Unwillingly to school
Truancy was a problem from the beginning of compulsory schooling in New Zealand. Initially, it stemmed not so much from children’s reluctance, but from transport difficulties or the unwillingness of parents to release children from home duties. In order to enforce school attendance, from 1894 Education Boards could appoint truant officers to investigate cases and take prosecutions. Truant schools were set up from 1900 for persistent offenders. However, school children continued to ‘wag’ school because of boredom, fear of bullying, or dislike of teachers or subjects.
Bullying has always existed in schools, but in the 2000s was more openly discussed. There was widespread outrage when it emerged that a gang of six teenagers terrorised classmates at Hutt Valley High School in 2007, attacking younger boys and sexually violating them. When parents found out, they were incensed that staff had not intervened, and they complained to the Human Rights Commission and the ombudsman.
Schools traditionally used a variety of methods to keep pupils disciplined and focused on learning. Some of these were punitive: the strap or cane, after-school detentions and writing lines for various offences. Some senior secondary students were made ‘prefects’ to help enforce rules. Many students enjoyed finding ways of subverting school routine: for 1950s schoolboy Peter Lange ‘it wasn’t a case of questioning authority, more of laughing at it.’1
‘School spirit’ or conformity?
Fostering a ‘school spirit’ also encouraged compliance. Concepts such as ‘houses’ within the school and school songs assisted. Encouraging pride in the school was often one of the reasons for adopting a school uniform. Uniforms were also promoted as more egalitarian and cheaper than ‘mufti’ (ordinary clothes). Sometimes students reacted against what they saw as too much emphasis on conformity: writer Janet Frame remembered the physical and psychological restrictions of a formal school uniform in the 1930s: ‘because of these clothes I saw myself as powerlessly in harness.’2
Attending Otara Intermediate in the 1950s, Peter Lange recalled a brief respite from the repressive rules. ‘The uniform was grey on grey, no running in the corridors, stairs one at a time, puberty was obviously a dangerous age, one that needed strict order, when stimulation was to be avoided. However, we did have one teacher who was dangerously anarchic … He organised a class educational trip to Tokoroa for a week, where my billet showed me how to shoplift and others were shown even more exciting things.’3
Having a say
Some schools experimented with allowing students a say in how it was run. In 1912, for example, there was a school parliament at Christchurch Technical College. Student councils continued this tradition.
Along with a more relaxed approach to discipline, schools have become more accepting of diversity. From the 1980s the idea of ‘mainstreaming’ children with disabilities in state schools instead of educating them in separate ‘special’ schools became more common. Although gay, lesbian and bisexual students still experience prejudice, in the 2000s they have visibility in some schools.
The happiest days of your life?
Some students are relieved to finish school, but for others the experiences and the friendships made remain important. Some join ex-pupils associations to maintain their links with schoolmates, or attend school reunions. Websites such as Old Friends are another way of keeping in touch with those people who shared the formative experience of getting an education.