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Educating New Zealand


Although it was strengthened by the events leading up to the passage of the English Elementary Education Act of 1870, the demand for some measure of central control of education arose, not out of any theory about the part the general government should play in educational affairs, but out of the manifest failure of the provincial system to meet the minimum page 44educational needs of the colony. As late as 1870 not more than half the children between the ages of five and fifteen were going to school at all, and the proportion who were receiving regularly even moderately efficient instruction was very much smaller. Nelson, Otago, and Canterbury were far ahead of the other provinces; in 1869 their governments spent on the average £2 10s for every child of school age as against an average of only 5s in the rest of the colony. It was said that compared with the South the whole of the North Island was an intellectual desert. The main reason for the difference was economic. Canterbury and Otago were the wealthy provinces, with well-filled treasuries and substantial church endowments, whereas in the North Island, which had been harassed and impoverished by the Maori wars, the provincial governments were in acute financial difficulties.

Parliament agreed that some action should be taken, and in 1871 a bill was introduced by Fox, the Prime Minister. In the previous year Fox had declared that it was a matter for serious consideration 'whether those provinces, which, from one cause or another have neglected the education of their people, are to throw upon the colony an uneducated population, to become a dangerous element in the community'; and the intention of his bill was not so much to supersede provincial control as to establish a general minimum standard. The debates that followed page 45revealed sharp and apparently irreconcilable differences of opinion both on the religious issue and on the question of the division of powers between the central government and the local authorities, and the measure was allowed to drop. A less ambitious measure was introduced by Vogel in 1873, and met the same fate. Three years later the Abolition of the provinces Act came into operation. The provincial governments were no more, new arrangements had to be made for the provision and control of education, and there was at last a really favourable opportunity for the creation of a national system of schools.

Atkinson, the Prime Minister, allowed Charles Bowen, his Minister of Justice, to bring forward an education bill, which became in an amended form the Education Act of 1877, the measure that gave New Zealand her national system of free, secular, and compulsory primary education. Bowen, who had been closely associated with education in Canterbury, was convinced of three things: that it was the duty of the central government to see to it that 'the key of Knowledge . . . was put within the reach of every child in New Zealand'; that the actual control of education should be very definitely decentralised; and that, regrettable though it was, any arrangement that gave the churches a share in the control of schools provided by public money was likely to lead to friction and hinder progress. These were the main principles he tried to embody in the bill.

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The bill provided for an education department, under a Minister of Education which would pay annually to each of twelve education boards £3 10s in respect of every child in its schools, less any amounts the board might receive from endowments. Bowen's indention was to limit the other functions of the department (one of the 'most important of which was to be the control of a national inspectorate) to the minimum that was necessary to ensure that a reasonable standard of education was established and maintained throughout the colony. 'The expenditure on the central department', he said, 'will be very small, because a secretary and a clerk will probably do all the work . . . for some time to come.' The local boards were to be the real administrators, and within the necessary framework of national organisation, there was to be ample room for them to determine their own policies and meet the educational needs of their districts in their own way; they were, in fact, to be the old provincial boards in a slightly different form and with but slightly diminished functions. If the boards were to be subject to pressure, it was to come, not from the centre, but from the periphery, from the school committees to be elected by ballots of householders in the small areas served by a single school, or a group of schools. The committees were to elect the boards (and thus, Bowen hoped, to control their policies) and they were to exercise important powers page 47on their own account, nothing less than 'the general mangement of educational matters within the school district', which included the right to recommend to the boards the appointment and dismissal of teachers and to decide whether or not the compulsory attendance clauses were to be enforced. They were even to be empowered to collect a capitation tax from the householders of their districts, Bowen's object being to stimulate local interest in education and to strengthen their position as against the boards by giving them an independent source of revenue. In education, if not in other matters, there was to be no departure from the English tradition of local government; on the contrary the bill was expressly designed to give New Zealand the most decentralised system in the British Empire. There was no provision for the payment of grants to schools maintained by the churches or other voluntary organisations; and the teaching was to be or 'an entirely secular character', except that schools were to be opened every morning with the reading of the Bible and the Lord's Prayer.

After a long struggle in Parliament, during which a number of highly important amendments were made, the bill was finally passed. The secularists emerged triumphant. An attempt to secure grants for denominational schools was defeated, and the clause providing for the reading of the Bible and the Lord's Prayer was struck out; and as the history page 48texts of the time often had a pronounced sectarian bias a clause (which, incidentally, has never been repealed) was inserted to the effect that 'no child shall be compelled to be present at the teaching of history whose parents or guardians object thereto.' The contest between the centralists and the provincialists did not result in such a clear-cut decision: the provincialists had the control of the inspectorate transferred from the department to the boards, but the centralists were able to save the provision—much more important than it appeared to most members at the time—that gave the department power to make regulations by order-in-council. The proposed local capitation tax was strongly opposed on two grounds: mat the committees would find it very hard to collect, and that it cut across the principle of free education. The clause was finally deleted, and the capitation allowance payable by the department to the boards increased from £3 10s to £3 15s.

The act gave scarcely anyone precisely what he wanted. That it was passed at all is evidence that universal elementary education had come to be widely regarded as a social necessity, and that men both inside and outside Parliament were prepared to make large concessions as to means provided only the general aim were furthered. For those who thought in this way the act, whatever its defects, represented a hard-won victory over the provincial and religious forces that had wrecked their earlier page 49efforts and that, given a chance, might even yet imperil the development of a national system of schools. Hence their first concern was to consolidate the position they had gained; and, as Webb puts it, the act came to be regarded 'not as an experiment to be worked out empirically, but as an inspired compromise, a miraculously achieved balance of forces which the smallest disturbance might completely destroy.'* So vigorously did this attitude of mind persist that for many years any attempt to alter the act was practically foredoomed to failure, with the result that its omissions, inconsistencies, and defects, no less than its virtues, had profound effects on the subsequent development of public education in New Zealand.

* Leicester Webb, The Control of Education (1937). I have drawn heavily on Webb's illuminating survey.