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William Rolleston : a New Zealand statesman



In his Provincial days, Rolleston constantly preached that three things were necessary to create a happy social order, namely, close land settlement, a flow of well-selected immigrants, and a sound system of education. He thought if these, three tasks were well carried out the State had fairly done its duty and the citizen was reasonably equipped for the battle of life.

His first public activity was in the sphere of education. In 1863 he was appointed as member of a Commission to investigate the condition of education in Canterbury. The other Commissioners were H. J. Tancred (Chairman), Dr Lillie (of the Presbyterian Church), and Mr Saunders (of the Wesleyan Church). At that time the control of education was in the hands of the religious denominations. The reason for this was that the first settlers looked to the churches to carry on the schools as they had done under the parish system in the Old Country. Hence, under the first Education Ordinance of 1857, funds were paid to the churches—£1100 to the Anglicans, £250 to the Wesleyans, and £250 to the Presbyterians. Before that, temporary appropriations had been made "until experience should have shown what might be devised as most appropriate to the conditions of the Province".

As these church schools charged fees and taught religion, we may say the system was neither free nor secular, and page 44probably not very compulsory. In fact, on all points, it was the reverse of our present system.

The members of the Education Commission of 1863 visited the various schools scattered through the Province. Rolleston, as the youngest member, was allotted all the roughest travelling. In his old age he still recalled his toilsome journey to various parts of Banks Peninsula.

The Commissioners recommended great changes, which were quickly adopted. An Education Board was established to which the Commissioners were appointed to take the place of the churches. Education districts and school committees were soon created. Tancred and Rolleston prepared and passed the legislation through the Provincial Council—without abolishing denominational schools the legislation fostered the establishment of national schools.

Under the proposals of the Report, the teachers were not called on to give religious instruction further than that the schools were to be opened daily with prayer and Bible reading. If any denominational instruction were given, it was to be by approved ministers under special arrangements. "The Education Board", said the Commission, "should be, in short, an administrator, so to speak, of temporalities, not a director of consciences."

In later years further changes were made, but the three main steps in the system may be summarised as follows:

(1)Church control.
(2)State control with uncontroversial religious teaching.
(3)State control with no religious instruction except in so far as the committees allowed the use of the school rooms.1

Rolleston gave high praise to Tancred. "He was second to none", he said, "of New Zealand's public men in learning, knowledge of literature, and administrative capacity…. He showed the same soundness of judgment page 45as in every other office which he filled in the Provincial Council, in the General Assembly, and in the Senate of the University, apparently without effort and with no superficial display. Serving under him was my first introduction to public life."

1 Education in Canterbury by Rolleston, Press, 15 December 1900.