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A Kiwi Education
Young New Zealanders in the 1950s looked forward – perhaps with some trepidation – to at least ten years of free (and compulsory) education. By way of gentle introduction, a child could enter kindergarten at the age of three and two years later move up to a primary school. This consisted of an infant department (Primers 1-4) Standards (1-4) and Forms 1 and 2 (which replaced the old Standards 5 and 6).
As New Zealand’s population boomed in the years following the Second World War, separate Intermediate Schools were built to take Forms 1 and 2. The next stage of the educational process was Secondary or High School (Forms 3-7), with the leaving age set at fifteen.
Perhaps the most obvious feature of New Zealand primary education was the typical classroom, an open space with a verandah and large folding doors. The idea was to combine the learning of the “Three Rs” with plenty of fresh air. However, in winter months pupils’ thoughts were more likely to turn to the pot-belly stove in the corner of the room.
When it came to learning, the day often began with the chanting of basic multiplication tables. Reading was introduced by the “Janet and John” series, whose simple and repetitive prose was standard until the 1950s. As well as the regular “School Journal”, another essential publication was the orange and black covered “Native Animals of New Zealand”. This was usually found on the Nature Study table alongside stick insects, wetas and tadpoles held captive in old preserving jars.
When the bell went, pupils reached for their morning bottle of free milk or streamed outside for playtime. While their teachers enjoyed a relatively peaceful cup of tea, children took to the playground, perhaps to socialise or swing on the jungle gym. They may have played ‘four square’, variations on ‘tag’ and ‘bull rush’, or informal games of rugby and basketball – now known as netball.
Generally, primary school children in the 1950s were not required to do homework. A much more serious threat was the strap, lurking menacingly in the teacher’s desk. But perhaps the biggest worry was the School Dental Clinic, otherwise known as the “murder house” in the days of the agonisingly slow foot-powered treadle drill. Well-intentioned dental nurses did their best to distract and humour their young patients, perhaps using “snowmen” cunningly fashioned from cotton buds and dental floss.