{Full title: A fair and just solution? A history of the integration of private schools in New Zealand}

FRom 1877 to 1975 the most persistent, profoundly argued and publicly contested moral issue in New Zealand was that of state aid for private schools.

The Education Act of 1877 made primary schooling compulsory for all children and set up a schooling system that would be free and secular. Most of the population accepted this arrangement, but some, notably the Catholics, did not.


Their history as victims of Protestant hostility in Britain and of Continental anti-clericalism made them fear for the religion of their children in state schools. So they set up their own system. It was a heroic and unique effort of self-help. Although an economically disadvantaged section of the community, they built, staffed and funded their schools from their own exiguous resources, but taught the officially prescribed curriculum. At the same time they appealed to the Government for financial assistance. Why should they have to pay twice to educate those citizens who also happened to be their own children?

But the official striving for homogeneity prevailed. That is, until 1975.

How this change eventually came about is the subject of Rory Sweetman's characteristically detailed and limpid narrative.

The pressure for change built up in the late 1960s, when the Labour leader Norman Kirk realised that having an embattled Catholic school system was not in the larger national interest. In September 1969 he announced that a future Labour government would first subsidise the salaries of teachers in private schools, then later integrate those schools into the state system.

What was meant by integration and how it would be accomplished was not defined. That was left to be worked out when Kirk came to power in 1972, and was duly authorised in the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act which was passed just before Labour lost power 1975. It was thus left to National to implement Kirk's solution to a historic grievance, and to extend the opportunity to benefit from integration to all private schools, not just the hard-up Catholic ones.

It was not plain sailing. Practical and administrative difficulties, and the jealousy of certain state school proponents, such as PPTA branches in the neighbourhood of integrating schools, over matters of enrolment, staffing and transport, slowed down the process. But they could not derail it.

Part of this successful defence was a result of the semantic sleight of hand of the creators of the new system in devising a vocabulary to conceal possibly troublesome differences. Hence "special character", which covers a limitless variety of potential meanings, and "attendance dues", which camouflages an unpleasant fact with euphemism.

The Integration Act of 1975 was a major piece of social legislation. It was not just as a response, at once pragmatic and principled, to a specific claim, but a portent. Given the resentments that it healed, it was an instrument for fostering New Zealanders' identity as one people. It deserves a good book, and it has got one.

* Hugh Laracy is an associate professor of history at the University of Auckland.

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