced a pivotal US Supreme Court case on students’ rights, Tinker v. De Moines, demonstrating their keen awareness of overseas developments.

At the same time, it is also important to recognise the ways in which Australian activists’ recourse to the discourse of citizenship was shaped by local preoccupations. At the time of Bailey’s suspension, the Country-Liberal Party Coalition had been in power in Queensland for over a decade and Joh Bjelke-Petersen had just taken over the premiership, a position he would hold until the end of 1987. For several years, there had been escalating concerns about the government’s encroachment on civil liberties (Evans, 2007, pp. 215-218; Wear, 2002, pp. 52-53), concerns that were duly reinforced by Bailey’s suspension and that, as suggested above, led them to make broader links between students’ rights, civil liberties and democratic government.

Conveniently for my purposes, the close connection between the Bailey case and the wider civil liberties movement in Queensland has ensured that a range of activist materials pertaining to the case remain well preserved in archival collections held by the Fryer Library at the University of Queensland (UQ). The library holds several ephemera collections documenting the case, as well as the personal papers of prominent new left figure and English lecturer, Dan O’Neill, one of Bailey’s most outspoken supporters. Drawing on newsletters and pamphlets from these collections, as well as articles in the left-wing and mainstream press, this paper reconstructs the key events of the campaign and traces the major arguments advanced by Bailey and her supporters. I begin by sketching the relationship between key educational developments and shifting understandings of youth and citizenship in the post-war period. The following sections of the article focus in on the Bailey campaign. I examine the events leading up to her suspension, before turning to the campaign itself and, finally, analysing how Bailey and her supporters framed the case in relation to questions of students’ rights and citizenship. In the conclusion, I briefly consider subsequent developments in high school activism, as well as the resonances between this earlier period and present-day student mobilisations.

Education, youth and citizenship in post-war Australia

The 1950s and 1960s were a period of significant growth and transformation in Australian education. The baby boom of the post-war years, in combination with the increase in the school leaving age to 15 or 16 years (depending on the state), resulted in an exponential growth in student numbers. This transformation was particularly marked in secondary schooling which, by the end of this period, had become a “universal and conventional” experience (Campbell and Proctor, 2014, p. 179); the number of students enroled in secondary schools in 1969, the year Bailey was suspended, was almost four times that in 1947 (Marginson, 1997, p. 22)[3]. Queensland was slower than other states to move towards universal secondary schooling. It was amongst the last to increase the school leaving age (to 15 years in 1964, effective from 1965), in line with the recommendations of the Watkin Committee in 1961. Even so, there was already a discernible trend towards longer schooling, with almost 80 per cent of 14-year-olds in school in 1960 (Logan and Clarke, 1984, p. 8).

This expansion of secondary schooling was driven by a range of factors. There were clear economic imperatives, with future growth increasingly understood to be dependent on investment in a highly skilled workforce; equally, economic prosperity during the “long boom” made it possible for governments to expand education in the first instance and boosted parents’ aspirations for their children (Campbell and Proctor, 2014, pp. 185-186; Hyams and Bessant, 1972, p. 173). Yet, as Simon Marginson (1997, p. 34) underlines, it was not simply an emphasis on economic growth but the confluence of this paradigm with a liberal discourse of opportunity and individual self-improvement that drove the expansion of education in the post-war era. Furthermore, increased access to post-primary schooling reflected a growing emphasis on the rights, rather than the duties, of citizenship and on education as a social service of the modern state (Irving et al., 1995, p. 130). In this modern conception of citizenship, as influentially described by British sociologist T.H. Marshall, secondary schooling was increasingly regarded as a social entitlement rather than a “privilege” of the minority. By the late 1960s, this so-called “revolution in rising expectations” ensured that education had become a key – some argued the most significant – political issue of the day (Marginson, 1997, p. 43).

The expansion of secondary schooling was also predicated on a changing conception of youth. During the first half of the twentieth century, the concept of “adolescence” as a distinct phase of life between “childhood” and “adulthood” had taken hold in social science and psychology literature. Adolescence, it was argued, was a period of social adjustment to the full responsibilities of adulthood; accordingly, education played a crucial role in guiding young people’s development as “effective social citizens” (Irving et al., 1995, p. 12). In the post-war period, the “teenager” was also discovered by advertisers as a new and highly profitable market (Kociumbas, 1997, p. 218). In combination with the expansion of secondary schooling, this heightened awareness of teenage consumers gave “public visibility” to young people and helped reinforce their sense of group identity (Johnson, 1993, p. 89).

If this new category of “adolescence” in some ways infantilised youth – prolonging the transition to adulthood – it could also open up new possibilities to make claims as a group. Schools were one of the first institutions to feel the impact of this changed status. As Jan Kociumbas (1997, pp. 225-226) has noted, the increase in the school leaving age produced a paradoxical situation whereby students had the “intellectual tools” to challenge their teachers, while remaining “caught in a facile, protracted childhood”. The tensions generated by this conflict, she argues, played out in “endless wars about uniforms, hair-dos and smoking”. By the late 1960s, these confrontations went beyond questions of lifestyle and self-expression to core aspects of schooling itself, as students demanded a right to participate in the determination of the content and conditions of their education. In the case of Bailey, these issues would come together in a highly charged public debate over school disciplinary procedures and the entitlement to secondary education itself.

Bailey’s suspension

Margaret Bailey was the daughter of Irish Catholics who had migrated to Australia. She lived in Oxley, a working-class suburb in south-western Brisbane, and had only been a student at Inala High School for six weeks before she was suspended on 6 March. Bailey was 18-years old and had been admitted to Inala High School as a “special case”, having previously left school for a year and failed the Junior Examination (The Courier-Mail, 1969d). The education department and minister went to some length to represent her as an anomaly on this basis. Yet, if anything, Bailey’s experience exemplified Kociumbas’ point: while older than her peers, she was no less subject to the rules and regulations of the school system than any other student, as was patently demonstrated in the incident that led to her suspension. On 6 March 1969, Bailey intervened after a senior headmistress reprimanded a year 8 girl for the short length of her uniform. After Bailey informed the younger student that she could wear her uniform at any length she desired, the headmistress complained to the principal, T.J.D. Cavenagh. He met with the Parents and Citizens Association and subsequently informed Bailey that he had decided to suspend her for “undermining the authority” of the senior headmistress[4].

That a seemingly trivial dispute over uniform could spark this reaction is not only revealing of the punitive disciplinary culture of Australian schools in the late 1960s but also the wider social anxieties prompted by teenage dress codes in this period. With the arrival of the “mini-skirt” in the mid-1960s, short hemlines quickly became a symbol of generational rebellion more generally. Along with the long hair for boys (Gerster and Bassett, 1991, pp. 100-102; Kociumbas, 1997, p. 226), skirt length was a charged issue in Australian schools by the time of Bailey’s suspension, prompting outcry over falling social standards. As one reader of The Courier-Mail asserted in a letter about the Bailey case, school pupils “can please themselves as to what to wear out of school hours” but “Schools have their own uniforms and normal children love to conform to this necessary rule” (Elaurant, 1969). Bailey’s suspension also coincided with the early stirrings of women’s liberation; soon, the policing of girls’ skirt length (and differential uniforms of any kind) would become identified with a feminist agenda that sought to challenge sex segregation in Australian schools[5].

While Bailey’s undermining of her teacher’s authority was cited as the official reason for her suspension, her supporters argued that the real motivation was her political activities, specifically her membership of SID. The group was just three weeks old when Bailey was suspended (Tribune, 1969b), but in its short existence it had already become a source of alarm for the conservative government. On 2 March 1968, just a few days before her suspension, The Sunday Mail reported that “underground student political activity” had prompted the Minister for Education, Alan Fletcher, to call for “an immediate conference with senior police” and that he had “already arranged for ‘other Government agencies’ to tell him to what extent student militancy had spread”[6]. By this time, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation had also begun to track high school activism, producing a background paper on the subject in December 1968 (McKnight, 1994, pp. 229-230). Only a few weeks after Bailey’s suspension, on 26 March 1969, the Commonwealth Attorney-General Nigel Bowen confirmed that he had been asked to confer with his state colleagues about “subversive activities” in secondary schools[7].

Bailey had found out about SID after attending a “teach in” run by the new left group, Students for Democratic Action (SDA) (O’Neill, 1969b). Formed at UQ in 1966, SDA – like its counterpart in the USA, Students for a Democratic Society, on which it was modelled – advocated participatory democracy and emphasised the importance of direct action. The group quickly grew into an organisation with mass support on campus, with several thousand students attending its protests (Piccini, 2016, p. 44). It played a prominent role in campaigns around conscription and the Vietnam War, civil liberties and Indigenous rights. In addition, at UQ, the group led calls for the “radical democratization” of university structures, taking aim at a wide range of aspects of academic life, from the “archaic” emphasis on professorial authority to the “irrelevancies” of the examination system (O’Neill, 1970, p. 16).

Such critiques were a consistent feature of student radicalism at university campuses across Australia in this period (Barcan, 2011; Forsyth, 2014, ch. 4; Murphy, 2015). They followed directly from new left analyses of the capitalist imperatives of the modern education system and its dehumanising effects. Radical education theorists also extended these arguments to the school system. Schools were, they argued, designed to reinforce the status quo of the capitalist system; accordingly, they stifled individuality and produced conformist thinkers. As American critic Goodman (1971 (1964), p. 25) put it, in schools, students “learn that life is inevitably routine, depersonalized, venally graded; that it is best to toe the mark and shut up; that there is no place for spontaneity, open sexuality, free spirit”. The views of Goodman and his contemporaries – most notably John Holt, Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich – gained a growing following amongst educators and other proponents of alternative schooling in Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s (McLeod, 2014; Potts, 2007).

These ideas also clearly resonated with Bailey and other Brisbane high school students who joined SID in this period. The pamphlet issued ahead of its first meeting on 15 February bore many of the hallmarks of new left critiques of the education system, declaring it to be “merely a system for grading students so as to provide employees with a human fuel for production” and pronouncing the need “for new ideas, a new excitement and creativity in education, totally missing in the archaic situation in which we find our selves [sic] trapped”. Furthermore, the pamphlet reflected the discourse of generational dissatisfaction often seen as characteristic of this period, continuing on to denounce the “ANTIQUATED AND NON-PROGRESSIVE IDEAS” of various adult authority figures, to whom students were made to listen “WITH NO RIGHT TO REPLY, REJECT, OR EVEN DISCUSS THE ISSUES INVOLVED”[8]. Less than a month later, this developing critique found a clear focus with the suspension of Bailey from Inala High School.

Building the support base

SID’s response to Bailey’s suspension on 6 March was swift. The following day, a two-page newssheet – produced under the auspices of the Inala High School SID group and most likely written by Bailey – was distributed to students urging them to support her. “Unless students join together to challenge this authoritarianism in the schools, we can expect nothing better than to be treated like animals”, it proclaimed. The pamphlet listed a range of actions that students could take, from contacting media outlets, to writing letters to the headmaster, the education department and their member of parliament, to boycotting classes and distributing leaflets about the incident at Inala High or their own school[9].

The importance of collective student action and suspicions that Bailey’s suspension was politically motivated were duly reinforced by the decision of special branch police to confiscate the pamphlet. In the following weeks, members complained of further police surveillance, including having their mail censored and telephones tapped, as they continued their efforts to raise students’ awareness of Bailey’s situation[10]. A pamphlet entitled “Why was Margaret Bailey Suspended?” was produced by the organisation in mid-March, again urging students to take action in support of Bailey and inviting them to attend SID meetings[11]. In addition, SID action committees at individual schools prepared newssheets of their own detailing the case[12].

While the importance of student action was consistently emphasised in SID’s material, the group also sought out other allies. Teachers – whose unions had become increasingly militant in this period (Barcan, 1980, pp. 346-347; Campbell and Proctor, 2014, p. 194) – were an obvious target. SID had been quick to draw links between the rights of teachers and students, arguing in some of its first literature that the two groups had a shared interest in improving school conditions[13]. To the group’s disappointment, the teachers’ union declared its support for the headmaster (The Courier-Mail, 1969e); however, some individual teachers supported Bailey, including at public events. The Queensland Trades and Labor Council also endorsed the campaign, announcing in late March that it would seek a deputation to the minister and request a public inquiry (Tribune, 1969b).

Bailey’s most committed supporters were at UQ. University students were instrumental in the establishment of SID in the first place, providing the group with meeting space at its city headquarters, The Cellar. Key SDA figures, such as a Brian Laver and Mitch Thompson, also lent support at a series of public meetings and forums organised at UQ over the course of the campaign. In addition, several academics joined the campaign. In a pamphlet issued the week after her suspension, Dan O’Neill welcomed the recent “movement of change” started by students such as Bailey, asserting that “Nobody sees [the deficiencies of the Queensland school system] more clearly than the brighter and more courageous students”[14]. Other key supporters included philosophy lecturer Dr Peter Wertheim, another prominent new left figure in Brisbane, and education lecturer R.C. Lang, a founding member of the recently established Queensland Education Reform Committee. Their combined backing ensured that, over the course of the next two months, her case was widely publicised at the university, one of the country’s most politicised campuses.

The campaign

The first major public event in the campaign was a teach-in on high school students’ rights held at UQ on 21 March. Students, teachers and workers were invited to the event (see footnote 14), and organisers claimed an attendance of between 400 and 500 people[15]. The opening address was given by Wertheim, who called for a “specific inquiry into the events following the suspension and the suppression of the new democratic dissension in the high schools” (Tribune, 1969b). Bailey also addressed the group, along with another SID member, as well as O’Neill and Lang (O’Neill, 1969a). The minister and the director of secondary education were asked to address the group, but did not answer the invitation[16].

The teach-in was followed by a demonstration organised by SID the following Friday, 28 March. Framing their actions as a defence of freedom of speech, SID explained they were organising the protest as other attempts to raise their grievances (e.g. through the media) had “only succeeded in suppression and distortion of the issues at hand”[17]. Around 100 high school students attended the protest, along with some teachers, with at least eight state high schools and one private school represented. The group met at Queens Park at 5 p.m. and marched to the Queensland Treasury Building, where the education department’s office was located. There they clashed with police, who attempted to clear the protestors from the steps and foyer of the building. According to the account published in the communist newspaper, Tribune, “there was much punching and brawling” and Bailey was “dragged out of the building several times”. Despite the police presence, a small group managed to enter the building via a rear entrance, leaving a note on the director of education’s desk with a list of demands, including for the immediate reinstatement of Bailey and an inquiry into school curricula (Tribune, 1969a).

Meanwhile, Bailey and her parents pursued a response from the education department. After being advised to write a formal appeal letter to the director-general of education, Gordon K.D. Murphy, and, subsequently, to the minister, Alan Fletcher, a letter from her parents was forwarded to the latter on 18 April[18]. He responded on 24 April that Bailey would not be able to resume her education in any state school[19]. The letter strongly rejected the charge that Bailey’s expulsion was politically motivated. Fletcher denied that “any regard whatsoever has been had by my Department to your daughter’s political beliefs or affiliations” and stated that the decision was based purely “on objective consideration of Margaret’s behaviour and her refusal to accept reasonable discipline”[20].

A brief lull followed as Bailey and her supporters planned their response. Finally, two weeks later, on 8 May, Bailey staged her “chain in” in protest at the minister’s decision. That morning Bailey arrived at the Treasury Building with her parents, 12-year-old brother and three other schoolgirls. They chained her to a balustrade in the foyer of the building, where she remained from approximately 8.45 a.m. until shortly after 7 p.m., while supporters handed out a pamphlet about the case to passers-by (The Courier-Mail, 1969b). Meanwhile, a lunchtime forum held at UQ – reportedly attended by 400 students – voted “overwhelmingly” in favour of Bailey’s reinstatement at Inala High School “pending further discussion” and called on the minister to meet with a deputation to discuss her suspension[21]. These demands were also included in a formal submission to the minister made the same day, signed by Bailey and her father, as well as representatives of campus bodies, including Lang and O’Neill[22].

Bailey’s choice of method was well calculated. Like the well-documented “chain in” at the Regatta Hotel four years earlier in 1965 – when Rosalie Bognor and Merle Thornton chained themselves to the public bar in protest against the prohibition on women drinking there (Evans and Ferrier, 2004, pp. 254-258; Thornton, 2007) – Bailey’s action garnered significant local and national media attention (e.g. The Canberra Times, 1969; The Courier-Mail, 1969b; The Sydney Morning Herald, 1969)[23]. While the minister continued to refuse to meet with Bailey and her supporters, he did eventually make a brief statement to the press, defending the headmaster’s decision and asserting that Bailey’s “non-acceptance” of school discipline also made her attendance at another school untenable. “I certainly could not allow her to just walk into another school and pose the same problem for another headmaster. It would be inconsistent”, he stated (The Courier-Mail, 1969c).

In light of the Minister’s continued refusal to meet with Bailey or her supporters, further actions were planned. On 9 May, Bailey returned to the Treasury Building, this time to hold a “quiet sit-down” protest without the padlock and chain (The Courier-Mail, 1969c). The same day another lunchtime forum at UQ saw calls from her more militant supporters, including O’Neill, Laver and Thompson, for an occupation of Inala High School if Fletcher did not provide the “full facts” on Bailey’s expulsion (The Courier-Mail, 1969a). The following week, Bailey attempted to force the department’s hand and began re-attending Inala High School as “a pledge of her sincere determination to be reinstated”[24]. She appeared at the school on the morning of Monday, 12 May, dressed in her uniform and accompanied by her father. The two met for two hours with the school principal, who later told the press that he had agreed to make several inquiries on their behalf (The Courier-Mail, 1969i).

Finally, on 13 May, Fletcher issued a detailed public statement outlining his reasons for refusing to allow Bailey’s admission to any Queensland school. He denied that Bailey had been suspended due to her political activities – noting that other SID members had not received similar treatment – and reiterated that the reason for her suspension was her refusal to accept reasonable discipline (The Courier-Mail, 1969d, p. 1). He also gave a lengthy account of the department’s negotiations over the course of the previous two months, in which he presented Bailey and her parents as disingenuous, including having reneged on their commitment to treat the matter confidently through their public demonstrations (p. 3). Fletcher’s statement was promptly dismissed by Bailey’s supporters as “full of distortions and falsehoods”[25]. Even so, the minister’s decision to release such a detailed statement was a significant concession that Bailey’s expressed desire to continue her studies at Inala High School had to be taken seriously.

Framing the campaign

Several days after Fletcher released his statement, The Courier-Mail published a sympathetic editorial, expressing its faith in the minister and other authorities involved in the Bailey case – the school headmaster, P&C, teachers union and education department – to act in the best interests of “young Queenslanders” (The Courier-Mail, 1969j). By contrast, for Bailey and her supporters it was precisely this education hierarchy – having denied Bailey the opportunity to continue her schooling – that called out for critique. In order to make this case, they attacked the department and minister on multiple fronts, framing the campaign not only as a challenge to the arbitrary exercise of power in the school system, but as a defence of civil liberties and democratic government more broadly.

From the beginning, the question of power relations between students and education authorities occupied a central place in the campaign. Bailey, her supporters argued, was the victim of an outdated and autocratic education system in which teachers routinely made arbitrary decisions about school discipline. Thus, in the pamphlet issued by SID on the day after her suspension, the group challenged the headmaster’s decision on procedural grounds, questioning his capacity to make such a ruling in the first place. There was, it argued, no requirement under the Education Act 1964 for students to wear uniforms; thus the requirement to do so was purely arbitrary, a case of the administration “creating rules, for their own sakes”. For similar reasons, SID objected that the P&C – a body whose role was supposed to be limited to fundraising – had overstepped its mandate in involving itself in the decision (see footnote 9).

Over the course of the campaign, this critique of arbitrary power widened and SID began to use the Bailey case to advance a broader agenda of education reform. Deploying arguments similar to university students, they took aim at a wide range of practices that they argued promoted an authoritarian approach to schooling, from disciplinary codes through to the exclusion of students from decisions around curriculum. To counter this tendency, they argued, school needed to give students a greater say in their education. Students and teachers should together be given “the power to create a wider, more imaginative syllabus, better classroom conditions, longer periods of teacher training, and a removal of the pettiness of the rigid education system as it now exists” (see footnote 11). In an interview with Tribune, Bailey called for the introduction of current affairs and political science in the curriculum so that it was “relevant to the times”, and smaller schools and small group classes to improve teacher-student relations (O’Neill, 1969b).

These calls for school reform were also accompanied by demands for greater political freedoms in schools. In its first pamphlet, SID was unequivocal that the suspension of Bailey represented an attempt to suppress civil dissent. Bailey had in effect been penalised for advising her fellow student of her rights, the pamphlet argued; the penalty imposed on her thus showed up the hypocritical nature of the school system whereby students were “taught democracy and yet not permitted to practice it” (see footnote 9). Subsequent material outlined the specific rights SID believed students should enjoy, including the right to express opinions, distribute political literature and organise open forums in schools. “These are not radical demands! They are basic human freedoms that should exist under a true democracy”, SID asserted (see footnote 11).

By the time of the “chain in”, this emphasis on political freedoms had taken central place over the other questions of educational reform. If the government succeeded, the pamphlet handed out on the day of the protest explained, it would mark a “new kind of suppression of civil schools liberties […] The revered necessity for school discipline will be turned into the pretext and the instrument of denying growing citizens of their rights of freedom of speech and assembly”[26]. This message was reinforced by a sign carried by Bailey proclaiming “Civil rights do not end at the school gate” (The Courier-Mail, 1969b). The slogan was a reference to a pivotal US Supreme Court decision affirming students’ constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression, the verdict of which had been announced on 24 February 1969, just two weeks before Bailey’s suspension[27].

While the civil liberties argument clearly had a transnational dimension, it resonated with Bailey’s supporters because of the distinctive conditions of Queensland politics. In May 1967, a major civil liberties campaign had been launched to contest restrictions on protest activity under the state’s Traffic Act 1949 which limited pamphleteering and street marches (Piccini, 2010). Concerns about civil liberties had only been bolstered by recent police actions, including arrests at anti-war demonstrations, although it was not until 1971 – when Bjelke-Petersen declared a state of emergency during the visit by the South African rugby union team, the Springboks – that the lengths to which the government would go to suppress protest activity became fully apparent (Evans, 2007, p. 225). Several of Bailey’s key supporters from UQ were instrumental in the civil liberties campaign, including O’Neill, who warned that the measures taken against Bailey and like-minded high school students would compound existing measures under the Traffic Act preventing political dissent (see footnote 26).

The civil liberties dimension was clearly one of the features of the Bailey campaign that ensured strong support from prominent new left figures such as O’Neill. However, Bailey and her supporters did not rest their case on this point alone. Tellingly, in this final phase of the campaign, they increasingly framed her situation not just as a problem of political repression but as indicative of a broader government indifference to the rights of its citizens, including the right to education. The pamphlet distributed at the “chain in” emphasised that Bailey had been expelled without regard to due process: she had not been given the opportunity to properly defend herself and appeal the case. As such, her continued suspension constituted “a gross disregard for the public interest in fair play”. That the case centred on such a basic matter as schooling made this lack of transparency and procedural fairness all the more serious. Bailey’s suspension put at risk a fundamental principle of modern citizenship. “Surely she, as an individual, within a democratic country, has the right to an education”, the pamphlet asserted – a right that could not simply be ignored on the “private whims” of a headmaster (see footnote 26).

In a similar vein, Bailey’s actions in the final stages of the campaign served to underline the personal cost of the minister’s decision to expel her. Undeterred by the minister’s public statement on her expulsion, Bailey returned to Inala High School on the morning of Wednesday, 14 May, and attempted to attend class. The police were called and, after Bailey refused to leave, several officers were eventually forced to carry her out of the school. The Australian described the dramatic scene of Bailey resisting, reportedly shouting several times: “I want to stay at school – leave me alone” (The Australian, 1969b). Even the otherwise unsympathetic Courier-Mail seemed captivated by her actions, explaining:

The policemen held her firmly by both arms after she struggled against them in the school office. They had to drag the sobbing girl part of the way down the school drive.

Miss Bailey was left on the footpath […] [Three officers who supervised the eviction] stood in the gateway for a moment before turning away

(The Courier-Mail, 1969g).

Bailey returned on 15 and 16 May and was again “escorted” by police from the premise (The Courier-Mail, 1969f). Meanwhile, supporters attempted to distribute a leaflet about the case to students and parents at Inala High School and at least seven other schools in Brisbane (The Courier-Mail, 1969f, h).

The case, as presented in this pamphlet, turned on a simple question of educational access. Bailey’s desire to return to school had, it argued, been thwarted by an autocratic government indifferent to the rights and aspirations of its youngest citizens. Deploring the “serious injustice” done to Bailey, the pamphlet implied that the education department and minister’s actions raised broader questions about the “proper” conduct of government officials. It reiterated their failure to offer Bailey an independent appeals procedure “on such an important issue” as her continued education and queried whether citizens could have any confidence in a government that was unwilling to “supply information” in support of its stance, rejecting the minister’s explanations to date as inadequate. Most importantly, the pamphlet appealed to parents and students to put themselves in Bailey’s position. “Remember, parents this could be your daughter; remember students this could be you”, it implored[28].

Bailey’s repeated attempts to return to school ultimately proved futile. Following the government’s return to power at the weekend’s election – at which the Coalition retained its majority despite losing two seats – Bailey and her supporters were ultimately forced to concede defeat and ended their campaign for her reinstatement at Inala High School. Even so, the department’s win was only a partial one. A week later The Australian reported that Bailey was soon to begin a course of free, private tuition from university lecturers and tutors to enable her to continue her studies and matriculate later that year. She would have “private tutors in each of her six subjects, the facilities of the university library at her disposal, and an atmosphere far more conducive to study than exists in most Queensland high schools”. As journalist George Negus (1969) mused, Bailey may have had “the last laugh on officialdom”.


Bailey’s persistence and militancy no doubt made her an unusual figure, even within activist circles. Almost thirty years later, Michael O’Neill (2007), who had covered the Bailey case for Tribune, conceded that he was unprepared for this self-styled high school activist. “All our efforts were bent on producing someone exactly like her, but – like parents whose baby is born aged 17 and lippy – we Radicals who owned the revolution were not really ready when she appeared”, he reminisced. Notwithstanding the unique features of the case, the controversy generated by Bailey’s suspension is a valuable reminder that secondary school students were important players in the political contests of the late 1960s and, if only for brief periods, were able to command the attention of education officials, the media and leading politicians.

As participants in a wider movement for radical change, high school activists such as Bailey were undoubtedly emboldened by the wider climate of generational dissent. However, as reflected in the arguments mounted in her defence, other factors were at play as well. To be sure, Bailey and her supporters drew on a radical discourse that emphasised students’ rights to participate in decision-making about the content and conditions of their education and to enjoy a range of political freedoms in their schools. Yet they also staked their case on what by the late 1960s was a more conventional claim that secondary education was a right of modern citizenship – a right that could not simply be disregarded on the basis of Bailey’s alleged breach of school discipline nor, for that matter, her attempts to politicise her fellow students. While Bailey might not have obtained her desired outcome, the attempt to turn her case into a test of modern democratic government is revealing of the new avenues of contestation opened up by this redefinition of secondary education, as students developed a stronger sense of their agency within the school system and capacity to make demands on education authorities.

Subsequent generations of high school activists have continued to push these boundaries. Although further research is needed to uncover their extent and impact, high school protests have been a recurring feature of Australia’s political history since the late 1960s. For example, the years immediately following Bailey’s protest saw a number of prominent high school student mobilisations, including a national student strike on 20 September 1972, initiated by the Socialist Youth Alliance (Percy, 2005, p. 270). Decades later high schools students played a vital role in opposing Senator Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, organising a series of national “walkouts” in the second half of 1998 (Scalmer, 2002, pp. 167-168). High school students also took part in demonstrations against Australia’s involvement in the Iraq War in 2003 and, most recently have garnered significant media attention through their participation in the global School Strike 4 Climate movement[29].

Unlike the Bailey case, these recent protests have not primarily focussed on the conditions within students’ classrooms or their relationships with education authorities. Even so, in emphasising their status as students, their actions have necessarily prompted a broader discussion around the goals of education, including its democratic function. Ahead of the first national climate strike on 30 November 2018, Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that he did not support “our schools being turned into parliaments” and called for “more learning in schools and less activism”[30]. By contrast, supporters defended students’ actions as evidence of the very qualities ostensibly encouraged by the Australian education system, including their capacity to act as “active and informed citizens” (Bousfield and Tinkler, 2018). Students bearing placards with slogans such as “activism is learning” similarly asserted a link between their status as students and their democratic aspirations. The stakes may have changed, but the language of citizenship remains just as salient in debates around high school activism as was the case when Bailey made national headlines half a century ago.



Inala High School Committee of Students in Dissent (SID) (1969), Black Dwarf, Vol. 1 No. 1, Newssheet, SID Ephemera Collection, Record series FVF 382, Fryer Library, University of Queensland, Brisbane.


Elsewhere Campbell discusses other examples of student unrest in this period (e.g. Campbell, 1985, pp. 182-185, 206, 224).


Enrolments increased from 234,993 students in 1947 to 924,904 students in 1969. All sectors of education grew during this period, but the rate of growth in secondary school enrolments was exceeded only by that in higher education (Marginson, 1997, p. 22).


High School Action Committee of SID (1969), “Why was Margaret Bailey suspended?”, Pamphlet, SID Ephemera Collection.


For example, regulations pertaining to skirt length were later criticised in the Australian Schools Commission’s landmark report, Girls, School and Society (1975), as an “anachronism” that reinforced stereotyped sex roles (Committee on Social Change and the Education of Women, 1975, p. 67).


Kedron Action Committee for SID, Paper Tiger No. 1, Newssheet, SID Ephemera Collection.


Historic Hansard, House of Representatives, 26th Parliament, 2nd session, 26 March 1969, available at: (accessed 26 March 2019).


High School Action Committee of SID (1969), “An appeal to students”, Pamphlet, SID Ephemera Collection.


Inala High School Committee of SID (1969), Black Dwarf.


Brisbane Grammar School SID Action Committee (1969), Root, Vol. 1 No. 1, Newssheet, SID Ephemera Collection.


High School Action Committee of SID (1969), “Why was Margaret Bailey suspended?”.


For example, Brisbane Grammar School SID Action Committee (1969), Root.


High School Action Committee of SID (1969), “A message to teachers & students”, Pamphlet, SID Ephemera Collection.


O’Neill, D. (1969), “High school victimisation?”, Pamphlet, SID Ephemera Collection.


Society for Democratic Action (SDA) (1969), “Education – up against the wall!”, Pamphlet, Records of the Women’s Community Aid Association, Record series UQFL 457, box 30, folder 24.2.


Ibid. Their failure to reply was also reported in Tribune (1969b).


High School Action Committee of SID (1969), “Freedom of speech”, Pamphlet, SID Ephemera Collection.


SDA (1969), “Education – up against the wall!”.


D. O’Neill on behalf of the Margaret Bailey Aid Committee (1969), “An act of protest”, Pamphlet, Margaret Bailey Aid Committee Ephemera Collection.


Queensland Education Reform Committee (1969), “The Margaret Bailey case”, Pamphlet, Queensland Education Reform Committee Ephemera Collection, Record series FVF 315, Fryer Library.


Margaret Bailey Aid Committee (1969), “Unchained?”, Pamphlet, Margaret Bailey Aid Committee Ephemera Collection. This event was also reported by The Courier-Mail (1969b).


The submission was reproduced in Margaret Bailey Aid Committee (1969a), “Unchained?”.


Other newspapers began covering the case a few days later (e.g. The Australian, 1969a).


Margaret Bailey Aid Committee 1969, “What are the facts, Mr Fletcher?”, Pamphlet, Margaret Bailey Aid Committee Ephemera Collection.


Margaret Bailey Aid Committee (1969), “Fletcher’s folly – The Margaret Bailey case”, Pamphlet, Margaret Bailey Aid Committee Ephemera Collection, Record series FVF 203, Fryer Library.


O’Neill (1969), “An act of protest”.


The case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (No. 21), revolved around three students at a public school in Des Moines, Iowa, who were suspended in 1965 for wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School Dist., Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, available at: (accessed 11 January 2019). For a discussion of its impact, see Graham (2006, pp. 104-106).


Margaret Bailey Aid Committee (1969), “Is this fair? The Margaret Bailey case”, Margaret Bailey Aid Committee Ephemera Collection.


School Strike 4 Climate, available at: (accessed 28 August 2019).


Hansard, House of Representatives, 26 November 2018, available at: (accessed 28 August 2019).


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The author wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers and the journal editors for their valuable suggestions, as well as Michelle Arrow, Leigh Boucher and Jon Piccini for their feedback on earlier versions of this article.

Corresponding author

Isobelle Barrett Meyering can be contacted at: