The Education Act 1877 provided free and secular education for children aged between five and 15. It was compulsory to attend school between the ages of seven and 14. Free secondary schooling was available for those who passed Proficiency examinations in the Sixth Standard, but most children left school when they turned 14. Many parents questioned the relevance of academic pursuits to the vocational necessities of life after school.
In 1914 180,000 children attended public schools in New Zealand, which had a total population of about one million. It was not uncommon for 40 or more children to be crammed in rows in classrooms that were hot in summer and cold in winter. Because of medical beliefs about the benefits of fresh air, teachers were encouraged to keep the windows open year-round. In winter children helped gather wood to burn in the classroom’s stove. For many warming up meant flapping their arms about or running around the building before the lesson.
Most children learned to write on slates made of smooth rock before moving on to paper and pencil and then ink. Widespread use of the strap and the cane ensured children followed the rules, held their pencils correctly and did their homework.
George Hogben, who headed the Department of Education from 1899 until 1915, believed that ‘moral purpose should dominate the spirit of the whole school life.’ Schools and teachers were to shape children into productive, moral and healthy citizens prepared to serve their country in both peace and war. J.P. Firth (or ‘the Boss’, as he was known to most) was principal of Wellington College from 1892 to 1920. Firth believed in the virtues of manliness, toil and duty in preference to ease and pleasure, and transmitted to his pupils an abhorrence of ‘slovenliness, sneaking, and all things mean and unworthy’.
New Zealand children were taught the three R’s – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic – English grammar and composition, geography, history and civics, science, drawing, vocal music (Hogben advocated the importance of singing for children), physical instruction, moral instruction, nature study, and health.
In 1913 a Physical Education section was set up to help train teachers in the instruction of physical training. From the following year physical exercise was compulsory for all schoolchildren. Medical inspectors checked and reported on their general health. The most common problem was ‘decayed and neglected teeth’.
Healthy children were essential to the survival and strength of the nation. This was never more important than during the war, when medical examinations raised concerns about the physical fitness and health of recruits.
Schools became the scene of a different kind of war – one targeting tooth decay – following the appointment in 1920 of Colonel Thomas A. Hunter as Chief Dental Officer of the Education Department. Formerly Director of the New Zealand Army Dental Service, Hunter proposed that some of the ambulances children had raised funds to purchase during the war be used as mobile dental clinics.
In 1914 one-third of ‘otherwise fit’ recruits arriving at Featherston Camp were rejected on account of ‘dental defects’. This situation could not continue if the war effort was to be maintained. The authorities responded by stating that no recruit should ‘be rejected purely on these [grounds]’. Between November 1915 and 1918, the New Zealand Army Dental Service carried out nearly 100,000 extractions and filled nearly 250,000 cavities in the mouths of men in the Expeditionary Force.