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Educating New Zealand


In the Victorian England from which most of our forbears derived their educational ideas the character of public elementary education was, as we have seen, mainly determined by the fact that it was something provided by the well-to-do for the children of the poor. In essentials, it was a process of mass instruction and rigid discipline designed to produce, at the minimum of cost, a working population that was literate, orderly, and not inconveniently critical of its lot. Public primary education in New Zealand was never so firmly tied to conceptions of social class. The shortening of the social spectrum, the sparseness of the population, and the leaven of Scottish influence were among the modifying factors that favoured the early emergence of the idea of a democratic common school. The history of primary education in New Zealand is the story of the dawning understanding of the revolutionary implications of this break with nineteenth-century English traditions, of the truth that the schools of a democracy had to be utterly page 75different from the culturally-impoverished and repressive institutions provided for the 'lower orders' of a society in which class-stratification was an article of faith.

The events leading up to the act of 1877 which laid the basis of a national system of primary schools have been sketched in the previous chapter. The ambition of the founders of the system, and of the Rev. W. J. Habens, Inspector-General of Schools from 1878 to 1899, was to make the schools good of their type, and they took as their models what they conceived to be the best English and Scottish elementary schools of their time. The 'subjects of instruction'—what dreary associations the phrase has gathered—were set out in the Education Act, and in due course the Education Department issued a detailed syllabus prescribing the work for each of six 'standards'. For the times, and for teachers who in the provincial schools had taught little more than the three Rs, it was a comprehensive and exacting programme, as not even the smallest school could omit any of it except as 'the result of actual necessity, of which the Inspector must be the judge'. The effort to make the curriculum as broad as possible and to establish and maintain standards was not merely a symptom of a desire to give the country full value for its money; it sprang in part from genuine enthusiasm for education, and was possibly a recognition of the fact that the New Zealand primary school was destined to become a page 76common school for practically the whole community. To this extent perhaps the founders of the system admitted the desirability of adaptation to local needs and conditions; beyond that they took it for granted that the kind of instruction and discipline current in the elementary schools of Britain was entirely appropriate to the children of New Zealand. As a result even school playgrounds were sometimes on the British model. In the thinly-populated New Zealand of 1877 when land could be had for a song the Education Act itself had laid it down that 'whenever practicable there shall be attached to each school a playground of at least a quarter of an acre'. As both letter and spirit of the act were often observed only too well, a later generation was left with the very difficult and sometimes insoluble problem of providing children in city schools with even moderately adequate playing space. So too school buildings with their galleries, nine-foot desks, and provision of little more than a square yard of floor-space for each child, were copied directly from Britain. On occasion they were actually built facing south, and one may see in the Auckland province to-day the high-pitched roofs originally designed to cast the British snow. So little adaptation was there at first to the conditions and opportunities of the new country that many a New Zealand school and playground could have been set down in one of the congested industrial areas of the homeland without appearing in any way out of keep-page 77ing with its general surroundings. As for the syllabus it was, broadly speaking, the syllabus of the English elementary school, somewhat stiffened up. It continued also to be widely assumed that the work of teaching—'the irksome task of public instruction' as the English phrase had it—could be successfully performed by anyone above the age of thirteen or fourteen who was respectable in character and knew a little more than the pupils themselves. Moreover, in its general spirit and day-to-day life the New Zealand primary school of the Habens period reproduced all too faithfully many of the unlovely features of its English prototype. There was a movement towards better things, but for various reasons progress was painfully slow and halting.

The national system had scarcely been established when New Zealand entered on the long depression of the eighties and nineties. Educational expenditure was cut in 1880 and again in 1887. One result was that enlightened plans for the training of teachers had to be abandoned and that the pupil-teacher system remained, until after the end of the century, the only form of training available to the great majority of intending teachers. Matthew Arnold said that in England this form of apprenticeship supplied the sinews of primary instruction. The same remark could have been made of New Zealand. The details of the pupil-teacher system varied from district to district, but, up to the late eighties at all events, the page 78apprentices were usually primary school pupils who, at the mature age of thirteen or fourteen, were indentured for four or five years. During this time they taught in school hours, sometimes under the eye of an adult teacher, sometimes not, and at the end of the day, received from the headmaster or one of the assistants, instruction in the subjects of the curriculum and the principles of class management. No picture of education at this period is even approximately correct unless it is kept in mind that much of the regular work of the primary schools was carried out by adolescent boys and girls struggling to impose their will on bored and unruly classes containing children little younger, sometimes even older, than themselves. The pupil-teachers received perhaps £20 per annum in their first year and £60 in their fourth; the scheme was quite as much a method of securing cheap labour as a means of training. Its typical product, among those who could stand up to its rigours, was a 'strong disciplinarian' and an efficient—frequently highly efficient—instructor whose outlook had been limited and prematurely hardened by over-work in an atmosphere that was often singularly devoid of grace and intellectual vitality. The miracle was that there were some who came through the mill with alert minds and warm human sympathies.

In addition to perpetuating the pupil-teacher system, the cuts in the education vote made it impossible for the boards to improve the unenviable lot page 79of the adult teacher. In some districts conditions worsened. At the end of the provincial period many children were not attending school at all, and the first concern of the boards was to provide accommodation. The problem was particularly acute in those districts in which few schools had been established, or in which there was a scattered or a growing population. Finding their building funds inadequate, the boards encroached on the money provided for the payment of teachers and the general maintenance of schools, with the result that in some districts salaries fell to a wretchedly low level, below that of the ploughman and the labourer. In 1898 over two-thirds of the teachers (exclusive of pupil-teachers) in Taranaki, Marlborough, Nelson, Grey, and Westland, received less (often much less) than £100 a year, and of the 2500 teachers in the whole colony only sixty-seven got over £300. There was, moreover, no pensions scheme. At this time more than four-fifths of the pupil-teachers were girls, many of the abler men teachers left the service to take up other occupations, and it was freely predicted that the work of the schools would ultimately be done entirely by women. An appointing authority could not, in such circumstances, be too exacting in its demands, and the service retained, in its lower strata, many who should never have been allowed to enter it. In any case even a teacher of genius might have demurred if he found that his class numbered well over a hundred children page 80—and there were classes of that size—and that books and equipment were supplied on the most meagre scale. What is in the circumstances really remarkable is not the sorry condition of the worst schools of the period but the achievement of its best teachers.

There were, of course, more general influences at work. The schools would in any case have reflected the dominant Victorian attitude towards children. We find this expressed in very vigorous language by R. J. O'Sullivan, Inspector of Schools under the Auckland Education Board, in his report for 1881. O'Sullivan rejoices that 'we do not of late find so much maudlin sympathy for young culprits who have been treated in some measure according to their deserts', but insists that there is still far too much 'rewarding, pampering and praising of children' and calls on 'Board and Committees, parents and the Press, and every good citizen' to assist teachers 'to fight against this system of truckling to pupils, which is fast producing a despotism of children which must become a danger to the State.' He winds up by declaring in round terms that children 'should be taught to walk in quiet paths, and should be relegated to their proper and natural position of insignificance.' Such opinions, which were widely and fervently held, were strengthened by the spectacle of a good deal of wild and disrespectful behaviour among the youth of the country. Another inspector complained: 'The marked want of common politeness which page break
An Overcrowded Classroom 1919

An Overcrowded Classroom 1919

page 81characterises the pupils of many schools must be a matter of frequent remark. In vain do you wish them "Good-morning" or "Good-day" for they are sure to disregard your civil salutation, and probably laugh rudely in your face or stare you out of countenance. There are even villages in which I account it an honour not to have my name called out as I pass along the street.' And there were endless complaints of a much more serious kind. The lusty, boisterous, quarrelsome, hard-drinking, half-literate life of a not inconsiderable section of the population was not, indeed, calculated to produce boys of the type admired by Dean Farrar. It was, moreover, the general belief of the time that a well-controlled class, even of infants, was one in which children sat studious immobility, never so 'much as whispered, and executed their periodical 'class movements' with military precision. One sometimes gets the impression that the Victorian child was compounded in roughly equal parts of pure intellect and original sin.

Nevertheless, a much more rational and sympathetic attitude was developing. O'Sullivan himself, who was remarkably enlightened in many of his views, was emphatic that young children needed plenty of opportunity for free movement in the open air. In 1878 W. C. Hodgson of Nelson, whose inspectorial reports constantly remind one of Matthew Arnold's wrote: 'A school is not a penal institution, and such a system of repression as would compel absolute page 82silence throughout the school day is hardly worth introducing into institutions where more than a fourth of the inmates are under seven years of age.' Fourteen years later he was able to report that 'The improved methods of treating their scholars now generally adopted by teachers are a fair subject for congratulation. The loud harsh tones in which it was customary to address a class a few years ago are now seldom heard. . . . The notion, too, formerly so prevalent, that a slip due to carelessness, or, it might be, to want of wits, should be visited, as a matter of course, by sharp and summary corporal punishment, is gradually dying out—though it dies hard. . . . I hold these matters to be of the highest importance, largely affecting, as they do, the tone and temper of so many thousands of children. Much has been gained when the unchecked and, indeed, almost unheeded tyranny that saddened school life not so many years ago, is condemned both by public opinion and by the improved feeling of the teachers themselves, and that this change has been effected without any noticeable relaxation of discipline.' In point of fact, Hodgson was over-optimistic, and practices of the kind he condemned remained common for many years afterwards.

A major reason for the slowness of the change was the nature of the syllabus, and the system of inspection and examination of schools which was introduced in the interest of efficiency in 1878 by Inspector-General page 83Habens, and held the schools in a vice-like grip for nearly a quarter of the century. From the same source sprang a good deal of the arid formalism that-characterised so much of the teaching.

The syllabus itself breathed an abstract, bookish intellectualism from cover to cover, and its approach throughout was austerely logical. Far from taking as a starting point the interests and experience of the children themselves, it succeeded to an astonishing degree in isolating facts from any human context whatsoever. It was laid down, for example, that in geography the requirements of Standard III would be satisfied if the pupil could point to important places on the map—'it is not necessary that he be able to say also in every case what circumstances or events have rendered the place important.' The prescription for drawing for Standard I—that is, for children who were often about seven years of age—began: 'In the first Standard the pupils must be able to distinguish vertical, horizontal and oblique lines, to recognise such lines when they see them, to give the lines their appropriate names, and to draw them with ruler and without ruler at dictation. They must know that when two lines cross one another four angles are presented to view, that the size of the angles is independent of the length of the lines, that one pair of angles may be larger than another pair, that when there is no such inequality the angles are said to be right angles and the lines are mutually perpendicular. . . . Strict page 84scientific definitions will not be demanded, but the pupil must be able to use and apply the several geometrical terms required, and give approximate verbal explanations of their meaning. They must also know how to draw lines parallel or perpendicular to one another. . . .'* 'To secure full approval' the needlework of Standard I girls had to consist of: 'Threading needles and hemming. (Illustration of work: Strips of calico or a plain pocket-handkerchief).'

It was the duty of the inspector to examine once a year all the standard classes in each school in his area; 'the examination is to be so conducted', said the regulation, 'as to enable the inspector to say of any individual pupil that he has passed, or that he has failed to pass, a given standard.' The most experienced head teacher of the largest school had no power to promote a child from one class to the next. It was a system that, like 'payment by results' in England, had consequences that were almost wholly bad but sometimes grimly amusing.

School committees, education boards, the general public, and many of the teachers themselves soon came to judge a school by the 'percentage of passes' it secured; and a teacher's standing and chance of promotion depended above everything else on the showing made by his pupils at the annual examination. Hodgson remarked, with weary exasperation: 'The page 85undoubting faith with which the majority of mankind will bow down to an idol of their own creating is simply astounding. The figures of an inspector claim to do no more than record how many scholars out of a number that a teacher has thought fit to present have complied with the minimum requirement. Yet these figures are almost universally accepted as though they gave a mathematical demonstration of the exact status of any given school.' There followed a breathless 'race for percentages'; teachers restricted themselves as closely as possible to the examinable parts of the syllabus, and pressed year after year for more detailed definition of the standard requirements. The months immediately preceding the examination were apt to degenerate into an orgy of cram, involving much 'keeping-in', long hours of home-work, and unremitting punishment for 'carelessness' or 'laziness'. Among the less scrupulous teachers the techniques of 'window-dressing' and of hoodwinking the inspector reached the level of a fine art. 'On examination day', writes one inspector, 'festoons of flowers, mingled with leaves, hang prettily on the walls, while ferns adorn the angles and doorways. . . . Mottoes of welcome are in the ascendant.' Backward children, who were almost certain to fail and 'lower the percentage of passes', were on occasion actually forbidden by their teachers to be present. Something of the atmosphere on the page 86day itself may be gathered from an inspector's description of how, 'in a high-toned school, one is struck by the air of earnestness pervading the classes, by their look of seriousness and even anxiety, and by the diligence with which the answers are revised and improved, until the expiry of the time allowed. Such a sight as this gladdens the heart, and forces on one the recognition of the momentous importance of the moral training, in the widest sense of the term, which is being imparted in every school.' On the day following the examination there was the 'Inspector's Holiday', during which the inspector marked the written work, beginning with the simple sums and spelling of Standard I, fixed the classification of the children for another year, and calculated the 'percentage of passes'. In due course the results were published in the press for the information of an eager public consisting not only of parents but also of a few inveterate gamblers who, quick to see the analogy between horse-racing and the 'race for percentages', had put their money on their favourite school.

The 'individual standard pass' was under fire right through the Habens period. Most of the inspectors had opposed it from the beginning, and the New Zealand Educational Institute, which spoke for the teachers, attacked it year after year. Indeed, there is little one could say in condemnation of it that was not said at the time, and said with pungency and force. page 87It was a system that achieved a narrow and half-spurious efficiency at enormous cost. It tended to turn inspectors into educational policemen and to reduce the teacher to the level of the hack examination coach. But it was the children on whom it bore down with the most painful weight, particularly the duller of them who had somehow to be forced to 'pass'; the successful teacher', said a president of the New Zealand Educational Institute, 'gives far the greater part of his time to driving on the dunces. Often enough, particularly in schools with a reputation for great efficiency, there existed a state of open warfare between teachers and pupils, with rebellion from below breaking out at periodic intervals and being put down from above by merciless flogging. Moreover, the whole tendency was to emphasise the factual and formal aspects of an already factual and formal syllabus. Arithmetic—that highly examinable subject—was intensively drilled, and took up about a third I of a child's school life. In English formal grammar was heavily stressed—it too was easy to examine. Geography was apt to be little more than the memorising of strings of capes and bays, mountains, rivers and lakes, and capitals; and since a typical prescription in history began 'The succession of Houses and Sovereigns from 1066 a.d. to 1485 a.d. . . .' there was every suggestion that this subject too should be treated in a similar way. A common approach to science is illustrated by the following 'object lesson', page 88which was printed in The New Zealand Journal of Education for 1900 as a model for teachers to follow:

'Standard II: Coal'.

'Materials.—Pieces of coal brought by children. Picture of forest showing dense undergrowth of ferns, etc. If possible a piece of coal showing impression of leaf.

Experiment 1.—Children examine pieces of coal very closely, and teacher by questioning elicits that

Conclusion.—Coal is smooth, bright, hard, black, and like a stone.

Experiment 2.—Child puts piece of coal into a vessel of water, and coal sinks to bottom.

Conclusion.—Coal is heavy and will not float.

Experiment 3.—A pupil strikes piece of coal with hammer and it breaks into pieces.

Conclusion.—Coal is brittle.

Experiment 4.—Pupil takes small piece of coal in tongs and holds it in flame of lamp. Children notice a puff of smoke. Coal swells and then bursts into flame.

Conclusion.—Coal will burn.

Note.—Elicit that coal is dug out of the ground, and tell that it once formed part of a forest (show picture). Forests have been buried for thousands of years. Show mark of leaf on coal.

Summary.—Coal is a black, shiny, hard, brittle, heavy substance. It burns easily and gives great heat. We use it as fuel. Coal is not a mineral though it is dug out of the ground. It is formed from trees and plants that grew in the forests of long ago.'

* The quotation is from the 1892 syllabus. This method of introducing small children to drawing was, however, by no means uncommon twenty years later.