Early this year we asked people to send us their stories about that great New Zealand institution: the country school. We received a steady trickle of letters and, interestingly, they were all from older people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, remembering schools in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Perhaps that time was the heyday of country schools? Certainly there were many more of them back then.
Those stories are now up on the Te Ara website, attached to the entry on Country Schooling, and give fascinating insights into rural education. Most accounts are written from the point of view of the pupil, but we have one from a teacher, Helen Hirst, who began her career at the tiny Manahune School in North Canterbury in 1947. Many of our contributors also sent us their precious photos for us to scan, and there are some evocative ones. My personal favourite is the photo of Waiharakeke School near Kāwhia Harbour. Eileen Shaw, who went there in the 1940s, carefully labelled the main features, including the pony paddock, the playing field, the school gardens, and even the boys’ and girls’ toilets!
One of the stand-out experiences seems to have been the journey to school – by bus, horse or pony, or on foot. Many of our writers remember an arduous and sometimes rather scary trip – for instance Leslie Rockell’s epic horseback trek to school on Great Barrier Island. And reading about the mischief that Margaret Joll got up to with her brother and sister on their way to catch the school bus in the 1950s makes you realise how much more freedom kids had then – a contrast with modern childhood.
Several of our writers recalled the apples and milk that were handed out to all school children during these years as part of a government initiative to improve child health after the depression of the 1930s. Events unique to country schools, such as calf club day, also feature in several stories. As a gardener, I was particularly interested to read about the school garden projects – Celia Geary talks of the soup children made from vegetables they grew, while Mary Murphy remembers her prize-winning gladiolus. Gardening at school is back in fashion nowadays. But the cane – one of the few painful memories in these stories – seems unlikely to make a come-back, no doubt to the relief of children everywhere.