Story: Primary and secondary education

Page 2. Education from 1840 to 1918

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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Despite the availability of free secondary places from 1903, girls were often withdrawn from school to help at home, and many bitterly regretted missing out on high school education.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
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Primary and secondary education - Education from 1840 to 1918', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 January 2017)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 20 Jun 2012