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Educating New Zealand


We must now return to the secondary schools which we left at a point just before the Great War. The story of the next quarter century or so runs roughly parallel to that of the primary schools during the same period. There is a remarkable change in page 131opinion, a much smaller change in practice, and hence a widening gap between the two; and there is a similar struggle over the external examination, in this case the university entrance examination.

The change in opinion begins to become evident about 1920. From this time onwards the schools declare that they are anxious to broaden their curriculum and give a larger place to modern interests but that they are frustrated by the university entrance examination. This theme becomes more and more insistent until, in 1937, we find the Secondary Schools Association (which is representative of both principals and assistants) passing the following resolutions: 'That in view of the proved necessity for adjusting the secondary school curriculum to meet individual differences while retaining the elements of a liberal education, drastic revision is necessary; that the curriculum has adhered too long to traditional valuations, has disregarded the findings of educational psychology as regards subject isolation and the transfer of subject values, and has lost touch with the realities of modern life and especially with the changing needs of our own society; that the curriculum through prescriptive deference to external examinations and to false valuations thereby engendered of foreign languages and mathematics, fails entirely to interpret social studies as a preparation for citizenship, sectionalizes when it should integrate science, and neglects the rich cultural content of the province of art; that the curriculum page 132should contain a cultural core of English, Social Studies, General Science, Health, Handwork, Art and Arithmetic and that all other subjects should be relegated to the sphere of pre-vocational options to be taken in accordance with individual needs and interests; that the Matriculation examination so far as it affects secondary schools should be abolished. . . .'

Here indeed is a revolution in ideas—a 'cultural core' including 'Health, Handwork and Art' and excluding Latin, French, Algebra and Geometry! It is permissible to doubt whether the outspoken terms of the resolutions represent the innermost convictions of a large majority of the secondary school service, but the fact that the resolutions could be passed, and passed unanimously, is evidence enough of a real and widespread change of feeling.

Such a statement from the secondary service itself makes it unnecessary to argue the point that there has been but a slight widening of the secondary school curriculum and no profound change in the spirit of the teaching. Art and music are more in evidence than they were even a few years ago; there has been a vigorous development of school clubs catering for all kinds of recreational and cultural interests; and in all subjects the quality of the teaching has steadily improved. It is true, too, that the schools now offer at least one course that does not lead to the university entrance examination, and nearly always two. The girls' schools have a 'home life' course, or a com-page 133mercial course, or both, while the boys' schools have commercial, industrial or agricultural courses. But nearly three-fifths of the girls and over three-quarters of the boys still take a university entrance course with one or two foreign languages. The basic reason, of course, is that a certificate intended only to give entry to higher education has come to be demanded as qualification for jobs in business and for many semi-professional occupations.

From 1921 onwards various plans for relieving the schools of the pressure of the university entrance examination were discussed. But there was much opposition to reform—mainly on the ground that the examination was necessary to maintain standards—and those who were in favour of change could not agree on a detailed scheme. In 1934 the Education Department, in co-operation with the University, attempted to solve the problem by instituting a departmental school leaving certificate which was of the same standard as the university entrance examination, but was designed to permit of a broader curriculum for pupils who did not intend to go on to the University. The practical effects of the move were negligible. In 1938 more than two-thirds of the state secondary school principals reported that the school certificate examination had given them no relief at all. The trouble was that the business and semi-professional world continued to demand 'Matriculation'; indeed, a considerable part of it, despite the page 134propaganda of the Education Department and the schools, was not aware that the school certificate existed. By this time the University itself was seriously considering the substitution of a scheme of accrediting for the entrance examination. When accrediting was first mooted in the early nineteen-twenties, the secondary schools had on the whole supported it and the University had been suspicious. Now, curiously enough, the position is the other way round, though as late as 1938 a majority of state school principals still favoured accrediting. In 1939, however, the Secondary Schools Association rejected the scheme being discussed by the University and proposed instead that the qualification for entry to higher education should be the school certificate followed by one satisfactory year in the sixth form. Fear of over-inspection and a reluctance to undertake the responsibility involved in accrediting both seem to have played a part in this decision. The University on its side was not prepared to accept as a pre-requisite for entrance an examination it did not control, and one that could, as a matter of fact, be abolished by a stroke of the departmental pen like the proficiency examination before it. And at the last meeting of the Senate (held in January 1941) the original scheme was finally approved in a slightly modified form. Whether or not this marks the beginning of a new era in secondary education it is at present impossible to say.

Changes in school government are, if anything, less page 135marked in the secondary than in the primary schools. The relations between teachers and pupils are certainly much more candid and sympathetic than they were, and are sometimes excellent, but that improvement has taken place within a framework of control that remains pretty rigidly authoritarian. The typical secondary school is a highly organised oligarchy in which life is closely ordered from above and in which the plain citizen has little or no voice in matters of real importance.* This state of affairs is, on the whole, taken for granted by teachers, by parents and the general public, and by the pupils themselves. Yet it is surely not easy to defend in principle. The effects of external discipline on the tougher characters are notoriously superficial and apt to be sloughed off at the first opportunity, while more docile minds may be left in a condition of unhealthy over-dependence on adult authority. And fairly simple logic suggests that a scheme of education giving such limited scope to the exercise of initiative and responsibility is not the best sort of instrument for the creation of an alert and self-disciplined democracy. A few New

* Much of this and what follows, applies also to many schools outside the secondary system; the technical school tradition, for example, is one of mild external discipline, rather than internal discipline in the modern sense.

J. E. Strachan, who introduced a system of self-government at Rangiora, writes: 'Attacks on the school began very soon after I took charge. . . . For years the chief bone of contention was the School Council and its subversive effect upon discipline. The impression created and freely discussed was "the kids ran the school", and that the teachers had no authority. As a matter of fact "the kids" have "run the school" in an emergency and done it very well, for which we have all been grateful to them, but that was not the reference.' See his The School Looks at Life (1938).

page 136Zealand schools have recognised this and gone some distance in the direction of 'self-government', but there is little sign of a general move. Here as elsewhere the university entrance examination is a serious obstacle, since self-government cannot work effectively unless the majority of pupils accept the purposes of the school and see meaning in what they are doing. Moreover, in the big city schools the mere weight of numbers is a hindrance. The main influence, however, seems to be the public school tradition, with its overwhelming emphasis on conformity and the production of the type (though, as a matter of fact, some quite radical experiments in this field have been conducted in the English public schools themselves). It would be an exaggeration to say that the attitude of the typical principal is the same as that of a traditional public school man like Cyril Norwood: 'The business of a school is to work, and to get on with its life without bothering about Whys and Wherefores, and abstract justice, and the democratic principle.' But it seems to be closer to that than to the point of view of, shall we say, a cautious exponent of the doctrine of freedom in education like Sir Percy Nunn. On the question of co-education there has been a bigger change of opinion: a substantial section of the secondary service now favours the mixed school, though it is not yet accepted, as it is among technical teachers, as the normal educational arrangement.
The most courageous break from tradition has been page 137made by J. E. Strachan, headmaster of the Rangiora High School.* As Strachan saw it, the conventional school was a screen between the living interests of the adolescent and the real world of nature and civilisation that it was the business of education to interpret. Tinkering was not enough. There had to be a new curriculum, new methods, new relations between teachers and children. The Rangiora curriculum is divided into four sections: science (a short course in physiography leading on to biology, the main science study); technology ('a survey of the world at work'); sociology; and the fine arts. These studies are correlated and interwoven with a comprehensive course in world history, and the whole curriculum is carefully integrated around the central theme of 'human life'. Strachan lays great stress on constant reference to the local environment (technology develops from local community surveys and work on the school farm), and on the principle that learning is most effective when it is a response to felt needs. Then, as an essential part of the whole scheme, there is a thorough-going system of self-government. All pupils, no matter what other work they do, take the general course. More specialised pre-vocational and cultural activities—'functional developments' as Strachan calls them—grow out of it. In a rural school the main 'functional development' is naturally the agricultural course, but some pupils may, and do,

* Strachan expounds his theory and practice in The School Looks at Life (1938).

page 138turn to other things, even to foreign languages. Strachan regards the ordinary university entrance course as a poor intellectual diet even for the academically-minded minority, but he has been forced to make some concessions to the public demand for it. For this and other reasons he is far from claiming that the school completely represents his own ideal, still less that it could or should be copied in detail by other people. Nevertheless Rangiora points clearly to the general kind of transformation one would expect to take place in the secondary schools of a democracy that was concerned with the deepening of its intellectual and spiritual foundations.

As for the district high schools, they were until recently dominated in the same way as the secondary schools by the entrance examination, despite the fact that only a tiny fraction of their pupils proceeded to the University. In 1933, however, their curriculum was broadened to allow of three courses—the university entrance course, a farm course, and a home crafts course. Since that date there has been a steady development of 'non-academic' activities, though few schools have attempted drastic reforms or become definitely community-centred. An outstanding contribution to district high school theory and practice has been made by H. C. D. Somerset, whose aims and general outlook are somewhat similar to Strachan's.*

* A brief account of Somerset's work is to be found in his Littledene: A New Zealand Rural Community (1938).

page 139

Up to this point it has been assumed that there are two levels of education, primary and post-primary, and that the primary school provides an eight-year course and keeps its children until the age of thirteen or fourteen. This is still the general situation, but nearly one-sixth of the children in Forms I and II (the old Standards V and VI) are now in reorganised intermediate schools and departments.

The history of the intermediate schools goes back to the beginning of the nineteen-twenties. For at least a decade before that time educationists in North America had accepted the principle of a consolidated junior high school for children between the ages, roughly, of twelve and fifteen. In Europe also it had in many countries been decided that primary education should end and post-primary education begin somewhere between the ages of ten and twelve. England herself adopted the principle in 1926, some years after many of her European neighbours.

In its early stages at least the New Zealand movement was a reflection of these overseas developments rather than a response to widely felt and clearly-defined local needs. And that was one of the main reasons for the intellectual confusion that has been its peculiar curse. This is not to deny the existence of a general case for intermediate schools that was as valid in New Zealand as elsewhere. That case has been stated succinctly by C. E. Beeby: 'The strongest single argument for the intermediate school is that page 140it can offer all the advantages of consolidation: ability-grouping, differentiated courses, specialist teaching more generous equipment, better social and sport facilities, more efficient exploration of aptitudes—all are made possible by the fact that the intermediate school is a consolidated school.' Moreover, 'the intermediate school caters for an age-group that has educational needs different from those of the age-groups immediately below and above;' and 'it can reduce the gap between primary and post-primary school on the one hand, and between school and work on the other.'* But it was one thing to accept such general arguments as these, and quite another to work out the theory and practice of an intermediate school suited to New Zealand conditions.

Reorganisation began in 1922 during the ministry of Sir James Parr, who had been greatly impressed by the American junior high school. The movement was launched with confidence and enthusiasm, but by 1927 the official attitude towards the new schools had become distinctly step-motherly. 'The proposed reorganization', wrote the Hon. R. A. Wright (who had succeeded Sir James Parr), 'has been received with a certain amount of caution, if not reserve, mainly because of the uncertainty of its effects upon both primary and secondary schools and the lack of sufficiently definite information regarding the cost. . . .' Despite these doubts, a few more schools were page break
The Engineering Shop at a Technical College

The Engineering Shop at a Technical College

A Typical Cookery Classroom

A Typical Cookery Classroom

page break page 141established. And so matters drifted on until 1932, when the Hon. R. Masters introduced an entirely new policy. Sir James Parr's junior high school had been a three-year institution straddling the last two years of the primary course and the first of the secondary and technical. The course was now reduced from three years to two, the name junior high school' was changed to 'intermediate school or department', and less liberal staffing and salary scales were brought into operation.

Behind these hesitations and shifts is a very complicated story. Much of the trouble arose from the lack of a clear-cut and self-consistent intermediate school policy, and that in turn was once again largely due to a failure to adapt and synthesise ideas borrowed from abroad. New Zealand drew some of her intermediate school theory from England and some from the United States. From England was derived the idea that the main purpose of the intermediate school was to provide for an early beginning with secondary subjects (such as foreign languages) and with commercial and technical studies. From the United States came the idea that the school should be primarily exploratory in purpose, a place in which children could 'try themselves out' before embarking on specialised courses. Up to 1932 the main emphasis in official pronouncements was on early specialisation, after 1932 on 'exploration', but it was usually implied that the schools could carry out both functions. It was page 142never explained how, in Forms I and II, children could cover the ordinary primary school course, make a serious beginning with secondary studies and at the same time, be given a chance to test themselves out experimentally in a fairly wide range of other activities. Moreover the whole concept of 'exploration' remained nebulous; and even if it had been fully understood in its American sense, there was the difficulty that the schools had neither the staffing nor the equipment to carry out more than a fraction of the functions it implied. Inevitably, the lack of a lucid and consistent policy reflected itself in difficulties in the schools and hampered the development of the whole movement towards reorganisation.

There was, however, another grave obstacle, the impossibility of pleasing all the parties concerned. The layman, especially when he was interested as parent or committee-man in a primary school threatened with decapitation, had to be convinced that reorganisation was in any way desirable. As he often saw it, the status and efficiency of the contributing school would be seriously lowered by the loss of its senior pupils (and hence its football team!), its headmaster and highest-graded assistants, and part of its capitation grant, while the senior children themselves would gain little or nothing in return for the disadvantage of having to travel farther to school. Public opposition to reorganisation could be very lively, very vocal, and very stubborn, but experience page 143soon showed that it usually faded away once the new school was in being. A much more serious obstacle lay in the conflicting attitudes and conflicting interests of the primary and post-primary branches of the education service. The burning issue was whether or not junior high schools should as a matter of general policy be attached to existing secondary or technical schools. Such a prospect was more than inviting to the post-primary schools, but highly distasteful to the primary service, which, through the New Zealand Educational Institute, recommended 'that for large towns there be established one or more of the following: tops to existing primary schools; "bottoms" to reformed * secondary schools; separate central schools.' As the Institute's proposal was in its turn far from acceptable to the post-primary schools, who saw their Third Forms threatened, it was impossible for the administrator to do anything positive without antagonising one or other section of teaching opinion. It was by no means entirely a naked struggle of interests. Each side saw the junior high school as a more or less idealised, more or less modified, version of the type of school with which it was most familiar—and the two pictures were very different. On the other hand there is, to quote C. E. Beeby, 'one objective fact that should be kept in mind by the most trusting of observers: the number of children in a school, primary or secondary, is the basis not only of staffing and

* My emphasis.

page 144accommodation but also of salaries and of all grants to a local authority. A child then is doubly precious once as a human soul and once as a unit of attendance.'

By 1932 the honours in the contest lay heavily with the post-primary schools—there was only one separate junior high school with a Third Form and there were no primary 'tops'. Mr Masters' regulations reducing the course from three years to two meant that the post-primary schools would in all cases retain their Third Forms. The New Zealand Educational Institute, which had never been unanimously in favour of reorganisation, immediately asked that further development be postponed pending an improvement in the national finances, 'the establishment of satisfactory conditions in the early stages of learning', and unification of control. A similar request was made by the Secondary Schools Association, mainly on the ground that intermediate education was 'being introduced without a definite philosophy behind it'. During the next few years (which, incidentally, saw the establishment of several separate two-year schools) it became more and more clear that the Secondary Schools Association was right. There were occasions when an outsider might well have applied to the intermediate school debate William James's famous phrase, 'one great, blooming, buzzing confusion'. Moreover, very few people outside the schools themselves had a clear idea of what they were doing. So in 1936 at the suggestion of the page 145New Zealand Educational Institute the Minister of Education (the Hon. P. Fraser) invited the New Zealand Council for Educational Research to make a survey of the intermediate school system. The Council agreed and asked Dr Beeby, who was then its Director, to undertake the task.

Beeby's report* has already had a marked influence on official policy, on the intermediate schools themselves, and on educational opinion generally, and its effect will probably be felt for some time to come. His general conclusion was that on the average the intermediate schools were giving an education that was fuller, more economical of time and effort, and better adapted to the needs of the adolescent than that given by the ordinary primary schools to children of Forms I and II. But the differences between the two (intermediate and primary) were not as great as might have been expected. A major reason for this had been the vagueness and inconsistency of official policy, and in particular the attempt to combine in one school the two incompatible functions of earlier specialisation and the exploration of aptitudes. Actually there was little exploration and a good deal of early specialisation. The schools had been handicapped also by the demands of the proficiency examination, restrictions concerning time-tables, lack of equipment, difficulties of staffing and unsatisfactory relations with other schools. As these hindrances were at least

* Op. cit

page 146partially removable, Beeby based his recommendations not so much on what the schools were as on what they might become.

His major recommendation (supported by the arguments quoted earlier) was that the intermediate school system should be continued and extended. He proposed that the chief function of the intermediate schools in New Zealand should be 'to provide a socially integrative period of schooling for all children passing through the public school system at a point before they diverge along specialized lines. Rightly or wrongly, the primary schools up to Standard IV are concerned chiefly with the teaching of the "tools" of learning: at the post-primary stage specialization begins: it is the chief function of the intermediate school to provide between the two a period of expansive, realistic, and socially integrative education that will give all future citizens a common basis of experience and knowledge.' To this the exploratory function of the intermediate school is made subservient, while the function most strongly emphasised when reorganisation was first undertaken—the earlier beginning of secondary subjects—is not regarded as one that should be imposed universally on intermediate schools. 'Some headmasters,' Beeby says, 'while acknowledging a degree of value in Latin, French and mathematics, might well believe that other studies are of more importance to even the academically bright child of intermediate school age'.

page 147

The more detailed proposals of the report cannot be quoted here. But it must be added that the recommendations concerning the types of school that should be established, and the length of their courses, were based on two main principles: first that independent schools are to be preferred to attached schools (for the reason that they offer a greater hope for 'the relaxing of the academic, verbal traditions of education and for the treatment of individuals as individuals'); second, that all children should be allowed to remain at the intermediate school for a third or even part of a fourth year, and that those who do not intend to prolong their schooling for more than a year beyond Form III should be encouraged to stay at the intermediate school for that year.

This brings us to the present position. The extension of the intermediate school system—pretty much, one gathers, along the lines just indicated—is settled government policy, and several large and finely-equipped schools have been built very recently. It would not be correct to say that opposition to reorganisation has disappeared, or even that those who press for intermediate schools in their districts are always profoundly convinced of their educational advantages, but where the impending change is not positively welcomed it is now generally accepted as inevitable. As for the schools themselves they have a surer sense of direction and are no longer worried by the proficiency examination or lack of equipment. page 148With better conditions than the primary schools and much more freedom than the secondary schools, they have exciting opportunities. It remains to be seen if they will have the insight and imagination to make the most of them. As Beeby's report shows very clearly, intermediate school organisation is not incompatible with the mechanical methods of the educational factory. This, indeed, is the main reason for the lurking suspicion with which reorganisation is still regarded by some educational reformers; it is for the schools to demonstrate more convincingly than has hitherto been possible that any such suspicion is groundless.