Sunday, September 20, 2009

Education History

By 1900 there were only 25 secondary schools. The high school curriculum remained classical, dominated by the University matriculation examination. An unintended result of the 1877 Act was to fasten two different kinds of education upon our system, two separate teacher services and a national expectation for two levels in our schools. This situation is not holy writ though it is often treated as such for we have got so used to it.

In 1883 the New Zealand Educational Institute was formed to represent the teachers' viewpoint. The Institute pushed for and obtained a national system of grading teachers. This required a national inspectorate. Both developments reflect an on-going centralist trend.

The Liberal Government at the end of the 19th century accelerated this trend. Pember Reeves, remembered mainly for his labour reforms, was education minister. His forays into education change, mainly to increase the number of free places in secondary schools, appear lack-lustre, probably reflecting little Cabinet support. But after his departure Seddon who took the portfolio began to exhibit a convert’s enthusiasm - he recognised an electoral issue which would help his Government. A fight with conservative secondary boards of governors provided good campaign fodder. Perhaps across the years I do him an injustice - after all his mother was a schoolteacher. History is much more contrary than we would make it. It is a convenient mythology to portray Seddon as the brawling pragmatist and Reeves as the defeated intellectual. And if Reeves had his Edward Tregear in labour, Seddon had his George Hogben in education for in 1899 this reforming educator became Inspector General of Schools.

In 1901 the school leaving age was raised to 14. The Secondary Schools Act of 1903 marked a turning point in the accessibility to the three different types, secondary schools, district high schools and the new technical high schools. More parents than either Seddon or Hogben had imagined enrolled their sons and daughters. A historic milestone, free secondary education had arrived by the back door. However, despite repeated attempts to broaden the secondary curriculum to Hogben's frustration there was little fundamental change, the university retained its stranglehold upon the curriculum.

During this time a lot more women became teachers. Until 1895 the majority of adult New Zealand teachers were male, reflecting the sexual imbalance of the early European settlement, the nature of female immigrants and the lack of women’s educational opportunities. But as women began to gain education qualifications, (and the vote), teaching held appeal as an occupation as an alternative to domestic service or factory employment. Further, the education boards, short of money, used, some would say exploited, secondary leaving girls as pupil teachers. In time these ex-pupil teachers formed an experienced pool from which to recruit teachers.
On behalf of its women members NZEI fought long battles with education boards over salaries and conditions of service, and between 1901 and 1905 won the principle of a common pay scale. At the time it was a radical step and a major breakthrough. This was altered in 1925 when as part of a government belt-tightening exercise women were once again placed on a separate scale where they remained until 1961. I recall parties as women teachers celebrated this step.

Further attempts to ensure that primary schools should be controlled by their own locally elected boards failed. The election of the post-depression Labour Government in 1935, saw a fresh impetus to education reform. Free post-primary education was made available up to age 19 and five-year-olds were once again re-admitted to schools. Teacher colleges closed during the depression were reopened. The proficiency examination at the end of primary schooling was abolished. Free milk in schools was introduced, and the country library service was inaugurated. In 1939 Peter Fraser issued his famous statement penned by his reforming Director, Dr Beeby.
"Every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers."

However, Hogben's old concern about the 'academic' nature of courses offered by secondary schools remained. In the 1940's half of secondary school students left before they completed two years, which meant to politicians and educators they were not receiving a "sound basic education". These concerns led to the Thomas Report in the middle war years recommending the separation of the University Entrance (the old matriculation) and School Certificate examinations, and the establishment of a compulsory curriculum for the lower secondary school. These recommendations were accepted, and the school leaving age was raised to 15. Like Britain with its famous 1994 Education Act, New Zealand celebrated approaching military victory with a major reform to improve the learning opportunities of the younger generation.

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