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Educating New Zealand


page 53

Although the act of 1877 was intended to give New Zealand a strongly decentralised system of education, a centralising tendency was inherent in its provisions—for it left the local authorities completely dependent on the central government for their funds and at the same time conferred on the Education Department the power to regulate by order-in-council. So much a few acute minds perceived at the me, and in one highly important respect, though in one respect only, their prophecies were immediately fulfilled. Through its syllabus of instruction, and its regulations for the inspection and examination of school which will be described in another chapter, the Department dominated the internal life of the schools from the outset, leaving very little indeed to the discretion of the local inspectors and the teachers. It is true that the inspectors, as officers of the local boards, were in a position to criticise, ignore, or defy departmental regulations, but most of them felt it their duty to respect them, even, as one inspector said, to carry them out with Chinese fidelity.

In nearly all other matters, however, the local authorities — the boards and the committees — remained, until the turn of the century, in full command of the situation. To be more precise, it was a period of board supremacy: within the limits of its finance, each board built schools, engaged and dismissed teachers, drew up its own salary and staffing schemes, arranged, if it were possible, for the page 54training of its teachers, and settled a multitude of detailed questions, all very much as it pleased. Parliament had meant the boards to be strong and responsible bodies, but they assumed a degree of power and independence which was not only incompatible with the vigorous committee activity that Bowen desired, but which also prevented the central Department from gaining the measure of initiative and control implied in the act.

For this state of affairs boards themselves were not wholly responsible, and this was especially so where their relations with the committees were concerned. In believing that it was possible for the committees to exert a robust and enlightened influence on board policy Bowen had assumed, among other things, that the committees would have some financial autonomy, and that where circumstances were favourable several schools would be grouped under one committee. The grouping of schools was, it is true, deliberately obstructed by the boards, mainly on the ground that it would result in the creation of redundant administrative machinery, but Parliament had already dealt a blow to Bowen's scheme by defeating his proposal for a local capitation tax. As he had foreseen, Parliament thereby made it possible for the boards to gain complete control over committee expenditure". It is, however, very doubtful if the committee system could in any event have been made to work in the way Bowen had hoped. Few of page 55the committees of the period showed much concern with educational policy, their actions were often dictated by completely irrelevant parochial considerations and in some districts there was so little interest the schools that committees could not be set up all. Indeed, the apathy, conservatism, and irresponsibility that characterised so much committee administration was one of the chief causes of the growth, especially in the teaching service, of the centralising sentiment that eventually made it possible for all local authorities, boards as well as committees, to be shorn of their most important powers. In the meantime, however, it was not the Department but the boards that gained in prestige and influence through the weakness and failures of the committees.

In their relations with the central Department the boards were in a strong position from the outset: for whereas the Department was just beginning to organise itself, the boards, with few exceptions, were going concerns, with very much the same membership as the old provincial boards had had, and with very much the same permanent staffs. Men who had for years been in full command of the local administrative machines, who had an intimate knowledge of local conditions, and who could count on powerful support both from their own districts and from provincialists in other parts of the colony were well-armed to resist any undue interference by me newly-created Department. As it happened the boards were able to turn page 56this initial advantage into a definite ascendancy which, though sometimes threatened, remained unshaken for nearly a quarter of a century. One result was that the officers of the Department found themselves endlessly baffled in their efforts to carry out what they regarded as their chief duty, the exercise of effective supervision over board finances. This experience must have Seen doubly galling to men who had from the beginning been inclined to regard the boards as costly additions to an administrative mechanism that would work better without them, and certainly was not calculated to win departmental sympathy for board control. The determination of the boards to remain masters of their own domains also had something to do with the failure of the act to achieve its main objective —the rapid levelling-up of educational provision in the districts where the schools were fewest or poorest. This would have meant the allocation of grants according to the varying needs of the boards, instead of on a population basis; but that implied central supervision, and it was consequently opposed, especially by the boards that were best-off educationally, as they stood to lose on both counts. So the system continued to be far from national, some districts being much better supplied than others with schools and having better-qualified and better-paid teachers.

In remaining for so long in a position in which they could successfully resist both reasonable and unreasonable proposals for the extension of departmental page 57authority, the boards were helped, directly or indirectly, not only by provincialist feeling, but also by the fear of upsetting the supposedly delicate balance of forces the act had brought into being, and by public indifference to educational affairs. The great depression of the eighties and early nineties played its part by producing political difficulties and creating an atmosphere unfavourable to reform in education. Then, with the victory of the Liberal-Labour party and the overthrow of the old political order, when some immediate change might have been expected, action was delayed for some years, first because of the provincialism of Ballance, later because the government was preoccupied with its social and economic programme. One important restriction on the powers of the boards was brought about in 1897 when teachers secured the right of appeal against dismissal, but the next period in the history of educational administration in New Zealand really begins in 1899, when George Hogben succeeded W. J. Habens as Inspector-General of Schools.

More will be said of Hogben later. He was an extremely able and adroit administrator, but did not attach great importance to forms of administration, being primarily interested in changing the schools themselves, in turning the teaching service from a trade into a profession, and in extending opportunity for post-primary education. He always said that he favoured a substantial degree of decentralisation, and page 58there is no reason to doubt his sincerity: one of the first things he did was to relax the tight grip on the schools which the Department had previously maintained through its rigid syllabus and its system of inspection and examination. Nevertheless, the Hogben period, which lasted until 1915, saw a remarkable growth of departmental authority and a corresponding decline in power of the boards, and it opened the way for still more centralisation during the period that followed.

To begin with, the Public School Teachers' Salaries Act of 1901, by establishing a uniform scale throughout the colony, transferred control of teachers' salaries from the boards to the Department and at the same time made possible the introduction, a few years later, of a national superannuation scheme. The effect was to deprive the boards of any control over the expenditure of a large part of their revenue. Moreover, the Department, which now had the necessary political backing, proceeded to use its power of regulation to extend its authority over the remaining portion of the boards' grants, and very soon the boards lost a great deal of their former financial independence and the freedom of action that went with it.

Despite this, there were spheres in which local control was still supreme. In particular, the appointment and promotion of teachers remained entirely in the hands of the boards and the committees. The teachers declared that appointments were strongly page 59influenced by local prejudices, that canvassing was rife, and that it was often very difficult for a teacher no move from one education district to another. Eventually their organisation, the New Zealand Educational Institute, which had become a powerful force, began to press for a Dominion scheme of appointment based on grading. The objective was finally achieved in 1920, but the first step was taken in 1914 when the Education Act of that year placed inspectors under the control of the Department, a change that, though sometimes advocated by the education boards themselves, was to prove a crucial event in the story of the decline of local control. Of the other provisions of the act of 1914 it is at this particular point enough to say that they further curtailed the financial powers of the boards, and deprived the committees of any effective control over appointments. On the other hand the committees gained financially, especially through the provision for subsidies on voluntary contributions, and they became from this time onward increasingly useful bodies.

Whether or not Hogben himself, had he remained in office after 1915, would have felt that the centralising process had gone far enough, and tried to arrest its onward inarch, is an interesting question, but one that cannot be answered. What can be said is that the process went on apace during the decade or so following his retirement, mainly as the result of page 60changes he had himself approved—the centralisation of the inspectorate and the introduction of the grading scheme. As officers of the boards, the inspectors had not only had a large hand in the shaping of board policy but had also, on occasion, been outspoken and effective critics of the actions of the Department. Now, there was no doubt that they were officers of the Department in fact as well as in name. The boards could not turn to them for professional advice with the old freedom, and they spoke, when they spoke at all, with the voice of the Department. More than this, promotion on grading as determined by the inspectors removed from the boards all control over appointments except in a limited number of special cases. As a result of these and other extensions of departmental authority, including an ever-tightening hold over board finances, there had developed by the mid-nineteen-twenties something in the nature of a deadlock. The boards were in no position to take a bold educational initiative themselves, yet they could, if they wished, seriously obstruct the designs of the Department. A system that had remained strongly decentralised for a quarter of a century had become so strongly centralised by the end of another quarter century that its principal organs of local control had, it seemed, either to be abolished in the interests of economy and administrative convenience or else given a new lease of life through some kind of reorganisation.

page 61

At this period the Department was warmly in favour of the first of these alternatives; and in 1927 it appeared that the government of the day, which was searching for ways and means of reducing the education vote, was not averse to acting on the Department's advice. Knowing that their very existence was threatened, the boards put up a spirited fight, rallied impressive public support, and won. But although complete centralisation had been averted no one in either camp could be really satisfied with the emaciated form of local control that survived, and the last ten years has been a period in which administrative reorganisation has been a constant topic of educational discussion.

Before one reviews events since 1930 it is, however, necessary to go back to 1877 and sketch the history of the administration of post-primary education. Except that it permitted boards to establish district high schools (secondary tops to primary schools), the Education Act covered primary education only. Some provision was made for secondary education in the Education Reserves Act of the same year, which set aside for that purpose a quarter of the revenues from what were formerly the provincial endowments. The schools were placed under the control of local boards of governors which were entirely independent of the education boards and entirely free from departmental supervision. Thus there was established, though not without criticism, page 62a division in control that reflected the profound cleavage between the elementary and the 'public' schools of England, and that tended to prevent any merging of the radically different traditions of primary and secondary education. As this division in control still exists, it is of some importance to note that it was in its origin as much a local historical accident as a matter of deliberate policy. English precedents, it is true, pointed in the direction that was taken, but they were partly off-set by the Scottish, and had it not been that the supporters of Bowen's bill were afraid that the introduction of one more contentious issue would kill it altogether, it is quite conceivable that they would have agreed to place primary and secondary education under the same authority.

Until the end of the century the secondary schools, despite growing public discontent, were able to pursue undisturbed their socially exclusive and severely academic educational ambitions. But when Seddon and Hogben came on the scene change could no longer be resisted. Both men wanted a wide extension of opportunity for secondary education, and Hogben wanted also to reform the curriculum and give the schools a much more realistic and practical outlook. In 1902, after 'free places' for pupils passing Standard VI had been instituted in the district high schools controlled by the education boards, the endowed secondary schools were offered page 63£6 capitation for every free-place pupil on condition that they provided additional free places at the rate of one for every £50 of endowments. Rather more than half of the secondary boards accepted the offer immediately, but some of the others made it very clear that they were not to be tempted from the path of exclusiveness. The next year, however, the free place system was, in effect, made compulsory, and all but two of the schools were brought into line. In all other respects, however, the secondary school boards and the secondary school principals remained in complete control of their institutions.

The story of Hogben's valiant but unsuccessful attempt to induce, first the secondary schools, and then the district high schools to reshape their curricula belongs to another part of this survey. Here it is sufficient to note that failure, and to observe that in his dealings with the secondary schools Hogben did not attempt to achieve his aim through the method of unified control. One can guess his reasons. Unified control on a local basis promised little, since the education boards which controlled the district high schools had already proved unsympathetic to his ideas. He knew, moreover, that the formidable power and influence of the secondary school boards would be used in an effort to counter any scheme involving the direct intervention of the Department or any other outside authority. In any case, he really believed in the principle of the autonomy of the school so far page 64as its methods and curriculum were concerned. But although he failed with the district high schools and the secondary schools Hogben was not yet entirely beaten. Technical education was developing, and by allowing the establishment of day technical schools, which became in fact high schools of a type that approximated his ideal, he achieved a limited success. The technical schools were at first under the direct control of the education boards, but the act of 1914 gave them boards of managers and in effect eliminated education board control. As the secondary school boards retained practically all their existing powers, the general effect of the act of 1914 from the administrative point of view was to drive deeper the wedge separating primary and post-primary education, and to create a new division in the post-primary system.

In dealing with the technical schools Hogben had seen to it that the Department had ample power to influence their development; and after 1914 the secondary boards suffered something of the same fate as the education boards, the most important event of the period being the introduction, following the Education Amendment Act of 1920, of a national salary scale based on grading. This restricted the financial powers of the boards, and slightly limited, but by no means abolished, their rights of appointment—for post-primary teachers, unlike their primary colleagues, were graded in a few broad groups, while the secondary boards did not, like the technical page 65boards, have to secure the approval of the Department before making appointments. Through its inspectors, through its prescribed list of text-books, through its regulations governing the courses of free-place pupils, and through its examinations, the Department also extended its sway over the curricula and internal organisation of secondary schools, though its influence in this sphere was never as direct and far-reaching as it was with the primary or even the technical schools. Moreover, in 1927, when the abolition of the education boards was being seriously entertained, the secondary boards also were threatened with a reduction in status that would have left them with much the same authority as school committees.

Thus, from the beginning of the century, there had been a steady growth of departmental power over the whole of the educational field, primary and post-primary. But, as reformers complained, this had not been accompanied by any marked advance in the direction of unifying and rationalising the whole education system. On the contrary, old divisions had survived and new ones been created. There were three sets of local authorities, each independent of the other two; and, after 1920, there were, as Webb says, 'three different grading systems, three salary scales, three staffing systems, three methods of appointing teachers, and three scales of grants to local authorities'. Admittedly, the primary, secondary, and technical schools had their distinctive needs, but the page 66divisions and differences that existed could not by any reasonable argument be wholly or even largely justified on that ground, and their general effect was to complicate administration, to hinder reorganisation of the school system, and to get in the way of the development of a sense of common purpose in the three branches of the service. The deepest of the cleavages, that between primary and post-primary education, which was, as we have seen, even in its origin partly an accident, had become more and more anomalous, and more and more mischievous. The remarkable increase in the number of children going on from primary to post-primary school, the upward movement in the academic, professional, and social status of the primary service, the flow of teachers with primary training and experience into the secondary and technical services, the experimentation with intermediate schools, the fact that post-primary schools were now, like the primary schools, almost entirely dependent on public funds, the growing acceptance of the principle of education as a continuous process—all these and other factors tended either to blur the old distinction or to emphasise the need for co-operation and co-ordination. Yet, as the history of the intermediate school controversy showed only too clearly, primary and post-primary teachers tended to live in two distinct and latently hostile educational worlds.

The Department, it is true, was far from powerless. page 67It had enough power to prevent secondary and technical rivalries from producing too much overlapping of educational provision, and it could try to co-ordinate the various parts of the system. But anything it could do fell far short of real unification, partly because as Webb puts it, 'effective power had been neutralized rather than centralized', partly because the divisions in the system were reflected inside the Department itself. It could therefore be said that New Zealand had developed a fairly highly centralised system of education, but one that did not possess some of the most important of the advantages that centralisation is supposed to guarantee.

This was how the general situation appeared to reformers when, in 1928, Mr Harry Atmore became Minister of Education in the United Party government. Convinced of the need for some general reorganisation, but aware of the complexities of the problem and perhaps also of the existence of entrenched vested interests, he arranged for the Education Committee of the House to sit during the 1929-30 parliamentary recess and report on 'all matters relating to education and public instruction generally'. The Committee rejected with some emphasis a departmental scheme involving complete centralisation, recommending instead a plan of reorganisation said to offer a prospect 'of reducing the admittedly excessive administrative cost of the system without sacrificing the principle of local page 68interest and authority', and of breaking down the barriers separating the three branches of the service. The main proposal was that district education boards should control all schools in their areas, primary, secondary, and technical. Whether or not the complete scheme would have resulted in practice in still greater centralisation was a question on which opinions differed, as they did also on the question of how far it would have brought about educational unification and co-ordination. Nevertheless, the report did much to stiffen opposition to unqualified centralisation and to consolidate opinion favourable to unified control.

The publication of the Recess Committee's report almost coincided with the onset of the great depression. In a year there was a coalition ministry, and a new Minister of Education, the Hon. R. Masters, who, to quote Webb again, 'wisely refrained from attempting to combine reform with sweeping reductions in the education vote.' But in 1935, when New Zealand's first Labour government came into office, and its deputy-leader, the Hon. P. Fraser, took over the portfolio of education, a new period in the Dominion's educational history began. On the administrative side there have been several changes of importance. For fifteen years the path to the position of Director of Education had lain through the primary school inspectorate which, in turn, had been recruited from men near the top of the primary page 69school graded list—a practice that tended to make it impossible for anyone to reach the highest post in the Department by any other route or before he was well past middle age. This tradition was shattered when Dr C. E. Beeby, who was not yet forty, and who had gained his experience in university teaching and educational research, was appointed, first Assistant-Director, and then Director in succession to Mr N. T. Lambourne; and more recent appointments to the inspectorate have shown a similar attitude towards the claims of seniority and the graded list. Another development, but one for which there is greater precedent, is the appointment of officers of the Department—the Supervisor of Physical Education is one—who, while being in a position to exercise a potent influence over some aspect of school work at all stages, are not attached to any one branch of the service. This may be interpreted as a further move in the direction of educational co-ordination.

So far, however, the basic structure of the administrative system remains as it was before 1935. Mr Fraser's first concern was to repair the ravages of the depression retrenchments and to set in motion a comprehensive scheme for the betterment of school conditions. When he came to deal with the administrative problem he preferred to tread cautiously, beginning by inviting educational bodies to express their opinions on the various recommendations of the report of the Recess Education Committee, and page 70then, in 1938, bringing down an Education Amendment Bill which was immediately referred to the Education Committee of the House so that everyone could give evidence relating to its proposals. Evidence was duly taken, but for several reasons, including impending changes in the Department, the bill had not re-appeared before the House by the time the country was again at war.

So all one can say is that the proposals contained in the bill, and the reactions they evoked, give a good indication of the trend of government policy and the state of educational opinion at the period just prior to the outbreak of war. In its main proposals the bill followed the recommendations of the report of the Recess Committee. It provided for the abolition of the existing education boards and the creation of twelve new local district boards, which were to be representative of the 'school councils' of primary and post-primary schools and of the teaching service, and to be given jurisdiction over all schools in their area. The existing post-primary boards also were to be abolished, and replaced by school councils with more limited powers. And there was to be appointed in each district an officer of the Department, to be known as the Education Officer, whose function it would be to co-ordinate the work of the schools in his area. The discussion on the bill, before the Education Committee of the House and in the press, followed a course that could have been predicted page 71with almost perfect accuracy. The education boards and the primary school committees were wholeheartedly in support of the principle of local unification of control. The New Zealand Educational Institute was also very strongly in favour of unification but not so emphatic on the issue of local control. The secondary and technical boards, and their teachers, presented an almost unbroken front of opposition, alleging that the freedom, independence, and efficiency of the schools would be impaired if they were brought under district board control. There was, however, one significant exception—according to their representatives the secondary school assistants were divided on the question. As for more or less independent educational opinion, it was on the whole warmly in sympathy with the general aim of the bill, but inclined to doubt whether its detailed proposals, if put into effect, would result in very much progress towards local unification. In particular it was urged that the Education Officers should be officers of the boards and not of the Department.

Summing up, one may say that the forces making for greater unification are very strong, and appear to be gaining ground rapidly. The practical problem here, whether unification is attempted on either a central or a local basis, is to reconcile the demands of harmonious and economical co-ordination with the degree of freedom and initiative which the individual school and the individual teacher, primary page 72and post-primary alike, must have if education is to be vigorous and alive. The forces making for genuine control on a local district basis seem to be much weaker, as they have to contend, among other things, with the whole centralising pull of the highly-organised modern State. The position appears to be that the people of New Zealand—or those of them who take any interest in the question—are at moment decidedly opposed to complete centrlisation, but that nothing short of a conscious deliberate effort on the part of a government and the Education Department, and one sustained over a period of years and supported by the public and the teaching service, can now make it possible for local district control to become a source of real educational leadership. There are signs that such an effort may be made. If it is not, it seems certain that local district boards will become more and more merely agents and intermediaries of the Department, until, from the point of view of their original functions, the)' are purely vestigial structures.

In terms of the geography-history motif of the first chapter, it can be said that the failure to achieve unification of control represents, in part, a victory of history over geography. The division in the control of primary and post-primary education corresponds to the social and educational cleavage that existed in nineteenth-century England, whereas in fact New Zealand's post-primary system is a section of a broad page 73educational ladder stretching from the infant school to the university. The historical administrative form persists long after New Zealand has achieved a degree of social and educational equality that English reformers are still hoping for. History also had a large share in the secondary-technical division, since it arose directly from the attachment of the secondary schools to the ideals of the nineteenth-century English public school. On the other hand lack of unification is in a measure merely the result of administrative action dictated by expediency, or, more often, designed to solve immediate practical problems as they arose.

As for centralisation, it was at first held in check by a combination of history and geography — British traditions and local provincialism. Then, as time went on, the geographical principle began to work the other way—provincialism declined, communications improved, and, in the absence of strong voluntary organisations, the central government came to have in social and educational matters an importance that it had never possessed in the home countries, though even in them, of course, it became more and more active. Yet history was not as completely routed as in some of the other British Dominions the Australian states for example, with their highly centralised systems, party because no one of the four main cities ever achieved a position of unquestioned dominance. The complete framework of local control has been retained and unqualified centralism firmly resisted.