By 1940 childhood was internationally recognised as a distinct stage in human development. A child's value to the family was no longer seen as primarily economic. Instead, children were viewed in terms of 'emotional capital' as socially priceless. New Zealand followed overseas trends and introduced children's education initiatives in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
The kindergarten movement, still outside the state system in the war period, benefited from these changes. Funded by voluntary contributions and limited government grants, by 1940 the movement needed more money to ensure a sufficient supply of teachers. In 1942 the government provided bursaries for trainees, and student numbers increased from 31 in 1941 to 72 in 1944. In the same period the number of kindergartens increased from 39 to 52.
The 1940s also saw the beginnings of the Playcentre movement, a less formal approach to pre-school education. Playcentres were first established in Karori, Wellington, with the support of women such as Joan Wood, Inge Smithells, Beatrice Beeby and Gwendolen Somerset. Other centres soon followed in Wellington, Palmerston North and Christchurch.
In 1947, additional assistance from government to both the Playcentres Association and the Free Kindergartens Association led to an expansion of pre-school education in New Zealand.
There was a growing expectation that children would complete a longer, more comprehensive educational programme than ever before. In 1936 the Proficiency exam, traditionally the culmination of schooling at standard six (that is, the age of 12 or 13) was abolished. A broader primary school curriculum was developed under the guidance of educationalist C.E. Beeby, who asserted the democratic right of all New Zealand children to benefit from continued education regardless of ability.
This view was echoed by Acting Prime Minister Peter Fraser in 1939, when he stated 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'.
Schools were expected to 'offer courses that are as rich and varied as the needs and abilities of the children who enter them'. Additional funding was required to provide the buildings, equipment and staff needed to fulfil this promise. There were, however, delays to the programme of reform during the war. Although the intake of children had reduced because of the lower birthrate during the Depression, teacher shortages and accommodation difficulties made large class sizes and cramped conditions the norm.
Wartime was not a period of educational stagnation. English expert Philip Smithells introduced a new system of physical education based on that adopted in 1933 in England, the library service expanded, a library of filmstrips was established, and broadcasts to schools were increased to three and a half hours per week.
The school milk scheme (introduced in 1937 to provide half a pint of milk to each New Zealand child) was extended, and surplus apples were also provided to schoolchildren from 1941 to 1945.
On 22 June 1943, Beeby, by now Director-General of Education, announced that the school leaving age would be raised to 15 at the end of 1944. He stated that 'fears of juvenile delinquency had not so far been realised but all conditions for it existed, an increasing number of adolescents are missing the discipline of normal home life and it is essential for the school to keep a grip on them in these essential years.' As a result the rolls of state secondary schools more than doubled in the period 1945–60.