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Primary and secondary education

by Nancy Swarbrick

The best years of your life, or a time of boredom and restrictions? People have different experiences and memories of the school years, but since 1877 education has been compulsory for all New Zealand children. Over time schools have become less authoritarian and more diverse, and assessment has shifted from exams to internal assessment.

The state system in the 2000s

In July 2011, 762,683 children attended state primary and secondary schools in New Zealand – slightly over 17% of the population.

Compulsory schooling years

In New Zealand children must attend school between the ages of six and 16. Most children start school at age five. The levels of schooling they go through are primary (Years 1–6), intermediate (Years 7–8), and secondary (Years 9–13).

Breaking barriers

Because students from low socio-economic communities face more barriers to learning, there is a system of assigning a decile number to each state primary school. Deciles range from 1 (the lowest) to 10 (the highest), and are based on socio-economic factors derived from the census. Low-decile schools receive more funding to help their students overcome educational obstacles.

The intermediate years may be spent in a stand-alone intermediate school, a primary school that caters to Years 1–8, or a secondary school that includes Years 7–13. In some country districts, there are ‘area’ or ‘composite’ schools that include the primary, intermediate and secondary years.

Co-ed and single sex

State primary and intermediate schools are co-educational. So are many secondary schools, but there are others that are just for boys or girls. These single-sex schools are mainly older-established, and located in larger towns and cities where there are several secondary schools.

Other options

In addition to the general state schools, there are a range of other state-funded options, all of which teach the New Zealand curriculum. These include:

  • kura kaupapa Māori, state schools catering for Years 1–8 or Years 1–13 where the teaching is in the Māori language and is based on Māori culture and values
  • special schools for students with disabilities
  • integrated schools – schools that used to be private, and that keep their special character. They receive government funding for each student but as they own their own buildings and land, they charge attendance fees
  • designated character schools, which have been allowed to develop their own objectives to reflect a particular set of values
  • the Correspondence School, which provides distance education for children who have medical or other problems or live too far from a school.

Private schools and home schooling

Aside from state schools, there are private schools that charge fees. They are governed by their own independent boards, but must meet certain standards to be registered and receive government subsidies.

Some parents and caregivers also choose to educate their children at home, but must provide an education equivalent to that given at a registered school. They receive an annual grant to cover the cost of learning materials and can purchase teaching services from the Correspondence School.


Many private schools have boarding facilities, and so do some state schools. In both cases, boarding fees are charged.

Education from 1840 to 1918

Māori schools

Traditionally, Māori educated some children in whare wānanga (houses of learning). From 1816 missionaries also established schools for Māori to teach them literacy and practical skills. These became more numerous in the 1830s and 1840s. British settlers arriving in New Zealand were often less well-educated than Māori.

Before state schooling

The first settler schools were unevenly distributed, and attendance was not compulsory. Private (fee-paying) schools catered for the children of the well-off, while church schools and Sunday schools were set up to educate poorer children.

Between 1852 and 1876 provincial governments gave grants to existing schools and established more. School systems were well-developed in parts of the South Island, but less so in the North Island. Meanwhile, central government supported a separate ‘native school’ system for Māori children. By 1870 there was a free basic education system in many places but only about half of all children between five and 15 were attending school.

Secondary schools were few, highly academic and charged fees. Early examples included Auckland Grammar School (1869), Wellington College (1867) and Otago Boys’ High School (1863). In 1871 Otago Girls’ High School, the first girls’ secondary school, opened. Some scholarships were offered, but generally only children from well-off families made it to secondary school, and many more boys did so than girls.

Lost dreams

Despite the availability of free secondary places from 1903, girls were often withdrawn from school to help at home, and many bitterly regretted missing out on high school education. Nola Stowe (née Elliot), who attended Port Ahuriri School at Napier between 1906 and 1913, recalled: ‘I didn’t get to High School. I wanted to be a Karitane Nurse but Mother died so I housekept for my father.’1

Education for all?

The Education Act 1877 established free, secular and compulsory education. All children had to attend school between the ages of seven and 13, and were entitled to attend between five and 15. Schooling was offered from entrance level to Standard 6, the equivalent of Years 1–8. In practice, it was far from compulsory – by law children had to attend for only half the time the school was open, and in remote country areas children attended irregularly if at all. Parents were often keen to put their children to work as soon as possible. Children could be exempted from school attendance earlier than 13 if they had completed Standard 4 (Year 6). In 1898 this was raised to Standard 5 (Year 7).

One of the changes introduced by reforming Secretary of Education George Hogben in 1901 was to increase the leaving age to 14, subject to the standard five exemption clause. From 1914 children could only be exempted if they were over 13 and had a Certificate of Proficiency (commonly known as Proficiency) after passing Standard 6 (Year 8).

University at school

In the 1870s, when university education was just beginning in New Zealand, five boys’ secondary schools – Parnell Church of England Grammar School, Auckland College and Grammar School, Wellington College, Nelson College and Christ’s College Grammar School – were affiliated to the University of New Zealand, and provided university level teaching in the upper forms.

Getting secondary education

Demand for better access to secondary education grew as more jobs requiring higher qualifications became available. In some country areas district high schools (a secondary department within an existing primary school) were established – but they, like urban secondary schools, charged fees. To get around this, some primary schools introduced a free ‘standard seven’, an additional year for children who needed secondary-level education in order to sit the junior civil service examination, established in 1886. A good mark in this exam led to a secure job in the public service.

In 1903 Hogben introduced free places in all secondary schools for children who had passed Proficiency – before then, children from poor families could only get secondary schooling if they won a scholarship. Junior free places were available for two years, and senior free places were granted to those who passed further examinations.

However, from 1905 many children from urban working-class families chose to go on to new technical schools, at which they could gain free training after qualifying for a Certificate of Competency at the end of Standard 5 or 6 (Year 7 or 8). There they learned skills relevant to trades and office work.

These developments led to a marked growth in state secondary school rolls. In 1900 there were 2,792 pupils at secondary schools. By 1909 the total was 7,063, including 2,207 students at technical high schools.

  1. Quoted in Kay Matthews, ‘White pinafores, slates, mud and manuka: Pakeha women’s experiences of primary schools in Hawke’s Bay, 1880–1918’, in Women and education in Aotearoa, edited by Sue Middleton. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, Port Nicholson Press, 1988, p. 28. Back

Education from the 1920s to 2000s

Post-war changes

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.

Further reforms

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.

School assembly

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.

  1. Susan Butterworth, The Department of Education, 18771989: a guide to its development. Wellington: Ministry of Education, 1993, p. 34. Back
  2. Dorothy Butler, There was a time. Auckland: Penguin, 1999, p. 62. Back

Standards and examinations

The inspector’s visit

After 1877 Education Board inspectors visited primary schools annually and examined what each child had learned. Children who passed the examination were allowed to move up into the next class; those who failed had to repeat the year. As results were often published in local newspapers, there was great pressure on children to pass, and those who failed were publicly humiliated.

The day of judgement

Before 1904 the annual visit of the school inspector was anticipated with a mixture of fear and excitement. The impending school examination was announced in the local paper, and the names of children who were promoted to the next class were often also published. Children carefully cleaned their desks, decorated the classrooms with greenery and flowers, and dressed in their best clothes for what one child described as the ‘dreaded time’.1

In 1904 teachers gained the power to decide the classification of children up to and including Standard 5 (Year 7).

Competency and Proficiency

From 1899 inspectors could make an award, Proficiency, to children who passed Standard 6 (Year 8) in a certain number of subjects. A similar award, Competency, was awarded to children who passed Standard 5 (Year 7), and from 1903 this was the standard for getting into high school. However, Proficiency became the more prized qualification, especially as it gave the holder two free years of secondary schooling. When Proficiency was abolished in 1936, teachers and pupils were released from the narrow focus on meeting exam standards.

Senior free places

Between 1905 and 1912 students who had gained a junior free place but who wanted to extend their high school years sat the junior civil service examination at the end of Year 10 in order to gain a senior free place. From 1913 to 1936 (when all secondary education became free) passing the public service entrance or intermediate examination allowed students to go further at high school. A senior national scholarship provided additional benefits.


Students sat Matriculation (later University Entrance) in their third or fourth year of high school (Year 11 or 12), but most stayed on for a fourth year to qualify for a Higher Leaving Certificate, which covered university fees, and to try for university scholarships. From 1934 a school certificate (not to be confused with the later qualification) was awarded partly on the basis of university entrance examination results.

School Certificate

With the raising of the school-leaving age in the mid-1940s, there was a further change to high school examinations. From 1946, School Certificate exams were held at the end of the third year (Year 11). Used by employers to gauge a student’s achievement in academic and vocational subjects, ‘School C’ exams often marked the end of a person’s high school career.

University Entrance

From 1944 the University Entrance (UE) exam was sat or accredited (awarded on the basis of the year’s performance) at the end of the fourth year (Year 12), when Sixth Form Certificate was also awarded if standards were met according to internal assessment. Students staying on for a fifth year could compete for scholarships and bursaries. In 1985 the ‘UE’ examination was abolished.

Setting standards

Contemporary debates over national standards are not new – criticism of educational methods has occurred periodically since the 1930s, with both parents and employers calling for more rigorous standards. A retired teacher, commenting on the ‘back to basics’ campaign of the 1980s, noted the challenge of catering to the needs of children of very different aptitudes and remarked, ‘Any education system is a product of its own times and adapts to what it sees as the future needs of its pupils in the society in which they will live.’2


Between 2002 and 2004 the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) became the main secondary-school qualification, replacing School Certificate, University Entrance, Sixth Form Certificate and University Bursary, but not Scholarship examinations. It was the culmination of educationalists’ desire to introduce more internal assessment, and to measure skills not taken into account in the old system of examinations.

NCEA is assessed at three levels during secondary school, from Year 11 to 13, against unit standards which are based on competencies, and achievement standards which are based on the curriculum. Results are based on both internal assessment and examinations. Students who perform strongly in certain courses can gain a merit or excellence endorsement on their NCEA record of achievement.

  1. Quoted in Kay Matthews, ‘White pinafores, slates, mud and manuka: Pakeha women’s experiences of primary schools in Hawke’s Bay, 1880–1918’, in Women and education in Aotearoa, edited by Sue Middleton. Wellington: Allen & Unwin, Port Nicholson Press, 1988, p. 24. Back
  2. H. R. Hooker, Bead-frames to calculators: a teaching life. Christchurch: H. R. Hooker, 1983, p. 77. Back

Curriculum changes

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.

School administration and funding

Education Boards dominate

The Education Act 1877 established a small Department of Education to set teaching standards and provide funds to 12 elected regional education boards. The boards defined school districts, appointed and inspected teachers, and administered the school system. Each school had a committee of between five and nine local residents. They were responsible for managing the school, including recommending the appointment and dismissal of teachers. The boards, rather than the department, held the balance of power, spending money as they saw fit, without any national accountability.

Education spending

From the 1950s greater prosperity led to an increase in the amount spent on education. In 2009/10 the amount spent annually on education had risen to 6.2% of GDP (gross domestic product), more than the OECD average, and above the percentages of Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The Education Department grows

Wide variations in staffing levels and teachers’ pay and conditions between education board regions prompted a royal commission in 1901. A national system of pay and staffing for primary schools was set up and the Education Department administered this from 1902. In 1914 a national system of appointment and grading of teachers was adopted, and the department took over the inspection of schools. Although boards continued to hire and fire teachers, the department became more influential. Following further education reforms in the 1940s, it grew dramatically in size.

1980s decentralisation

Secondary schools had boards of governors similar to the primary school committees, and active parent–teacher associations developed in schools during the 20th century. However, from the 1960s some people became concerned about the cumbersome education bureaucracy and worried that local communities did not have enough say in the running of schools. In 1989 a new education act decentralised education administration. The Education Department and education boards were abolished, a much smaller Ministry of Education was set up, mainly to deal with policy, and schools were given power to administer their own affairs through elected boards of trustees.


In the 19th century primary schools were funded through a government ‘capitation’ grant – a fixed amount for each child on the roll who met a certain level of attendance. When capitation was replaced by nationally administered teacher salaries in 1902, a system of building and administrative grants was introduced. Capitation was used to fund secondary schools until 1920, when national pay scales were introduced for secondary teachers. After the 1989 reforms the Ministry of Education provided school boards of trustees with operational, salary and property funding.

Numbers and types of schools

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


19th century

From 1877 primary teachers were paid according to their grading, which was determined by the size of their school. Because there were so many small schools, most teachers were clustered in the poorly paid lower grades of the profession. Many of them were women. As women were not paid as much as men, they were employed by boards as cheap labour. Pupil-teachers – older pupils who were paid a pittance for teaching younger children – were predominantly female. Often teachers, particularly those in rural schools, did not have a teachers’ certificate. Rote teaching, where children chanted facts in unison until they were memorised, was common in the 19th century and well into the 20th.

Rote teaching

Rote teaching remained common after the First World War, as one primary-school student of the time recalled. ‘I can remember gathering as one of a group round a large free-standing bead frame. The teacher had a long pointer and, as she shifted the appropriate coloured beads along their rods, the whole group chanted, “One and one are two – one and two are three…” The chant was led by the teacher who also kept everybody in time by tapping her foot on the floor.’1

1900s to 1940s

In the early 20th century the standardisation of the salaries, appointment and grading of teachers, together with the establishment of a superannuation fund, made teaching a more attractive career. The profession continued to attract large numbers of women, possibly because it was one of the few careers open to them. Women teachers were in the majority in primary schools, and between 40% to 50% of the secondary teaching workforce. In 1914 the New Zealand Women Teachers’ Association was formed, pushing for equal pay, promotion of women and inclusion of women in the inspectorate (the team of school inspectors).

In 1904 teacher training was improved with increased funding to training colleges in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin, and in 1926 the old pupil-teacher system was abandoned. Economic depression of the late 1920s and 1930s led to education cuts. Teachers’ salaries were slashed and teachers’ colleges closed temporarily. From the mid-1930s, however, reforms led to a spirit of optimism. With the abolition of the Proficiency exam in 1936, primary teachers could explore subjects in more depth, and allow children to do more self-directed project work. Better understanding of child psychology encouraged teaching tailored to each child’s individual abilities and needs.


Many people remember inspirational teachers. For Dorothy Butler it was Mr Watson, teacher of her Standard 5 class at Gladstone Road School in Auckland in the 1930s. She recalled, ‘In Mr Watson’s class, you worked … I am quite sure, in retrospect, that Warnock Watson’s vigour and personal style – virtuosity, really – kindled intellectual activity in an extraordinary way.’2

1950s to the 2000s

When the Government Service Equal Pay Act 1960 was introduced, the Women Teachers’ Association was the first to take advantage of it. This, and increasing numbers of married women re-entering the paid workforce, were possible reasons why numbers of women in the profession grew. By 2011 women teachers outnumbered men in both primary (82%) and secondary schools (58%).

More was spent on teacher training from the 1950s. Social changes in the post-war years created challenges for teachers, including greater diversity, particularly in secondary schools, and increasing tensions between school and families. Schools became responsible for social work such as drug and alcohol education. On the other hand, styles of teaching gradually became less authoritarian. The minister of education abolished corporal punishment in 1987, and it was legislated against in 1990.

Pupils calling teachers by their first names rather than titles was acceptable in some schools in the 2000s.

Teaching life

While conditions of work and teaching styles have changed, some elements of the job remain the same. Despite the claim that teachers enjoy shorter days and more holidays than other workers, they work long hours preparing lessons and marking. In addition, many are involved in coaching sports, conducting choirs and orchestras, and directing plays and concerts after school. As role models, they are always on duty. In the words of a former teacher: ‘Any teacher worth his salt appreciates the responsibility of influencing impressionable minds to adopt worthwhile personal and community values.’3

  1. H. R. Hooker, Bead-frames to calculators: a teaching life. Christchurch: H. R. Hooker, 1983, p. 54. Back
  2. Dorothy Butler, There was a time. Auckland: Penguin, 1999, p. 88–89. Back
  3. Bead-frames to calculators, p. 121. Back


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

Extra-curricular activities

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.

  1. Peter Lange, ‘Behind the monument.’ In Through the looking glass: recollections of childhood by 20 prominent New Zealanders, edited by Michael Gifkins. Auckland: Century Hutchinson, 1988, p. 152. Back
  2. Janet Frame, To the is-land. New York: George Braziller, 1982, p. 208. Back
  3. Through the looking glass, p. 152. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Primary and secondary education', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Nancy Swarbrick, i tāngia i te 20 o Hune 2012