The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 30
In reply to your circular of June 1st, concerning the syllabus, we beg to offer the following remarks. For the great majority of the children attending the public schools of the Colony, it may safely be said that the chief requirements are that they should be able to read and write well, and be fairly expert in arithmetic.
The necessity imposed upon teachers of small schools, where only one teacher is employed, of having their scholars prepared in all the subjects of a somewhat extensive syllabus, must tend to render the teaching of what may be called the indispensable subjects anything but thorough. The time available for reading and writing in schools of this class is quite insufficient. By reading is not meant the merely mechanical art, but the habit of reading carefully and analytically, so that the full meaning of the passage read is conveyed to the mind. Possibly there is no habit which presents so great a hindrance to mental improvement as that of reading a series of words without a thorough grasp of their meaning, and no habit is more common. The geography and history taught in our schools should not consist so much of an accumulation of facts and dates, for the scholar may safely leave school without the possession of a hoard of particulars, if in the teaching of these subjects the main end and purpose have been to render their study entertaining and interesting. Much more valuable possessions for the young scholar at that stage of his career would be, first, a knowledge of the fact that there is actual enjoyment to be derived from these studies; and secondly, a disposition to continue his researches. This may be to some extent provided for, and the difficulty concerning reading lessened, by the use in our schools of the very attractive Geographical and Historical Readers, as used under the English Code.
With reference to grammar, we are told that the object of teaching it is that boys and girls may learn to speak and write their mother tongue correctly. If a child does learn to speak and write correctly, he does so by example and practice. Plenty of children can be found who have passed through the Sixth Standard, and who could parse and analyse fairly well, and yet would not in everyday intercourse use ten words of the language without speaking ungrammatically. It does not, however, follow from this that the teaching of grammar can be dispensed with. What is really necessary is that the subject be taught as practically as possible. If Abbott is correct in his conclusion that "no child ought to be able to parse a sentence which he does not thoroughly understand," then the practice of giving children a portion of a reading book, out of which to pick certain parts of speech without reference to their function, is strongly to be condemned. For the words in the English language have no outward shape which shows their classification. Function alone decides that, and therefore grammar can only be taught properly by determining that the use of a word shall be stated before its classification is fixed.page 7
With reading, writing, elementary drawing, and vocal music, arithmetic, and composition, and for girls domestic economy and needlework, as the absolutely essential subjects, and history, geography, and grammar by rule as subsidiary subjects, and treated as such at examination, the schools of the Colony would be doing far more really good work for the bread-winners and housekeepers of the future than is at present being accomplished. It has been proved in England that there was very little reason for the outcry raised some time ago about over-pressure in the primary schools, and that five years after the Education Act came into force the mortality among children between the ages of 5 and 15 had decreased 23 per cent. If overpressure was found to exist at all, it was amongst the poorest and sickliest children, and the Code now permits the withdrawal of such children from examination. It is matter for regret that a regulation which permitted a similar procedure here is cancelled by the new Standard Regulations. The uniformity of treatment required under the Standards, with the endless diversity of temperament, and of physical and mental capacity, existing amongst children, must always be a stumbling-block to the teacher. There is not sufficient evidence of over-pressure as affecting health, in this district, to prove that an alteration of the syllabus is necessary specially on that account. The question of whether the system of education laid down is the best fitted to prepare the children of New Zealand for the after duties of life is quite as deserving of consideration. Still over-pressure under a system such as ours may easily occur, especially if the teacher be not discreet in the matter of home lessons.
Whichever reason may be considered most potent in calling for a modification of the syllabus, there is no doubt that an alteration in the direction of assimilating it to the English Code would be a boon to teachers and scholars alike. It is not easy to find a reason why a Standard under the New Zealand Regulations should be more exacting than a Standard under the Code; and if the educational authorities in England find it desirable to spread the school course over seven standards, the difference in circumstances does not satisfactorily explain why the New Zealand child is to be turned out a finished article in one year less.
Please to accept apologies for the delay in writing to you.