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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



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Primary Schools

The development of school buildings is closely allied to the growth and expansion of the education system, and changes in the scope and method of teaching are directly reflected in the type of buildings provided for the purpose.

In the early days of the colonisation of New Zealand, education rested almost entirely in the hands of the churches. Finance was raised by the allocation of a proportion of the proceeds of the sale of land to the new immigrants. From 1853 the responsibility for primary education and the provision of school buildings was vested in the Provincial Governments, which in general administered education through education boards which they established in their respective provinces. With the abolition of the Provincial Governments in 1876, the financial responsibility was taken over by the Central Government, but the administration and the design and provision of primary school buildings remained in the hands of the education boards, provided for in the Education Act of 1877.

Soon after the arrival of the early settlers, schools were established wherever there were sufficient children and a teacher could be found; the accommodation was generally meagre and primitive. Classes were held in private houses or halls until such time as school buildings could be built. These early schools varied considerably in construction from “wattle and daub” to timber or stone buildings, but all were small, overcrowded, and dingy by present-day standards. Many schools consisted of one room of up to 20 ft long by 12 or 14 ft wide, and were considered as being adequate for from 30 to upwards of 50 pupils. The children were often taught in relays in order to accommodate as many as possible in the small space available. The children sat in rows in the classroom and were taught directly by the teacher, in contrast to the present-day methods by which the emphasis is on the children's learning from the teacher and by practical activity. This change in teaching method is reflected in the type of classroom provided in primary schools today. Until well into the present century both classrooms and schools tended to be small, although many comparatively large schools existed in the more heavily populated areas.

In the 1920s new approaches were made to school planning, notably of the Taranaki and Canterbury open air type, with very much larger windows for more light and ventilation. The standard size of classroom recommended at this time was, for all but the smallest schools, 624 sq. ft. (26 ft long by 24 ft wide), and this remains the basic minimum room size today.

During the period immediately following the Second World War, in order to provide buildings more quickly to cope with the increase in the school population and to overcome a shortage of new buildings due to the war years, a standard type of primary school plan, the Dominion Basic Plan, was adopted for the whole country. This plan consisted of a row of classrooms with store-rooms between, and a corridor on the south side with cloak and toilet rooms beyond. Rooms for the teaching staff were provided as links between groups of classrooms or at the end of a group.

In 1954 each education board developed its own standard type of school plan to suit the special needs of its area. All were based on the same premise that, as primary classes remained in their own classrooms for practically the whole day, corridors were redundant. Furthermore, because the new methods encouraged practical activities which required more space for teaching purposes, the areas of classroom, store-room and adjacent corridor were combined to form the present size classroom of 768 sq. ft. (32 ft by 24 ft). In 1956 the “white lines policy” was introduced, under which the freedom of responsibility for planning new school buildings within the two “white lines” of minimum standards of accommodation and maximum cost for each pupil to be accommodated was accepted by the education boards. The minimum area to be provided for each class was 760 sq. ft., with a minimum room size of 624 sq. ft.; many classrooms have been built with areas in excess of 800 sq. ft. within the cost laid down.


Alan Peter Garnock-Jones, DIP.ARCH(LIV.), A.R.I.B.A., A.N.Z.I.A., Architectural Division, Ministry of Works.