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Educating New Zealand


It is not without significance that the year 1839, which saw the departure of the first organised body of colonists for New Zealand, was also the year in which England set up its first government body for the control of education, the Committee of the Privy Council on Education which had the none-too-princely sum of £30,000 a year at its disposal for 'promoting public education'. Both events resulted from the same upsurging of popular feeling that was a feature of English social and political life in the period immediately following the Napoleonic wars.

The social and political patterns of the whole of Europe had been strained and torn by a series of notable occurrences. The French Revolution had shaken the simple faith in the aristocratic system that had been accepted by the common people of England page 7right into the eighteenth century. The Napoleonic wars, like all major conflicts, were followed by a period of economic distress and political questioning. If any aristocratic optimists had hopes of England returning to a placid pre-war normality they were counting without the Industrial Revolution which was steadily forcing wider the cleavages first shown by the French Revolution. The growth of the middle classes and the class of town labourers was creating new social problems that demanded immediate solution. The birth rate increased so rapidly that the population of England doubled itself in the first half of the century. The growing unemployment amongst male workers and the exploitation of women and children in mine and factory created strains that threatened to become intolerable. The accumulated tensions produced a social restlessness that found its expression on the one hand in the movement towards parliamentary and social reform at home, and on the other in the search for happier lands overseas where an individual's abilities might find fuller scope.

It is essential to remember that it was for the individual that opportunities were wanted. Individualism of one kind or another was the predominant philosophy of the early nineteenth century. Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham had established to the general approval that the individual can and should pursue only his own happiness. The greatest good of the greatest number could be achieved only by page 8letting every man seek his own well-being to the fullest. The education systems of the twentieth century bear almost ineffaceably the impress of this nineteenth-century democratic individualism.

It is not easy to explain completely the growing faith in education, which had so little encouragement from official sources in England, during the first third of the nineteenth century. It owed much to that vague, self-conscious, but none the less real, philanthropy which moved men and women, themselves in comfortable circumstances, to strive to improve the conditions of the poor. Intellectual acceptance of the doctrine that self-interest is a duty did not altogether dry up the wells of human sympathy, and even Jeremy Bentham found it necessary to perform remarkable acrobatics of logic to reconcile the promptings of his heart and his head. The monitorial schools of Lancaster and Bell owed their beginnings in large part to pure philanthropy, as did the 'charity schools' of a century before and the Sunday schools that began in England towards the end of the eighteenth century. What Defoe called 'the great law of subordination' was, of course, taken for granted. Hannah More, a pioneer of the Sunday schools, faithfully reflected the prevailing temper when she indignantly denied that she was guilty of anything so subversive of the established social order as teaching the poor of Cheddar to write. To teach the children of the poor to read the Scriptures was to engage in a page 9useful, if not essential, form of charity; to give them ideas above their station in life was to fly in the face of Providence. It is impossible to understand English popular education until one realises that it began in this way as a charity provided by the well-to-do for the children of the deserving poor.

As the century progressed a more fundamental concept of education came slowly to the fore: an increasing number of men and women began to see it as a social necessity. Humanitarian labour laws were beginning to exclude children from mine and factory, and the streets of the growing industrial cities were providing a type of education calculated to produce a nation of pickpockets. Somehow occupation and discipline had to be found for children to keep them off the streets, and the monitorial schools, themselves modelled on the factory, served the purpose cheaply if not well. The belief in education as a social necessity went yet deeper, and slowly the realisation developed that, in a changed world, society as a whole could be only unstably balanced on the foundation of an ignorant proletariat. It was not just as children that the working classes needed the discipline of education. The nineteenth century developed a sense of ignorance as earlier centuries had developed a sense of sin, and education began, though amongst only a small group at first, to be thought of as a panacea for all social ills.

The philosophies of Bentham and the early laissez faire economists had something to do with this new page 10faith in education. They taught that all would be well in society if every man were free to act according to the demands of his own 'enlightened self-interest'. The more idealistic members of this school of thought laid increasing emphasis on the element of enlightenment in their formula. If only, they felt, the working man could be given sufficient education to enable him to understand the simple principles on which society is based he must realise their inherent justice and inevitability, and social unrest must disappear. No man, presumably, could be so unreasonable as to object to working long hours for starvation rates of pay if he understood that it was due not to the malice or indifference of the upper classes but to the operation of economic laws as natural and inflexible as the law of gravity.

Education thus tended to be thought of, in effect, as an insurance against civil disorder and as a means of providing a supply of docile and reasonably efficient labour. There seems to have been no idea amongst the ruling classes that this new popular education should enable the poor to climb above the station in which it had pleased God to place them. The class stratification of English society was taken for granted, and the elementary school system was to have no organic relation with the 'public' schools. The education given there was never conceived as a preparation for the kind of education already being received by the upper classes. It was becoming page 11increasingly necessary for the comfort and safety of all concerned that the children of the 'independent poor' (a significant term) should be raised to the level of bare literacy: few, if any, contemplated taking them far beyond that level. It is easy to understand the suspicion of the working men of Burnley who in 1847 issued a manifesto declaring that the education provided for their class was so designed that 'it may be engrafted into the minds of your children, that they will always be passive slaves and obedient to the powers that be.'

It is a curious fact that, in spite of the growing conviction that education for all was a social necessity, the State in England took no direct part in providing for it until 1833, and then only to the extent of a grant of £20,000 a year 'in aid of private subscriptions for the erection of school-houses for the education of the poorer classes in Great Britain.' In the same year France passed a law decreeing the placing of a school in every French community, and Prussia had by then long had a system of universal state education. England, however, persisted in officially regarding education as a form of church or private charity even when the State began to provide quite substantial sums towards the upkeep of the schools. By 1858 the annual parliamentary grant for education was £663,000, having increased fourfold since 1852, but the State conducted no schools of its own, and nearly half the children belonged to what Matthew Arnold page 12called the 'schoolless multitude'. Of those who did attend, over two-thirds left school with very meagre attainments before the age of eleven. Attendance was grossly irregular.

It was obviously not the efficiency of the church system of schools that endeared it to the legislators, but rather the complexity of the sectarian problems that deterred them from creating the state school system that the country so evidently needed. Yet the minority of the Newcastle Commission in 1861 could still plead that the education of the independent poor be left to 'private duty and benevolence' and it was not until Forster's Education Act of 1870 that England finally admitted education to be a legitimate state service. Only in 1881 did school attendance in England become compulsory.

The gradual change-over from the conception of education as a private or semi-private charity to the conception of it as a social necessity has been treated rather fully because the first colonisation of New Zealand took place right in the middle of the transition. Public opinion in England had by no means accepted the idea of education as a corporate responsibility by the time the colonists left, but there was a small minority working steadily towards the idea, and this minority found some representation in the new colony.

An organisation that seems to have had a considerable effect on education in New Zealand was the page 13British and Foreign School Society,* founded in 1809 by Joseph Lancaster, co-inventor with Bell of the famous monitorial system, who advertised himself as 'having invented under the blessing of Divine Providence a new and mechanical system for the use of schools.' Lancaster was convinced that education 'ought to become a national concern', and in spite of his claim to divine assistance he was strongly opposed to sectarianism in the schools because it rendered almost impossible the creation of a national system of education. He was, however, far from advocating a purely secular education. The Scriptures were his texts and he based all his teaching on 'general Christian principles' rather than on the dogmas of any sect.

One suspects, with, it must be admitted, little evidence, that if Lancaster had lived in the twentieth century he might have been an out-and-out secularist, but that was unthinkable in even a radical schoolmaster a hundred years ago. As it was, Mrs Trimmer, a well-known writer on the religious instruction of children, condemned Lancaster as 'the Goliath of Schismatics', and prevailed on Bell to found, under the auspices of the Church, the National School Society which organised monitorial schools ready and able to impart the particular Christian principles of the Church of England. The quarrel between the National Society and the British and Foreign Society page 14assumed considerable proportions and became the quarrel between Church and Dissent. Since the early colonists of New Zealand included more than a due proportion of dissenters, it is not perhaps quite an accident that one of the first two schools in Nelson was started by a branch of the British and Foreign School Society, a fact that inclined Nelson always to remain the stronghold of non-sectarian education.

Apart from questions of religious doctrine the schools of both societies were in agreement as to the proper curriculum and pedagogical methods for the children of the lower classes. The Scriptures and the three Rs were the staple intellectual fare, and the methods of the monitorial schools were devised to give at a minimum cost constant drill in reading, writing, and simple number. At the beginning of an era of mass-production, large classes and underpaid and untrained teachers were taken for granted. This is significant in the understanding of later developments in both England and New Zealand.

It must not be assumed that, even in this humble and economical form, popular education was universally accepted as an ideal. The reformers wanted to save souls through the reading of the Scriptures, and the industrialists wanted docile and efficient labour, but the attitude of a not inconsiderable portion of the aristocratic ruling class was expressed in the House of Commons by an opponent of the Parish Schools Bill of 1807 when he said, 'Learning will point out
An Infant's Thoughts

An Infant's Thoughts

page 15to the poor enjoyments which Providence hath wisely and tenderly concealed.' For this class the only education worthy of the name was given in the great public schools which, though they had fallen very low in the eighteenth century, experienced a remarkable revival in the first half of the nineteenth, thanks largely to the work of Samuel Butler at Shrewsbury and Arnold at Rugby. Latin and Greek were the basis of the whole curriculum. Indeed in 1805 the Court of Chancery ruled that to use grammar school funds for the teaching of anything but 'the learned languages' would amount to misappropriation. Some mathematics, history, and geography crept into the curriculum, but the gulf between the classical education of the gentleman and the strictly utilitarian education of the labourer remained so great that no one ever thought the co-ordination of the two was necessary or even possible. New Zealand has made the boldest attempt in the British Empire to bridge this gulf, and in doing so has found herself faced with novel problems, not all of which are yet completely solved.

No account of the roots from which the New Zealand education system grew would be complete without some mention of the Scottish school system, although it was not until the seventies and later that the Scottish tradition began to exercise its influence very strongly throughout the whole of New Zealand. The Scottish conception of an education system was page 16quite different from the English. As far back as the twelfth century parish schools began to be founded in the villages of Scotland, and a series of acts in the seventeenth century provided for the maintenance at public expense of a school in every parish. By the beginning of the nineteenth century the parish school system was widespread. Although small fees were charged, the system was, for the period, extremely democratic, and children of every social grade could meet on terms of equality on the benches of the parish school. These schools provided not only elementary education but also, in many cases, higher education up to university entrance level. The Scots had a traditional belief in higher education for its own sake, and solved the problems arising from scattered villages and bad communications by developing secondary 'tops' to their small elementary schools. Many years later the settlers of Otago were to offer to New Zealand the same solution to the same problem.

Secondary education was also provided by the burgh schools, many of them of ancient lineage, which were under the management of the town councils, although the Church retained some measure of superintendence over them until 1861. They also charged fees, but they were in no sense the preserve of the middle and upper classes as in England. There was provision for the 'lad o' pairts' of the working class, if his parents were prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, to pass through the burgh school page 17and on to the university. The secondary school system lay end-on to the elementary schools: any tendency to make it a parallel system providing a different kind of schooling for a different type of child has always been strenuously opposed in Scotland.

Such was the type of school system that Captain Cargill and his fellow-immigrants had as their pattern when they landed in Otago. Compared with English practice it was democratic in the extreme, and New Zealand has drawn freely on Scottish experience in evolving her own democratic school system. Yet, curiously enough, it is just this typically Scottish tradition of democratic secondary education that is the greatest obstacle to establishing a system that would be regarded as democratic in New Zealand at the beginning of her second century. For the Scottish secondary schools were essentially selective: it was to the 'lad o' pairts' that their attentions were given, and the child of even mediocre ability had to get along as best he could, on a curriculum devised for the really able, and consisting almost entirely of classics and mathematics. The academic tradition is deep-seated in the Scottish system, and it was not until well on in the second half of the nineteenth century that even English was taught with any seriousness in many of the burgh schools. The narrow range of subjects was taught with admirable thoroughness, but the modern conception of a differentiated curriculum catering for every type and level of page 18intellect was even more foreign to the Scottish tradition than it was to the English. For the birth of that conception we have in the main to thank the United States of America.

* The name dates from 1814, but the Royal Lancastrian School Society was founded in 1809.