10 February 2011
Back in the 1950’s a young boy was approaching the end of his intermediate schooling and the move onto a secondary school was looming. Along with the rest of his mates he was given an enrolment form and instructed to take it home and fill it in. He did so with some help from his parents. He cannot recollect the conversation that night but the result was that he was enrolled in a technical high school to undertake a course in carpentry, one of the options in the technical course.
He picks up his story…….
“In those days, the late 1950’s, New Zealand secondary schools were organised into stratified courses based on the split between what I now understand as academic and vocational. I also later came to understand that there was an undercurrent of perceived and even assessed ability that guided the advice given and the choices made. You were expected to enrol in a school and also into a course. I know now that “Academic” usually meant two languages and “General” one language. “Technical” was for the industrial arts with tracks through metal, wood and technical drawing and it was almost exclusively for the boys. The girls were directed into “Commercial” or “Home Economics”. This tracking approach was very much oriented to the role of the secondary school in providing the bridge between the basic education of the primary school and the special skills needed for employment. It was not by accident that secondary schools were more likely to be referred to as “post-primary” schools than they were to be called “secondary schools”. Going to secondary school was, and especially for my family, the next step in heading into a job.
In fact I never got to the technical high school. My intermediate school principal intervened and told my parents that I should not be going to a technical high school and I should not be doing a course to be a carpenter. This advice puzzled, perhaps even troubled, my parents. My mother had been to that particular school a long time previously of course. My two brothers had been there and one had done the very same course that I was enrolled in.
“Why?” she asked the intermediate principal.
“Because he is academic and should be doing an academic course – that school doesn’t offer one,” she was told.
This caused some consternation. No-one in our family had ever been called academic. We never thought of ourselves as academic. We had little or no understanding of just what that meant but we did appreciate that to get certain jobs you took different courses, that is why we had chosen technical. Perhaps even there was a feeling that all this academic business was a little above our station in life. Eventually it was agreed that I should undertake an academic course and therefore change the school in which I was enrolled. The intermediate school recommended the local boys school but this was declined on the grounds that I was too small. Fortunately a multicourse secondary school had recently opened and was offering the full range of programmes.
I started off in Form 3 in a cohort of about 200 students organised into programmes – Academic, General, Technical (Boys), Commercial (Girls) and Home Sciences (Girls). Four years later at the beginning of my last year at high school, the beginning of what is now Form 7 (Year 13, Grade 12), the twelve survivors of this cohort were paraded as an example to the incoming third formers, of quite what I am not sure but it was probably an exhortation to work hard and to value education. In my second year at high school, they introduced a Form 4 Certificate so that “most students would receive some recognition of their post-primary education” – I still have it. A lot of my mates left school after that to go into jobs and a small band of us was left to undertake study at the senior level. Having little background in such work and receiving little guidance and help, it was a matter of survival by observation and experimentation. Failure was perilously close on many occasions. My level of preparation for work at the senior secondary level was simply inadequate in terms of my understanding what really was required.
My home valued education highly but it was beyond our experience all this academic stuff. Given study leave for School Certificate the puzzle was what did you do with those three days? How did you work in a self-directed manner? At that time there was no assistance with any of this and there were quite a few times when the security of the known – preparing to be a carpenter – looked to be a pretty good option. My results were marginal. I scraped through School Certificate but a “pass” was a pass and there was little talk of how many marks had been gained. I was then accredited University Entrance and to this day, I am not at all confident that I could have passed had I had to sit the examination. Any way I got through school and moved on, but that is another story.”
And how did this boy end up? He did OK. This story ends in the same way as the endings of so many stories played repeatedly on radio request sessions back then. . . . . . .
“I know because I was that boy.”