Before 1876 education was spasmodic and mainly private. It focused on the traditional subjects of arithmetic and grammar, leaving little room for practical subjects like agriculture. Central government passed the first Education Act in 1877, but agriculture was still not deemed suitable for inclusion in the school syllabus.
While George Hogben was in charge of the Department of Education (between 1899 and 1915) he widened the curriculum to include practical courses, such as science and agriculture. However, by 1920 the teaching of agriculture had declined in primary schools. To encourage an interest in farming among children, in 1921 boys’ and girls’ agricultural clubs were established in schools and in some areas these were active until the 1950s.
Since Hogben’s time agriculture has not been specifically taught in primary schools, although aspects of it are taught in the broader subjects of nature study and social studies.
Farming in the classroom
A woman who started her teaching career in a sole-charge country school in the early 1930s recalled ‘On the top of one of the cupboards a globe kept company with a Babcock machine for testing the butter-fat content of milk, and a rack of test-tubes for the elementary science that was part of the curriculum’. 1
Before 1900 few children progressed beyond primary school. In rural areas most were unable to continue their formal education because there were few local secondary schools. The development of district high schools made secondary education more accessible, and the raising of the school leaving age to 15 in 1944 made it more common. In the 1930s, 65% of boys entering farming had left school at the primary level; in 1945, 72% had some secondary education.
The first school in New Zealand to teach practical agriculture was Rangiora High, following their purchase of a school farm in 1920. In 1922 the Department of Education established the Feilding Agricultural High School, which also had a farm attached. By the 1950s a number of secondary schools ran agricultural courses and had farms of varying sizes, but these were a minority.
Farming at Feilding High
In 2007 Feilding High (formerly Feilding Agricultural High School) had two farms: 16 hectares with dairy and pigs, and a sheep–beef–forestry farm of 82 hectares. Half of the pupils in the junior school chose agriculture or horticulture, and some took both. In the senior school, around 20% of pupils studied agriculture, horticulture or forestry.
A 1984 study of the secondary schools in Canterbury, Otago and Southland found that 33 out of 107 taught agriculture or horticulture. These subjects are included in the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), which was phased in between 2002 and 2004 to replace School Certificate, Sixth Form Certificate and University Entrance qualifications. However, agriculture and horticulture are not included at Scholarship level, which is the highest secondary-school qualification.