Improving country education
In the early 1900s, many people believed that children in towns were getting a much better education than country children. As a result there were some reforms. Summer training schools for country school teachers began. Regulations in 1905 required every teachers’ training college to send students on placement to country schools. More district high schools were set up: between 1900 and 1904 the number increased from 13 to 52.
Riding to school
In the 1930s, Mavis Shaw had to ride her pony Toby 9 kilometres to school along tracks that were dusty in summer and muddy in winter – sometimes it was an eventful trip. ‘[I]t was usual to join the horse-drawn grader for a time – such a peaceful occupation until the engine-driven grader appeared. Toby took one look at this noisy white monster and promptly bolted – it was hard to tell who was more terrified when we both recovered a long way down the road.’ 1
By 1927 there were 2,601 primary schools in New Zealand – a number never reached before or since. Of these, 81% had only one or two teachers. These tiny, mostly rural schools catered for around 30% of primary school pupils.
To improve efficiency, it was decided in the early 1920s to close some schools and bring students from the wider district to central, better-equipped, ‘consolidated’ schools. The first, Piopio District School, had opened in the King Country in 1924, and more appeared in the 1920s and 1930s.
School bus service
Also in 1924, a school bus service began, bringing children from remote areas to centralised country schools. This spelled the end for many backblocks schools. But it also gave isolated children their first chance to attend a school. The school bus, often driven by the teacher, became an institution. During the long and often roundabout trip to and from school, children sang, joked, and secretly ate bread from the grocery orders delivered en route.
Until corporal punishment was abolished in the 1980s, teachers used a strap or cane to keep order in the classroom. For a long time children also got ‘the cuts’ for errors in their school work. As one former country school pupil remembered, ‘arriving late for school, not doing our homework, the odd spelling mistake, or for talking in class, the reasons seemed endless.’ 2
The Correspondence School
In 1922 the Correspondence School was set up in Wellington to provide distance education for children still out of reach of a school. It started with 167 primary school-age pupils (many of whom were illiterate) and one teacher, Janet Mackenzie. Mothers were enlisted to supervise their children’s school work. By 1927 the school had several teachers and a roll of 720. In 1928, secondary courses were offered for the first time.
Radio broadcasts to schools began in 1931. At first they were aimed mainly at country school pupils, but they were soon listened to by many primary school and later secondary school children. They continued until 1987. Correspondence School broadcasts were also made from 1937 until 1997.
The idea of educating school pupils for their future work became popular from around 1900, and some people believed that country children should be prepared for farming jobs. From the 1920s, rural primary schools introduced home vegetable-growing and calf-rearing projects for their pupils, and school agricultural clubs started.
Also in the 1920s, Rangiora High School and Feilding Agricultural High School offered training for boys who intended to become farmers. But many district high schools did not offer agricultural subjects – often country parents wanted an academic education for their children so they could find work in the towns. Some sent their children to board at city secondary schools.
Night classes for adults had started at some country schools in the early 1900s, but they became more popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Rural adult education programmes began in Canterbury, under the direction of educationalist James Shelley and with the support of the Canterbury Workers’ Educational Association and the Association of Country Education.
Two leading tutors, Crawford and Gwen Somerset, went on to set up an adult education centre at Feilding Agricultural High School. Gwen’s brother, Geoffrey Alley, was also involved in rural adult education. He lobbied for a Country Library Service, which was established in 1937.