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Educating New Zealand


The best of the inspectors and teachers were well aware of the need for humanising the curriculum, adapting it to the interests of the children, and linking it up with their immediate environment. Henry Hill, the inspector of schools for Hawke's Bay, demanded to know why the children of the Forty page 89Mile Bush should 'go in imagination to a country they have never seen, and to a period in its history which neither they nor I can duly realise, to obtain their first conceptions of history', and declared that they were being given 'stones instead of bread' and made 'the victims of a cruel and unnatural system of teaching'. Some teachers began, quite early in the period, to cultivate a taste for gardening and to try to develop a real feeling for nature study; others made a feature of singing, refusing to regard it as a regrettable distraction from the serious business of the school; a few even managed to impart life and interest into the examination subjects. But by and large the system was stiff with formalism and highly resistant to new ideas. A whole generation of New Zealanders had a narrow and mechanical conception of education stamped into its mind.

Even a rough sketch of the primary school in the Habens period would be incomplete without some further reference to school attendance, and to the relations between teachers and school committees. Attendance was obligatory between the ages of seven and thirteen, or until Standard IV had been passed, though for only half the period during which the school was open. Even so, the compulsory clause was laxly enforced—the school committees were reluctant to take action against their neighbours or, it might be, one of their own members—and some children escaped school altogether while others came page 90very close to doing so. In the eighties it was no uncommon thing for a quarter of the children in a school to be absent three times out of four, and another quarter twice. Bad roads and truancy were among the causes, but the main reason was that many parents were indifferent or hostile to the school, or kept their children away so that they could work in the home or on the farm—hard, unremitting manual labour was still pretty much taken for granted as the natural lot of childhood. The majority of children, especially boys in the country districts, left school for good at the age of about twelve, after passing Standard IV. The attainments of the average boy who left school at this stage were neatly summarised by Hodgson: 'He can read a passage of ordinary difficulty from a newspaper, not well, but intelligibly; he can write a short letter on some simple subject in a legible hand, and probably without gross misspellings; and he knows enough of figures to be able to make out or check a tradesman's bill. As to the rest of his acquirements,'—Hodgson was replying to the charge that the youth of the country was being 'over-educated'—'no apprehension need be felt that the scraps of geography, grammar and history that he may have picked up should be a serious obstacle to his success in life.'

The school committees had wide powers: in some districts they virtually appointed the teachers, and they could, if they set their mind to it, make a page 91teacher's position practically untenable, or, on the other hand, protect him from the consequences of his incompetence. Appointments sometimes turned on completely irrelevant considerations, such as membership of the right church, and the teacher was often hard put to it to maintain freedom of action in his own professional sphere. School committee elections often provided an opportunity for the prosecution of the local feuds that bred so readily in small I and isolated communities, and that often involved the teacher himself. Feeling could run high: 'after the meeting was over', reported a North Island paper in 1885, 'the members of the school committee hostile to our popular and excellent teacher were hooted and tin-kettled to their houses by one of the most excited and indignant crowds ever seen in Warkworth.'

One of the ablest and most outspoken of the educational critics of the Habens period was George Hogben, who as we have seen, became Inspector-General of Schools in 1899, and was in command of the Education Department for the next sixteen years. He had come to New Zealand in 1881 as science master of the Christchurch Boys' High School, and was later an inspector of schools under the Canterbury Education Board and then rector of the Timaru Boys' High School. The son of a Congregationalist minister, Hogben was in many respects a typical representative of intellectual nonconformity—a man of strong personal convictions, a little proud, as he said of himself, page 92of his 'fads', and forthright in his expressions of opinion. Liberty for the teacher was the first article of his educational faith, and he believed firmly in systematic moral instruction in schools. At Cambridge he had distinguished himself in both classics and mathematics, but although he retained a taste for Horace, it was mathematics and science that interested him most deeply. In educational theory he aligned himself very decidedly with the reformers who, all over the world, were attacking formalism and verbalism and pleading for a scheme of education that would be 'closer to life'.

Hogben threw himself into the task of reform in the spirit of the Opposition leader who is at last given a chance to govern, and if he did not succeed in transforming the primary school, the main reason was that neither the teaching service nor the general public was prepared for the rapid advances he wanted to make. Nevertheless, the Hogben period saw important developments in every direction. The colonial scale of staffs and salaries, introduced in 1902, gave teachers an increase in salary, removed the fear of cuts to provide money for buildings, and was the first big step in the direction of reducing the size of classes. In 1906 the teachers' superannuation scheme came into operation, and two years later, after further salary increases had been granted, the New Zealand Educational Institute reported that 'the conditions of the teaching profession in the Dominion, except for page 93the urgent need of a promotion scheme, must now be regarded as on the whole satisfactory.' But although there was a definite improvement in their economic position, the rank and file of teachers were still poorly paid, and huge classes of eighty, ninety, and a hundred children were by no means uncommon. In such matters the administrator must work within the limits of the available finance, and parliamentary opinion, though favourable to increased expenditure on education was not prepared for revolutionary changes.

With the curriculum, however, and the inspection and examination of schools, Hogben had a free hand. One of his first actions as Inspector-General was to bring into operation new regulations designed to free inspectors and teachers from shackling restrictions: 'an atmosphere of liberty', he said, 'is the only one in which true teaching can thrive.' The inspectors retained wide powers—they could, if they wished, examine all the standard classes in the old way, but they were obliged to conduct individual examinations only in Standard VI, for the purpose of awarding proficiency certificates, and Hogben laid it down specifically that 'the work of an inspector will be qualitative rather than quantitative: he will influence the character of the teaching instead of attempting to measure the amount of knowledge possessed by each individual child.' The annual examination of Standards I to V became a duty of the head teachers; Hogben would have gone further and left head page 94teachers quite free in the matter, but he was unable to get sufficient support from the education boards, the inspectors, and the service itself.

About the same time, and with the object of giving reality to school work, manual training was introduced into the curriculum. The scheme provided for such pursuits as paper-folding, plasticine-modelling, brushwork, cardboard modelling, gardening, cookery for the older girls, and woodwork for the older boys. Unhappily, much of the programme followed current European practice, which was based on a stilted and highly artificial conception of handwork. Heavy emphasis was laid on the development of manipulative skill by means of a graded series of exercises 'from the simple to the complex', on 'the co-ordination of hand, eye and brain', and on the inculcation of habits of carefulness and accuracy. It was a form of technical training that quite overlooked the creative and constructive impulses of children, and that resulted in the production of objects, candle-sticks made of carton paper, for example, that were neither useful nor beautiful. Ironically enough, the very practices that were introduced in the interests of realism were those that often provided the most glaring instances of rigid formalism; and the fact that woodwork and cookery were usually carried on in separate 'manual training centres' generally meant that these activities were completely divorced from the rest of the curriculum. School gardening fared rather better than page 95other forms of practical work, though even it could be made dull enough. It is pretty much an open question whether the manual training of the Hogben period did more good than harm to the children submitted to it, and it certainly implanted sterile conceptions of art and handwork which have proved exceedingly tenacious, and have seriously hampered progress. Alas, it is easier to be aware of a disorder than to prescribe the appropriate remedy.

During his first few years of office Hogben was carefully preparing the way, partly by means of a series of conferences at which he expounded his educational ideas with unflagging enthusiasm, partly by means of regulations designed to extend the teacher's freedom, for the introduction of an entirely new syllabus for primary schools. The syllabus of 1904, which Hogben drew up practically single-handed, is rightly considered a landmark in the history of New Zealand education. Frank Tate, Director of Education for Victoria, and another apostle of 'the new education', who was in New Zealand when the syllabus was introduced, wrote of it: 'The New Zealand syllabus . . . is permeated with the best of modern educational thought. There is, throughout, an attempt to import reality into school work, to bring the teaching into closer contact with the outdoor life of the pupils, to throw overboard merely conventional information in favour of what will be genuinely interesting and serviceable. page 96It demands rational methods by making use of the principle of interest, by cultivating the self-activity of the pupil, by aiming at developing his individuality and generating real mental power. It affords great scope for the immediate application of a knowledge of the facts and the principles underlying them.' Nowhere else in the world, perhaps, was there a more serious attempt to embody the best theory of the time in an official syllabus.

Schools, however, are not transformed at once by new regulations and a new syllabus; instruction became more comprehensive and more efficient, a few outworn practices were left behind, but the schools remained, generally speaking, formal institutions dominated by a drive for measurable results. The reasons were many. For all its great virtues, the syllabus itself continued to reflect the Victorian pre-occupation with intellectual analysis to the neglect of emotional and aesthetic values, and it was overmuch coloured by the mathematical and scientific interests of its author. In addition it demanded much more knowledge and professional skill than the majority of teachers possessed; when it was first issued it produced among the rank and file of the service consternation bordering on panic. Hogben, it was true, was emphatic on the need for training—regulations that came into force in 1905 provided that, in general, entrants to the service would in future spend two years as pupil-teachers and two at a training page 97college—but it is doubtful if he fully appreciated the limitations and difficulties of the ordinary teacher. Enormous classes created almost insuperable problems for the most conscientious and enthusiastic. The external proficiency examination remained, and in the lower standards the internal examinations conducted by the head teacher often had precisely the same effects on the teaching as the inspectors' examinations of the Habens period. But the main force at work was the formal tradition itself which, with some exceptions of course, was active in the minds of inspectors, teachers, and the public alike and was not easily to be supplanted by the liberalism of a visionary, even if he were Inspector-General of Schools.

The period provides one interesting example of temporary divergence from English practice — the primary school cadet corps, which, stimulated by the imperialism of Seddon and his colleagues, increased rapidly in the years immediately following the South African War. The boys drilled with dummy rifles, learned to shoot with real ones, and wore a regulation uniform consisting of blue woollen jersey, blue cloth knickerbockers, blue stockings, and Glengarry cap with diced border. The corps were not abolished until 1912, when an entirely new system of physical training, based on the English syllabus of 1909, was instituted.

From the very foundation of the national system the New Zealand primary school showed a pro-page 98nounced tendency to rigidity and inertia; broadly speaking, it was satisfied to keep pace with changes in the English elementary school, but its reaction-time was slow—anything up to a decade—and there was often a disposition to regard liberal developments abroad with dark suspicion. The results of this conservatism became especially marked during the twenty years that followed the retirement of Hogben, the period, roughly, from the beginning of the Great War to the end of the Great Depression. The early part of this period saw, all over the world, one of the most remarkable revivals in educational history; it was a time of sweeping plans for educational and social reconstruction, of bold theorising, and striking innovations in practice. In all democratic countries there was a widespread demand for thorough-going reform in the primary school, both for improved material conditions for teachers and children, and for a scheme of education conceived in terms, not of mass instruction and external discipline, but of balanced development in an atmosphere of freedom and creative work. Nowhere in the world did this movement completely revolutionise the schools, but if there were some countries that progressed more slowly than New Zealand, there were others, often with more limited opportunities, that went well beyond her. In some very important respects the English elementary school, despite the handicap of its class associations, forged far ahead.

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Physical Culture 1913

Physical Culture 1913

Physical Culture 1941

Physical Culture 1941

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The period from 1915 to 1935 is perhaps most notable able for the increased attention given to the physical well-being of school children. A striking report by the school medical officers published in 1917 shows how great was the need for action. The report noted that half to two-thirds of the children examined since the establishment of the school medical service in 1912 needed the service of doctor, dentist, or oculist; that it was 'not at all uncommon' to find children wearing six to nine layers of clothing restricting the chest; and that many country children never drank fresh milk. Attention was drawn also to the effects of systematic overwork out of school hours. As for the schools themselves, the report pointed out, among other things, that eye-strain was resulting from the reading of books printed in unsuitable type, and, in the case of young girls, from concentration on fine sewing; that 'the custom of making children fold their arms either before or behind produces marked deformity in susceptible children'; that the lighting in many classrooms was highly defective; that there were still in existence old-fashioned long desks which encouraged poor posture; that in some classrooms the windows had never been made to open; that in the large majority of schools the temperature in winter was far below what was prescribed by law for shops and factories; and that many schools were extremely dirty.

Partly as an outcome of the work and influence of page 100the school medical and dental services, there was during the years that followed, a decided improvement both in the standard of school hygiene and in the health of the school child. Many old buildings were remodelled; new open-air schools and classrooms were built; health camps were established; and there was a remarkable development of physical education on the recreational side, especially swimming. Some types of disease and deformity that were common among children at the beginning of the period had by the end of it practically disappeared.

The second important change was in the teaching service itself which became decidedly more attractive, especially to men. The proportion of women to men in the service increased steadily during the whole of the Hogben period, and in the years immediately following the war the ratio remained, until 1925, almost exactly 2 to 1; but from that point the trend was reversed and in 1935 the ratio was a little less than 1 ½ to 1. There were several reasons for the change: somewhat better salaries, more liberal allowances for training college students, and a growing respect for the teacher's office as the service became professionalised and as the ancient contempt for those who work with children tended to disappear.

Progress in these directions may not have been spectacular, but it was rapid in comparison with the changes that took place in the spirit and day-to-day life of the primary school. There was, it is true, a page 101general trend away from formalism and repressive discipline. More stress was laid on the liberal and humanistic side of the curriculum, arithmetic was simplified and treated more rationally, manual training and outdoor activities received greater attention, and school government became much milder. Here and there teachers made a clean break with the didactic tradition. Yet in comparison with the better elementary schools in England and the United States all but a handful of the very best New Zealand primary schools were culturally-impoverished institutions, handicapped by over-large classes in rooms crowded with desks, by extremely limited library facilities, by officially prescribed textbooks that, with few exceptions, fell much below the best overseas standards, and by very restricted provision of equipment. The arts and crafts lagged badly; so also did music, though it improved considerably before the end of the period; in few schools was there a serious attempt to link school work with the local natural and social environment; and although some classrooms became very happy places, there were others in which children were still submitted to crude mishandling.* The typical teacher spent the great bulk of his time in strenuous classroom teaching of the conventional kind, and concentrated most of his attention on the achievement of examinable results.

* As there still are. For a variety of reasons the new knowledge of child development has never made a deep impression on the minds of teachers in any branch of the education service.

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The gap between accepted theory and actual practice became so wide that it was admitted by inspectors and teachers alike, and many explanations, most of them obviously partial, were advanced. It was not, indeed, an isolated phenomenon; in many fields New Zealand's social and cultural life had become flat and unprogressive, and there was a sense of frustration in the air in such circumstances the school system lacks stimulus and a sense of direction, and administrators and teachers tend to fall back on mechanical efficiency. Neither the proficiency examination, nor the system of grading and inspecting teachers—two of the most popular explanations—could have had so marked an effect if the general temper of the country had been different.

The grading system, however, provides an extremely interesting example of local invention and adaptation. It crystallises two very strong tendencies in New Zealand life and education—on the one hand, the passion for equality of opportunity in the race for vocational success, and on the other the colonial tendency to carry over into the sphere of human organisation the objective, mechanical habit of mind developed during the pioneering struggle with material circumstances. As we have seen, the grading system had its origin in the pre-war years and was finally established in 1920. Since that time all primary teachers have been graded on a scale of some 200 points by a national body of inspectors, and, except for page 103some special appointments, promotion is rigidly determined by position on the graded list. The chief advantages of the system—admittedly very solid advantages are that it eliminates nepotism and that it allows teachers to move freely anywhere within the Dominion. The chief disadvantage is that it tends to make teachers too acutely aware of the annual* effect of their activities on their promotion, and inspectors more conscious of their judicial than of their advisory function. In practice it has undoubtedly tended in the direction of a stereotyped uniformity — partly on account of its immediate effect on teachers and inspectors, partly because it is based on the assumption that teachers are, as it were, standardised spare parts of differing sizes that can be fitted into their appropriate niches in any school in the Dominion, irrespective of its special aims and circumstances. The grading system is, indeed, both a symptom and a cause of marked divergence from one well-established English tradition—the emphasis, even at the elementary stage, on the organic individuality of the school—and the English educationist is apt to be shocked by it. But although New Zealand teachers are aware of at least some of its defects they are, quite naturally, very reluctant to give it up without a guarantee of some other substitute for local appointments and some other protection from local favouritism.

* The Education Department has just decided to introduce biennial grading, a reform that should lessen some of the bad effects of the present system.

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At the end of 1935, when New Zealand elected its first Labour government, the primary school entered on a new era in its history that recalls the early years of the Hogben period at the beginning of the century. The three decades between these two points had been a time of pedestrian plodding interrupted by brief spurts and occasional halts and set-backs, and they had ended, during the Great Depression, with sweeping educational retrenchments. Unlike its immediate predecessors, the new government regarded education as a major issue, and it was pledged to go ahead at full steam. The Minister of Education, the Hon. P. Fraser, was, an enthusiastic adherent of the 'new education', as much interested in bringing about a changed spirit in the schools as in extending and equalising educational opportunity. The social temperature favourable to reform mounted rapidly, and reached its high point during the New Education Fellowship conference held in 1937. To see the biggest city halls crowded to the doors by audiences that had come to listen to speakers on education was a new experience for the Dominion. The conference greatly strengthened the position of the reformers: for it made clear, even to those who were not in sympathy with its somewhat revivalist atmosphere, that in many fields New Zealand had much educational leeway to make up, and it showed further that principles widely regarded as dangerously heterodox had the page 105backing of men and women whose practical and administrative competence was beyond question.

As for the government's programme, it must rank as the boldest attempt yet made in New Zealand to give the primary schools the status and the conditions that correspond to their functions as the common schools of a democracy. Steps were taken to reduce the size of classes, to provide more spacious, healthy, and attractive classrooms, to safeguard the physical health and well-being of children and to extend educational facilities in rural areas. The teachers got, among other things, a more generous salary scale. On the scholastic side one of the most important projects set in hand was the preparation of a new set of text-books which are to have a decided flavour of New Zealand life. Up to the present time, however, the action that has had the most widespread and immediate effects is the abolition of the proficiency examination, a measure that had the double purpose of liberating the primary school teacher from cramping restrictions and removing the last remaining barrier to free post-primary education. The uncertainty and hesitation that followed the change gave clear evidence of the extent to which concentration on examination requirements had prevented teachers from thinking about the practical and cultural value of what they were asking children to learn. This phase is passing, but anything in the nature of a general transformation of the schools can occur only as the page 106cumulative result of a number of influences working over a fairly long period.