The Labour government elected in 1984 restructured public and social services. The Education Act 1989 decentralised education administration, which some believed had become too bureaucratic and expensive. The Education Department was replaced with the Ministry of Education, the regional education boards were abolished, and schools’ boards of trustees were given the power to govern their own affairs.
The Education Amendment Act 1992, passed by a National government, reduced the number of schools by creating larger central schools. Also, a downturn in farming caused people to leave rural communities.
Impact on country schools
As a result of these changes, many country schools disappeared. This pattern continues: between 1999 and 2006, 148 primary and secondary schools in rural areas closed. In 2006, only 30% of the total 2,488 state schools were rural. Country people mourned the loss of a school, which had often been maintained and improved through the efforts of the PTA, and had provided the venue for community events. Their children had to travel further to get to another school.
The proportion of the country’s children living in rural communities also declined. By 2006, children attending the 751 rural primary and secondary schools represented only 8.2% of the New Zealand total school population. There had been a downward trend since 1991. In contrast, the percentage of children attending schools in main urban centres had risen.
Rural education services
There have been some changes in rural education services since the 1970s. For instance, playcentres and kōhanga reo (Māori ‘language nests’) are now the most common form of preschool in country areas. The 1989 reforms ended the system of country service for teachers. Now country schools are given a staffing incentive allowance so they can offer competitive salaries. They also receive extra funding because of costs arising from their isolation. Services that have continued include Rural Education Activities Programmes, school transport subsidies and buses, and boarding bursaries for pupils who have to attend secondary school away from home.
An enduring country school tradition is the pet day. One Whāngārei bus driver was faced with children wanting to bring their animals to school. The dogs, cats and rabbits weren’t too bad, but he started to have doubts when the first chicken came aboard. He let a goat on, but drew the line at a pet sheep.
Computers have greatly benefited country schoolchildren. The Correspondence School now uses internet, email and interactive teaching with videophone and audiographics (where people at different sites view and write on an onscreen notepad). As in urban schools, computers are an integral part of teaching and learning.
Country schooling – pros and cons
Since the 19th century, teachers, parents and education administrators have worried that children attending country schools could be disadvantaged. Some concerns are:
- Because they have fewer classmates, pupils are not as stimulated to achieve, and don’t make as many friends.
- One or two teachers cannot provide the range of teaching styles offered in larger schools.
- Team sports are not possible with a small number of pupils.
- Schools are far from facilities such as large libraries and museums.
The advantages are:
- Pupils are more responsible because they have to look after younger children.
- Pupils become self-reliant and ingenious; for instance they invent and adapt games.
- The close links between the school and the community mean fewer discipline problems.
- Teachers can give pupils more individual attention.
Although country schools are no longer as common as in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they still offer a unique and valuable type of education.