Teaching Module

New Zealand Childhoods (18th–20th c.)

Taranaki Education Office Report, 1898 [Official Document]


A state-funded, secular elementary education system was established in the colony of New Zealand in 1870, but the compulsory attendance provisions for 7 to 13-year-olds were not rigorously enforced, for Maori and Pakeha children alike, until the first decade of the 20th century. By then, complementary legislation, such as laws governing the minimum age for employment in factories and shops, helped to improve attendance, particularly amongst older children. There was no "social promotion"—every student had to demonstrate understanding and competence at each level before moving upwards through the primary school system. The annual visitation of the school inspector was generally a cause for widespread apprehension amongst pupils, most of whom failed to realize that their teachers were often far more worried than they were, since salaries were linked to attendance figures as well as examination results.

The advent of refrigerated shipping in 1882 led to a transformation in the colonial economy. Exports of meat, butter, and cheese could now complement the former dependence on wool. The Liberal Government, sworn into office in 1890, strongly endorsed the notion of family farms and embarked upon an intensified Maori land purchase policy to open up land that was deemed suitable for dairying. The province of Taranaki became one of the principal dairy farming areas of the colony. Few small-scale farmers could afford to employ labor. Women and children helped with the herding and hand-milking of the cows. Teachers despaired. Many of their pupils would fall asleep at the uncomfortable desks. Others were so fatigued from the early morning rising and milking that they absorbed very little of their lessons. Education authorities railed against the problem yet also recognized its complexity.


Spencer, W. E., Inspector of Schools, Taranaki Education Office, New Plymouth, 9 March 1898, to the Chairman, Taranaki Education Board. Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1898, Vol 2, E-1B, 8. Annotated by Jeanine Graham.

Primary Source Text

The causes of bad attendance, exclusive of bad roads and inclement weather, may be classed under two heads - (1) The home circumstances of the pupils, and (2) the school and its authorities. Under the first head I may mention parental indifference or neglect and excessive work required from children of very tender years. I know that during the milking season some children have to milk as many as ten cows every morning, and, if they come to school at all, arrive late, and are so fatigued as to be unfit for the work of the day. Though I regret the fact, I am afraid that in some cases there is no just remedy, as in some of the outlying districts the struggle for existence is harder than many people imagine. I was told by one teacher that children at his school had to gather fungus during the day in order that the bare necessaries of life might be procured for the families, and I have no reason for doubting his word. . . . Under the second of the above heads there is ample scope for attraction. When a school building is ill-lighted, gloomy, and depressing one cannot wonder at children preferring to stay away more than at their preferring sunshine to dulness [sic]. Then by all means let our schools be cheerful, bright, and attractive, and let the walls be covered with interesting and instructive charts and pictures such as will arouse and sustain curiosity. . . . Let the first impressions of the school-day be pleasant ones. Let us have means by which the children may amuse themselves during the recesses and before school opens, and they will, if possible, come early and regularly for a brief interval of companionship and amusement. . . . Again, the personality of the teacher is a well-known factor in producing good or bad attendance. Lack of sympathy, harshness, carelessness, and incompetency will inevitably lower the attendance. . . .

How to Cite This Source

"New Zealand Childhoods (18th–20th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #93, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/93 (accessed August 10, 2021).