From 1850 when he arrived from London to take up the position of Headmaster of the new Fort Street Model School in Sydney, to his death in 1892, William Wilkins’ professional life was dedicated to education reform and progress in teaching, inspectorial and administrative positions in New South Wales. As a school headmaster he reorganized the pupil-teacher system in NSW on a more systematic academic basis which was extended to other schools in the National School system in NSW. In 1854 the colonial government appointed Wilkins Inspector and Superintendent of National Schools in the colony during which time he made recommendations which led to the improvement of school buildings and the establishment of an organized system of district inspectorates for NSW government assisted schools. In 1863 Wilkins became Secretary of the Board of National Education and later, following the Public Instruction Act of 1880, he became the first Undersecretary of the newly established Department of Public Instruction.
One of William Wilkins’ many significant accomplishments was the writing of school textbooks suitable for Australian conditions. Until the 1850s and 1860s, almost all textbooks used in Australian schools were written and published in England. William Wilkins was the author of a number of Australian published geography and history school textbooks, the best known being Geography of New South Wales, first published in 1863 by J. J. Moore in Sydney, and The Geography and History of New South Wales, also published by J. J. Moore. Examples of these are held in the ANME’s research collection of school textbooks. A more detailed account of Wilkins’ contribution to schooling in colonial NSW may be found in Chapter 8 of Pioneers of Australian Education, by C. Turney, (1969).