Ngataki School, 1930-70


Published in Education Review, September 2013

When Alan Simpson started his post as headmaster of Ngataki School in 1952, the school was set in pine, sand and scrub in a hot, windy climate. It had 40 children, no power, little funds, and no cleaners. Cleaning was sorted easy enough: for the floors, Simpson and his wife Bebe would get the big kids to drag the small ones round on sacks, with the children obliging all too willingly. Alan and Bebe were appointed by the government’s Education Department, which at the time sought new pedagogies to suit a burgeoning movement of creative education. Alan and Bebe took an inquiry-based approach to rural, Maori education.

In the 1950s, 80% of Maori lived in rural areas. There were 156 ‘Native Schools’ under the direction of the Education Department, chiefly in the North Auckland, Bay of Islands and East Coast areas. The Department appointed married couples to each school: a headmaster and infant mistress. Ex-education director Clarence Beeby later referred to this practice as ‘paternalistic’, but the idea was that the policy supported the link between school management and the community.

From 1930 a new emphasis was being placed on Maori tikanga in these schools. This was partly due to international thinking on equitable education and the arts (see Education Aotearoa’s latest issue for more). In 1938 Aotearoa’s government pronounced that “every child ‘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,” and by 1944 education minister HGR Mason stated:

To say that all the children in New Zealand should have equal opportunities for education is not to infer that every child should have the same education. This is particularly true when applied to the education of the Maori. The background of many Maori children is very different to that of “pakeha”.

Arts and crafts supervisor Gordon Tovey (appointed by Beeby in 1944) was keen to put the best current theories of arts-based, child-centred education into practice, and to augment and spread good ideas by observing teachers like Simpson at Ngataki. His 1954-9 Northern Maori Project developed education in Te Hapua, Ngataki, Te Kao, Paparore, Oturu, and later Pukepoto and Oruaiti schools. Alan Simpson approached his Ngataki post with admirable integrity. He looked to students to discover the best pathways into and between all areas of the curriculum.

To encourage group cohesion and self-management, Simpson used music. He assisted the children to make their own drums, embraced the initial chaos, and used the children’s own boredom with it to prompt discussions about conducting signals. The children were soon composing their own music for performance, and were later visited by Auckland musician and educationalist Ramsay Howie.

The children printed fabrics, made mobiles, and made a kiln to fire pots with the help of Jim Allen. Simpson wrote an unpublished text titled Language in Action, and used dance in P.E. to invigorate and refine movement. Physical education specialist Brian Jennings disapproved of this: “The Far North Sports are coming up,” Jennings once taunted, “I expect these kids will participate?”. To Simpson’s delight, that year Ngataki won every trophy in the competition. Jennings had to present them, and then began suggesting dance to other schools.

Elwyn Richardson was a scientist and headmaster at Oruaiti from 1949 and similarly resourceful and dynamic. He went to Oruaiti out of disillusionment with overprescribed conventional education, and also to study the unique sea life and molluscs. His integrated approach to science was particularly notable; Richardson liked to ask the students to make prints before and after a learning inquiry. The children’s art published in his In the Early World shows how the work children made ‘before’ an inquiry often expressed how they felt about the topic, i.e. spiders; the final work would illustrate they had learned about them. His Song of the Bird has been posted by Auckland University on Youtube.

Richardson, Simpson and like figures faced much opposition. Northern agricultural advisor Bill Delph withdrew Simpson’s nature studies funding after seeing that he wasn’t following Delph’s requirements. “I showed him all the art and craft we got from the local environment,” said Simpson later, adding that Delph’s approach was to “come up and meander round, take the kids for a walk in the bush and talk about something they knew more about than he did.”

Reputed infant mistress Sylvia Ashton-Warner was intent on connecting her literacy programme to the children’s instinctive need for and love of language. She used an ‘organic’ reading and writing programme and what she called ‘Key Vocabulary’. She paid close attention to the words her new entrants grasped for, used with urgency and recognised quickly and easily. With these, children hungrily developed vital and dynamic vocabularies and personal voices.

Simpson had been conversing with British education and drama practitioner Peter Slade, and by 1959 it was becoming clearer to practitioners that the value of these creative, holistic pedagogies transcended ethnicity. In 1956 the Department begun work on Arts of the Maori, published in 1961, to introduce Maori carving, costume, dance, stick games and songs into all Aotearoa schools. The distribution of the textbook was accompanied by a series of courses run in schools nationwide by Department arts advisors including Cliff Whiting, Para Matchitt and Mere Kururangi. Advisors had met with Ngati Porou kaumatua Pine Taiapa in Ruatoria in 1960, who ensured that tapu information about tikanga was transferred through rigorous discussion and guidance.

By the late sixties, the face of education in New Zealand was already beginning to change, and by 1970, over 50% of Maori were urban. Tovey ran a final course with his arts advisors in 1964, in which The Feilding Panel was made: this carving will be hung in Victoria University’s Education Faculty later this year.


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