Story: Primary and secondary education

Page 5. Curriculum changes

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The curriculum for primary and secondary schools has been revised at intervals to reflect changing social and educational priorities.

‘The three Rs’

At first, primary education aimed to give children a solid grounding in ‘the three Rs’ – reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmetic – along with history and geography. In addition, boys were to be taught military drill and girls sewing. Some subjects were divided into branches: for instance, reading and writing included study of grammar, spelling, dictation and composition. The need to pass annual examinations governed the curriculum, and this narrow focus influenced the approach to all subjects, including singing, drawing and science, which were introduced during the 19th century.

Keeping education secular

The Education Act 1877 provided for secular education, specifically excluding any religious observances from the teaching. This was partly to prevent denominational disputes. After much debate, half an hour’s religious teaching was allowed per week, but this was deemed to be out of school hours, so that children did not have to attend it if their parents objected.


Better understanding of how children learned led to primary school curriculum changes in 1904. Some new subjects such as nature study, which involved first-hand observations and practical work, were added. In 1907 the School Journal was established to provide learning materials with New Zealand content, and to support the curriculum.

Citizenship training

Civics and moral training had been taught formally since 1904, but during and after the First World War there was greater emphasis on preparing students to become patriotic citizens, and flag-saluting ceremonies and observance of Anzac Day and other imperial occasions became widespread in primary schools. There was also new stress on preparing children for what was seen as appropriate gender roles. In 1929 the curriculum specified woodwork for boys and home craft for girls at Form 1 and 2 (Years 7 and 8). It was not until the 1970s that both boys and girls were allowed to take cooking, sewing, woodwork and metalwork.

Greater flexibility

After the abolition of the Proficiency exam in 1936, the subjects taught in primary schools remained much the same, but there were changes in emphasis. For example, technological developments in the later 20th century prompted changes to the science and maths curriculums. Schools also had more leeway to tailor the curriculum to their own needs.

Phys ed

Military-related physical drill for boys was required for boys under the Education Act 1877, and team sports were always an important adjunct to study in schools. Other types of physical training took longer to develop. It was 1912 before a formal physical education syllabus, based on the British model, was introduced to New Zealand state schools.

Secondary subjects diversify

Secondary school subjects were initially very academic and, in addition to those taught at primary school, included French, Latin, Greek, algebra and geometry. Technical subjects such as typing and accounting received more attention from 1900 and, when free secondary places were introduced in 1903, some traditional secondary schools adopted them.

In the 1920s and 1930s there was debate over whether all secondary students should be taught the same subjects, or be educated according to their supposed future career. The latter view was behind the introduction of compulsory home science for Form 3 and 4 (Years 9 and 10) girls in 1917. Concern about the lower birth rate and the fashionable theory that study made adolescent girls unfit for motherhood was another reason. In district high schools all children in forms three and four had to study agricultural and dairy science from 1917.

Core secondary curriculum

Support grew for the idea of giving all junior secondary school pupils the same basic course, combining both academic and practical subjects. They could then go on to specialise in subjects of their choice. In 1942 the introduction of a core secondary curriculum removed the fundamental differences between types of secondary schools, and some gender distinctions, such as compulsory home science for girls.

More subjects, for example computer studies, were introduced over the next five decades, reflecting changes in society and the types of work available. Many subjects once thought essential, such as Latin, have virtually disappeared, and relatively new subjects, such as economics, are very popular.

How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Primary and secondary education - Curriculum changes', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 20 Jun 2012