Rescue mission, Nicholas Reid

A Fair and Just Solution – a History of the Integration of Private Schools in New Zealand 
Rory Sweetman
Dunmore Press, $34.95,
ISBN 0864694148

Once upon a time there were, theoretically, two school systems in New Zealand. There were state schools and there were private schools. State schools, according to their defenders, were free, egalitarian, secular, open to all comers of all social classes and one of the mainstays of New Zealand democracy. Private schools, on the other hand, were “snob” schools, promoting divisive religious agendas, charging high fees, pandering to the prejudices of the wealthy, and undermining egalitarianism with their elitism.

Ignoring the obvious fact that not all state schools were (or are) really equal, there was just one other flaw with this particular mythology. Namely, that it was not true. Sure, there were (and are) a handful of mainly Protestant, elitist, high-fee-charging private schools. But the largest category of New Zealand’s private schools were Catholic schools, which (on the backs of underpaid religious teaching staff) charged minimal fees, taught more working-class kids than affluent middle-class kids, and on the whole had poorer resources and material facilities than neighbouring state schools.

Commissioned by the Association of Proprietors of Integrated Schools, Rory Sweetman’s A Fair and Just Solution is a thorough and scrupulously-researched history of how the Private Schools Conditional Integration Act came to be hammered out in the early 1970s, how it was passed in the dying days of the Kirk-Rowling Labour administration, and how it was implemented in the 1970s and 80s by both National and Labour governments. Sweetman’s 200 pages of closely-printed text are followed by nearly 100 pages of even-more-closely-printed appendices and notes.

Much of the detail would be too technical for the general reader were it not for Sweetman’s welcome bursts of that dry, waspish humour he deployed in Bishop in the Dock, his account of the sedition trial of James Michael Liston. Sweetman also has the ability to present leading personalities in effective thumbnail portraits. Phil Amos (Labour Minister of Education) comes through as a nice bloke but a little indecisive and wishy-washy. Les Gandar (National Minister of Education) is depicted as making the best of an Act that his party hadn’t initiated. Gandar’s successor, Merv Wellington, throws himself enthusiastically into integration settlements, but gets up the backs of some state school teachers.

Among all the detail here, one particular point is clear. The “integration” solution would never have come about if Labour politicians hadn’t, in the early 1960s, begun to realise just how poorly resourced Catholic schools really were. After all the secularist rhetoric that had dominated education debate since the 1877 Education Act, it was a shock for some to discover that, far from being elitist, Catholic schools were, if anything, the disadvantaged ones. In a humanitarian spirit, even secularist Labour MPs looked for a way to make a large category of New Zealand schoolchildren less disadvantaged.

Later opponents of the “integration” concept were to charge that it entrenched a division in state education. Certainly, it ended a century of purely secular state education (as well as increasing the number of schools in the state system by ten percent). But the only realistic alternative to integration would have been larger injections of “state aid”, with no strings attached, into a Catholic system that was near financial collapse. And, suggests Sweetman, the outcome of that would have been the two-tier education system prevailing in Australia where, it seems, private schools genuinely are advantaged and state school rolls are falling.

Sweetman is fair to all sides in this debate. The fears of  some Catholics – that they would lose all independence and have to pay a hefty upgrading bill – are given due weight. So are the fears of the primary and secondary state teachers unions (the NZEI and PPTA) that integrated schools would be unfairly advantaged. The long negotiations are followed through in all their complexity. PPTA-boss Gunter Warner is presented as a tough but fair negotiator whose humanitarian concern for Catholic schools was theoretically at odds with his professed atheism (at one point he joked with his Catholic opposite numbers that they would have had a tougher time if they had had to deal with convinced Protestants rather than with him).

Rather late in the day, once the integration Act was passed and was being implemented by the Muldoon Government, a small Committee for the Defence of Secular Education was set up. It claimed that the whole thing had been a terrible mistake. According to CDSE propaganda, the teacher unions had been hoodwinked in a series of secret government deals to which they hadn’t been privy. This version of events influenced the chapter on schools integration in Donald Akenson’s Half the World From Home, and the hysterical and unbalanced 1986 television documentary  “Fish Hooks and Broken Glass”.

If Sweetman has an agenda, it is to show just how unfounded these accusations were. Consultation with unions and other interested parties was wide. Matters included in the draft Act were debated openly and repeatedly. There was much modification of detail in reviews and hearings to which all were welcome to contribute. And more tellingly, at the time the Act was being forged, the teacher unions were all in favour of it. If a loud minority of their members later complained, they were, says Sweetman, suffering from “a rapid loss of institutional memory”.

Sweetman’s last chapter goes for a longer-term perspective on the effects of the Act. Though he makes an attempt, I am not satisfied that in the end he has clarified how (apart from upgraded facilities and the payment of salaries) integration changed Catholic schools into something other than they had already been. I could grizzle, too, that his references to the Catholic press lean much more heavily on Dunedin’s Tablet than on Auckland’s Zealandia. The latter had, throughout this whole debate, a much larger circulation than the former. But these are merely grizzles. This is a fair and just history.


Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian and reviewer who used to be a secondary school teacher. His book The Bishop’s Paper: a History of the Catholic Press of the Diocese of Auckland was reviewed in our March 2002 issue.


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