Story: Primary and secondary education

Page 7. Numbers and types of schools

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Primary schools

In the 1800s New Zealand had a small, thinly-scattered population, and in isolated areas transport networks were poor. Many tiny schools were built so that children did not have to travel long distances to school. In 1877 there were around 730 primary schools. By 1900 there were 1,674 state primary schools, and 30% had fewer than 21 pupils. In remote areas some schools were in whares, spare rooms and cottages. These ‘aided schools’ were given books, money and school apparatus by the Education Board. From the 1920s a school bus service made it possible to bring pupils to central ‘consolidated’ schools. From a maximum of 2,601 primary schools in 1927, numbers declined and by 1947 there were 1,900. Although the population grew after this time, many smaller country schools were closed. In July 2011 there were 2,007 primary and intermediate schools.

School buildings

A new teacher was taken aback by the primitive facilities of Snowdale School, in the Lees Valley near Christchurch, in 1937: ‘The school was a small one-roomed corrugated iron building standing out on its own in the middle of the valley … stark, without anything around it except a wire fence, stones and tussocks.’ Seven miles further on ‘the school committee had built a one-roomed shack covered with corrugated iron and lined with pinex softboard … This was to be my home and I was to be given my meals free-of-charge at the farmhouse in return for driving all the children en route to and from school each day.’1

Secondary schools

Demand for secondary education led to a growth in numbers of district high schools from the early 20th century, and also the establishment of technical high schools. When the school-leaving age was raised in 1944, numbers of secondary schools grew rapidly. In 1940 there were 39 secondary, 96 district high schools and 21 technical high schools. By 1960 the total number of secondary schools had jumped to 239, including 102 secondary, 96 district high and 41 technical schools. By 1980 there were 265 secondary schools and 35 district high schools, and in July 2011 there were 342 secondary schools.

Co-ed versus single-sex

From the 19th century most primary schools were co-educational. However, because allowing boys and girls to mix freely was frowned on, they were often kept apart, sitting on different sides of the room and sometimes in separate classes, playing on opposite sides of a divided playground and sometimes entering and leaving school through separate gates. This form of segregation occurred in some early co-ed secondary and technical schools as well. Single-sex secondary schools simply took the approach a step further.

The establishment of co-ed state secondary schools from the 1940s was generally not influenced by philosophical arguments over the supposed benefits and disadvantages of co-education. Often a co-ed secondary school was the most cost-effective option for a small town or a city suburb.

Schools in 2011

In July 2011 there were 2,548 state schools in New Zealand. As well as primary and secondary schools, these included composite schools (Years 1 to 13), special schools and the Correspondence School.

  1. H. R. Hooker, Bead-frames to calculators: a teaching life. Christchurch: H. R. Hooker, 1983, p. 18. Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Primary and secondary education - Numbers and types of schools', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 July 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 20 Jun 2012