By the 1920s, through stricter enforcement, compulsory primary education had been nearly achieved. In country areas many schools catered for small numbers of pupils, and a school bus system helped them get to school.
Education for all
The need for better access to education, internationally recognised by the 1920s, underlay a well-known statement by Minister of Education Peter Fraser in 1939: ‘The Government’s objective, broadly expressed, is that every 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
In 1922 the Correspondence School was established to provide education for children living in isolated areas or with disabilities, and from 1928 it offered secondary classes. Also in 1922, the first intermediate schools were trialled as a way of providing a better transition between primary school and technical or academic secondary schooling. Further changes, including raising the school-leaving age, were delayed by economic depression.
When the Labour Party came to power in 1935 it began a programme of reforms, driven first by Minister of Education Peter Fraser and later by Director General of Education Clarence Beeby. In 1936 the Proficiency examination was abolished, and children simply had to complete Standard 6 (Year 8) satisfactorily to qualify for a free place in high school. Then in 1944 the school-leaving age was raised to 15, removing the last barrier to secondary schooling for those whose parents did not believe in further education for girls, or who wanted their children to go out to work as soon as possible. Only a few children were permitted to leave at 14, under some conditions.
Dorothy Butler, who attended Auckland primary schools in the 1930s, remembered the strict regimes: ‘We lined up in classes every morning in front of the school, girls on one side, boys on the other, and were brought to military attention with a shouted command: Atten-shun! Feet must be together, arms stiffly at one’s side, eyes ahead. After a short address (announcements, instructions and admonitions in the time-honoured tradition of school assemblies) we were marshalled, military style, into school. A teacher shouted Left! Right! and a boy played a drum.’2
1950s and 1960s
Many more high schools were established, and the secondary school population grew rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s, fuelled by the post-war baby boom. In 1943 the number of secondary pupils (including those at Māori and private schools) was 38,810. A decade later it was 67,478, and by 1963, 149,063. By the 1960s many children were beginning school at age five or six; six became the compulsory starting age in 1964. Divisions between types of secondary education were gradually removed: official distinctions between ordinary and technical high schools disappeared, and some technical high schools split into a secondary school and a technical institute. District high schools were reorganised and their numbers dropped dramatically. Numbers of intermediate schools grew. One major change of the 1960s was the phasing out of the separate Māori school system, which tended to operate in predominantly Māori communities. In fact, a large proportion of Māori children had attended ordinary schools since the introduction of the state system in 1877.
1970s and 1980s changes
Worsening economic conditions, and the integration of many private and Catholic schools into the state system from 1975, forced education cuts from the late 1970s. Between 1987 and 1990 Labour Minister of Education David Lange radically reformed the primary- and secondary-education sector, partly to give parents and teachers the power to decide the character and direction of schools. In 1989 the school-leaving age was raised to 16, reflecting the view that children needed a solid secondary education before going on to further training or work.