A new philosophy
A Labour government was elected in 1935, and in 1939 Education Minister Peter Fraser explained the rationale behind planned reforms: ‘[E]very 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.’ 1
He acknowledged that country children had been disadvantaged.
By 1947, the number of country primary schools was still high, but the proportion of children attending had plummeted. That year, 65% of New Zealand’s 1,900 primary schools had one or two teachers, but they catered for only 16% of primary school-age children. However, thanks to reforms, these children were receiving a better education than before.
Teachers at country schools often had to travel long distances to and from school each day. Some boarded with local families. A lucky few lived in a teacher’s house built next to the school. But as time passed this residence could become run down. In the 1950s the house for Morven school in Canterbury had ‘a coal range that deserved a pension’ and an outside toilet with a ‘bucket then dig hole system’. 2
Before 1938, teachers had gained promotion by moving up from low- to high-graded schools. A school’s grade was based on the number of pupils it had, so smaller country schools tended to attract only novice teachers, who moved on to town schools once they had gained experience.
From 1938, primary teachers could not advance beyond a certain salary level until they had served three years at a country school. Also, more emphasis was put on years of service than the size of the school in teachers’ salary increases. This drew more experienced teachers to country schools.
Housing shortages during the 1940s and 1950s made the house attached to many small schools a bonus for married teachers.
In 1942 the Country Library Service set up a section for children in rural areas, which became the School Library Service. The Correspondence School grew, both in reputation and student numbers. A 1955 film on its work, A letter to the teacher, was nominated for the Berlin Film Festival.
By the 1960s urban and rural primary schools had the same curriculum. Country teachers had become skilled at teaching different ages and levels in one classroom, and their techniques attracted overseas interest. Classes were informal, with all children taking part in some activities. At other times, some received the teacher’s attention, while others practised writing or read silently.
After the Proficiency examination was dropped in 1937, and the school leaving age was raised to 15 in 1944, more children went to secondary school.
District high schools were criticised for their poor teaching, facilities and range of subjects. In 1949 the ‘country service’ requirement, which already applied to primary teachers, was introduced for secondary teachers, to address the teaching issue. But this proved unpopular, and older teachers were exempted.
In 1940, Correspondence School teacher Catherine Forde was sent to visit pupils in Central Otago. She recalled one trek to a remote farm: ‘I saw the farmhouse inside a high hedge with a wide-barred gate facing the river. On top of the gate sat a little girl looking at me with friendly interest and amazement. I found that she was our Correspondence School pupil; and what a reception I was given that day! They couldn’t have been more solicitous if I’d swum up the river’. 3
In 1966 many district high schools were separated into primary schools and secondary schools covering forms one to six (years seven to 12). Some of the smaller ones became area schools, covering new entrants to form five (year 11). But although rural secondary education improved, many children still boarded at town schools.
Preschool and adult education
From the 1970s, preschool and continuing education services grew. In 1976 preschool children were enrolled at the Correspondence School for the first time, and in the late 1970s, mobile kindergarten vans were introduced.
In 1979 REAP (Rural Education Activities Programme) offered further education for rural people, from preschool through to adult learners. It was set up in large districts that had fewer than 20,000 people.