The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 30
Raising the School Age
Raising the School Age.
Among those who think the Colony is spending too much upon its Education, a favourite method of reducing the expenditure is to close the schools against all children who are under seven years of age. At present children are admitted when they are five years old. This, it is contended, is too early. Raise the age to seven, and the country will save money, and the children will be all the better for being excluded. There are 106,000 pupils in attendance at our Primary Schools. Of these, 21,000, or about one-fifth, are under seven. Keep these out of the schools and save one-fifth of your expenditure, say £60,000 or £70,000. This proposal is delightfully simple, but, unfortunately, simplicity is its only merit. In the first place, the capitation grant is not made on the number of scholars on the roll, but on the average of attendance, which, for the year 1886, was 83,405. Children between five and seven would not be as regular in their attendance, particularly in country districts, as those who were older, so that to allow that one-fifth of the average attendance would be those under seven is to concede a point. We will, however, allow one-fifth, that is 16,681. This is a considerable reduction on 21,000.
But further—These children below seven do not cost nearly as much per head as those who are between seven and twelve. Except in very small schools they are page 6 taught in an infant room, where the classes are larger than in the upper department. As an example, take the case of a school in the immediate neighbourhood of Christchurch. In the infant department there is an average of 160. The teachers in this department are paid about £200; that equals £1 5s per head. Add to this another 5s per head for incidentals, which is certainly a very liberal allowance, and the total cost per head is only £1 10s.
But further—In the town, suburban, and larger country schools, closing the doors against all children under seven, would make it possible to reduce the staff of teachers, although, even in those cases, it would, as we shall be able to show, probably be only shifting the incidence of cost slightly, while it would be taking the children out of the hands of teachers trained for their work, and placing them under private, and in many cases, wholly inexperienced persons. But this reduction of the staff would not be possible in a vast number of the schools of the Colony, for the simple reason that the staff now consists of but one teacher. There are 543 schools—considerably more than half the total in charge of a single teacher, with the exception that a sewing mistress attends once or twice a week to teach the girls sewing, for which she receives £10 or £12. Thus it will be seen that the process of saving, by cutting off the lower end, could be applied to less than one-half of our schools, and even there to the least expensive part. You may deprive one-fifth of the children of school and not save one-tenth of your expenditure. But, as stated above, the saving would, to a great extent, be only an apparent one. If the public schools were closed against the children under seven, it cannot be denied that a vast number of parents would send their children to private schools. Many parents are anxious to have them admitted to school before they are five. This is well-known to teachers. page 7 And there are few who would wait until the children were seven before beginning their education. And for every child sent to a private school, the father would, probably, have to pay as much as, under the present system, he pays for all his family. Let the working men think of this. But with regard to the remnant that would not send their children to private schools. The ordinary revenue of the country would undoubtedly be saved a slight drain upon it. But the country, as a whole, would suffer in the morals of these children left until they were seven years old to disport themselves in the gutter. Ask teachers if the character of the children, who are allowed to run wild until they are seven or eight years old, will compare favourably with that of children who have been under the discipline of a well taught school. No thoughtful man could for a moment imagine that such would be the case. The children of poor parents must be left to take care of themselves to a great extent, while the father is away, and the mother attends to the thousand and one household duties which fall to her lot; and if the boys and girls are not at school they will be on the streets.
But it is a shame, we are told, to confine the poor little innocents, between five and seven years of age, in the schoolroom for some hours a day, subjecting them to "cruel cram" and "impure air."
Now who wishes to cram them? Who is trying to do so? To whatever extent this evil process is resorted to in the upper standards, everyone at all conversant with the working of our State Schools, is well aware that among the infants it is unknown. Do parents who send their children to these infant schools complain? Not at all. This evil exists only in the imagination of those who would like to find fault with the system, but don't know where to begin.page 8
With regard to the impure air, we must admit that is not altogether a figment. But is the schoolroom the only place where the children are brought into contact with impure air? Or is it not a fact that in school there is a degree of ventilation, and cleanliness, along with impure air; but in many of the homes there is impure air without the modifying influences found in schools. And are there no bad and dangerous odours about the roads and backyards? To hear some people talk about the risks that the little ones run in coming to school, a person might be led to imagine that the children, without exception, came from homes that are little inferior to palaces. No; there are many much worse places than a warm, well-lighted, and fairly well-ventilated schoolroom for the boys and girls of the poorer classes, and to exclude one-fifth of them would mean an increase in doctors' and drapers' bills to the parents, and an accession to the already too large class of larrikins.