Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Country schooling

by  Nancy Swarbrick

Learning to read and write was once no easy matter for country children. Far from the luxuries of town, they travelled for miles to and from lessons, worked hard on the farm, and often left school by age 12. There are fewer country schools now, but they offer a unique kind of education.

Getting an education: 1800s

In the mid-19th century, education was something that most New Zealanders wanted but only some had. Some Māori learned to read and write at mission schools from 1814, and a few English, Scottish and Irish settlers were very well educated. But in the 1850s about 25% of Pākehā could not read or write, and another 14% could only read. Most parents must have dreamed of a better life, including the chance of schooling, for their children.

Towards an education system

Before the Education Act 1877, children were lucky to get an education, as it was neither compulsory nor free. Only the well-off could afford school fees. Some schools were set up by religious groups, and others by provincial governments, but they were not evenly spread.

The southern provinces of Nelson and Otago had more efficient and better funded education systems than northern provinces such as Auckland. In the 19th century more people lived in rural areas – but most schools were in towns.

Separate schools

Before primary schooling was free for everyone, the Native Schools system provided schools for Māori children, usually in remote communities. Parents asked for a school, and helped subsidise the teacher’s salary. By 1874 there were 64 such schools. After 1877, Māori children could also attend state schools. But the separate system for Māori continued until the 1960s.

Education Act 1877

The Education Act 1877 established free, compulsory primary education to standard six (year eight) for all New Zealand children, and public schools were set up by regional education boards. Of the approximately 730 public primary schools in 1877, 78% were country schools with one or two teachers. They provided education for about half of primary school-age children.

Funding country schools

The government funded its schools through a ‘capitation grant’. A fixed sum was granted for each child on the roll, provided he or she met a certain level of attendance. If a school did not meet an average overall attendance level, only some of its costs were covered, and parents had to help pay the teacher’s salary.

Country schools were often underfunded, as many pupils could not meet the attendance requirement. In winter, bad weather and rough roads, and colds and flu, often stopped them from going to school. In summer, they were kept home to help with tasks such as haymaking.

Bringing in the sheaves

In the 19th century, children were often kept at home to help with chores such as harvesting crops. Some schools adjusted their holidays, so that low attendance during busy farming periods would not mean a funding cut. In the 1880s and 1890s, schools in the Canterbury district of Waikākahi took their summer holidays either in January or in February, depending on whether the harvest was early or late.

In thinly populated areas, it was almost impossible for regional education boards to provide enough schools. Some wealthy farmers could send their children to boarding school, or employ live-in tutors and governesses. But many country children missed out on an education if they were not within walking or riding distance of a school.

Teaching and learning

At large town schools, classes were divided by age, but pupils at country schools were taught together in one or two classrooms. Parents expected them to gain basic skills in reading, writing and arithmetic, so that they could learn trades, handle accounts, measure land and crops, and take part in community activities.

But country pupils and teachers faced difficulties. Experienced teachers were not easily attracted to country schools. Teachers often shared their workload with pupil-teachers – older children who taught while still studying. And children who rarely attended or who were exhausted because they had to milk cows before coming to school were a challenge to teach.

Rote learning, where children chanted facts until they had memorised them, was the norm in both town and country. The annual examination visit of the school inspector was an ordeal for teachers and pupils. Children had to pass the exam before moving up to the next class, and the humiliation of being kept back was intense.

Secondary education: district high schools

In country areas, secondary education was provided at a few district high schools. These were schools that had a small secondary department, as well as providing primary education. Secondary schooling cost money, so it was out of reach for most people.

In 1903, free secondary places at district high schools were offered to pupils who had passed the proficiency examination at the end of standard six (year eight), but most children still left school when they had reached that level, at about 12 years of age. In large struggling families it was important to contribute earnings or labour as soon as possible.

Wider options: 1900s–1930s

Improving country education

In the early 1900s, many people believed that children in towns were getting a much better education than country children. As a result there were some reforms. Summer training schools for country school teachers began. Regulations in 1905 required every teachers’ training college to send students on placement to country schools. More district high schools were set up: between 1900 and 1904 the number increased from 13 to 52.

Riding to school

In the 1930s, Mavis Shaw had to ride her pony Toby 9 kilometres to school along tracks that were dusty in summer and muddy in winter – sometimes it was an eventful trip. ‘[I]t was usual to join the horse-drawn grader for a time – such a peaceful occupation until the engine-driven grader appeared. Toby took one look at this noisy white monster and promptly bolted – it was hard to tell who was more terrified when we both recovered a long way down the road.’ 1

Consolidated schools

By 1927 there were 2,601 primary schools in New Zealand – a number never reached before or since. Of these, 81% had only one or two teachers. These tiny, mostly rural schools catered for around 30% of primary school pupils.

To improve efficiency, it was decided in the early 1920s to close some schools and bring students from the wider district to central, better-equipped, ‘consolidated’ schools. The first, Piopio District School, had opened in the King Country in 1924, and more appeared in the 1920s and 1930s.

School bus service

Also in 1924, a school bus service began, bringing children from remote areas to centralised country schools. This spelled the end for many backblocks schools. But it also gave isolated children their first chance to attend a school. The school bus, often driven by the teacher, became an institution. During the long and often roundabout trip to and from school, children sang, joked, and secretly ate bread from the grocery orders delivered en route.

‘The cuts’

Until corporal punishment was abolished in the 1980s, teachers used a strap or cane to keep order in the classroom. For a long time children also got ‘the cuts’ for errors in their school work. As one former country school pupil remembered, ‘arriving late for school, not doing our homework, the odd spelling mistake, or for talking in class, the reasons seemed endless.’ 2

The Correspondence School

In 1922 the Correspondence School was set up in Wellington to provide distance education for children still out of reach of a school. It started with 167 primary school-age pupils (many of whom were illiterate) and one teacher, Janet Mackenzie. Mothers were enlisted to supervise their children’s school work. By 1927 the school had several teachers and a roll of 720. In 1928, secondary courses were offered for the first time.

Radio programmes

Radio broadcasts to schools began in 1931. At first they were aimed mainly at country school pupils, but they were soon listened to by many primary school and later secondary school children. They continued until 1987. Correspondence School broadcasts were also made from 1937 until 1997.

Agricultural education

The idea of educating school pupils for their future work became popular from around 1900, and some people believed that country children should be prepared for farming jobs. From the 1920s, rural primary schools introduced home vegetable-growing and calf-rearing projects for their pupils, and school agricultural clubs started.

Also in the 1920s, Rangiora High School and Feilding Agricultural High School offered training for boys who intended to become farmers. But many district high schools did not offer agricultural subjects – often country parents wanted an academic education for their children so they could find work in the towns. Some sent their children to board at city secondary schools.

Adult education

Night classes for adults had started at some country schools in the early 1900s, but they became more popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Rural adult education programmes began in Canterbury, under the direction of educationalist James Shelley and with the support of the Canterbury Workers’ Educational Association and the Association of Country Education.

Two leading tutors, Crawford and Gwen Somerset, went on to set up an adult education centre at Feilding Agricultural High School. Gwen’s brother, Geoffrey Alley, was also involved in rural adult education. He lobbied for a Country Library Service, which was established in 1937.

  1. Quoted in New Zealand Country Women’s Institute, School days. Wellington: Country Women’s Institute, 1994, p. 61. › Back
  2. School days, p. 22. › Back

Towards equal opportunities: 1935–1980s

A new philosophy

A Labour government was elected in 1935, and in 1939 Education Minister Peter Fraser explained the rationale behind planned reforms: ‘[E]very person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers.’ 1

He acknowledged that country children had been disadvantaged.

Primary schools

By 1947, the number of country primary schools was still high, but the proportion of children attending had plummeted. That year, 65% of New Zealand’s 1,900 primary schools had one or two teachers, but they catered for only 16% of primary school-age children. However, thanks to reforms, these children were receiving a better education than before.

Teachers’ trials

Teachers at country schools often had to travel long distances to and from school each day. Some boarded with local families. A lucky few lived in a teacher’s house built next to the school. But as time passed this residence could become run down. In the 1950s the house for Morven school in Canterbury had ‘a coal range that deserved a pension’ and an outside toilet with a ‘bucket then dig hole system’. 2

Improved teaching

Before 1938, teachers had gained promotion by moving up from low- to high-graded schools. A school’s grade was based on the number of pupils it had, so smaller country schools tended to attract only novice teachers, who moved on to town schools once they had gained experience.

From 1938, primary teachers could not advance beyond a certain salary level until they had served three years at a country school. Also, more emphasis was put on years of service than the size of the school in teachers’ salary increases. This drew more experienced teachers to country schools.

Housing shortages during the 1940s and 1950s made the house attached to many small schools a bonus for married teachers.

Improved services

In 1942 the Country Library Service set up a section for children in rural areas, which became the School Library Service. The Correspondence School grew, both in reputation and student numbers. A 1955 film on its work, A letter to the teacher, was nominated for the Berlin Film Festival.

Improved standards

By the 1960s urban and rural primary schools had the same curriculum. Country teachers had become skilled at teaching different ages and levels in one classroom, and their techniques attracted overseas interest. Classes were informal, with all children taking part in some activities. At other times, some received the teacher’s attention, while others practised writing or read silently.

Secondary education

After the Proficiency examination was dropped in 1937, and the school leaving age was raised to 15 in 1944, more children went to secondary school.

District high schools were criticised for their poor teaching, facilities and range of subjects. In 1949 the ‘country service’ requirement, which already applied to primary teachers, was introduced for secondary teachers, to address the teaching issue. But this proved unpopular, and older teachers were exempted.

Distance learning

In 1940, Correspondence School teacher Catherine Forde was sent to visit pupils in Central Otago. She recalled one trek to a remote farm: ‘I saw the farmhouse inside a high hedge with a wide-barred gate facing the river. On top of the gate sat a little girl looking at me with friendly interest and amazement. I found that she was our Correspondence School pupil; and what a reception I was given that day! They couldn’t have been more solicitous if I’d swum up the river’. 3

In 1966 many district high schools were separated into primary schools and secondary schools covering forms one to six (years seven to 12). Some of the smaller ones became area schools, covering new entrants to form five (year 11). But although rural secondary education improved, many children still boarded at town schools.

Preschool and adult education

From the 1970s, preschool and continuing education services grew. In 1976 preschool children were enrolled at the Correspondence School for the first time, and in the late 1970s, mobile kindergarten vans were introduced.

In 1979 REAP (Rural Education Activities Programme) offered further education for rural people, from preschool through to adult learners. It was set up in large districts that had fewer than 20,000 people.

  1. Quoted in C. E. Beeby, The biography of an idea: Beeby on education. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research, 1992, p. 124. › Back
  2. John Wilson, Waikakahi: fulfilling the promise. Christchurch: Caxton/Waikakahi Centennial Incorporated Society, 1995, p. 276. › Back
  3. John Garner and Catherine Forde, The Correspondence School: golden jubilee history, 1922–72. Wellington: Correspondence School, 1972, p. 19. › Back

Years of reform: 1989 onwards

Economic change

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.

All aboard

An enduring country school tradition is the pet day. One Whangārei 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.

Personal experiences of country schools

We asked people around the country to send us stories in their own words about their experiences of country schooling.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Country schooling', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Nancy Swarbrick, i tāngia i te 24 o Noema 2008