Days Of The Old Schoolyard

A country school reunion revives precious childhood memories

Along with lighting the path of the heathen, education was high on the priority list of Christian missionaries and clergy in early pakeha New Zealand settlement. A spirit of cooperation existed among them, however, and it was this spirit that led to the establishment of what became Ramarama School.

Ten years before free, compulsory and secular education was mandated by government, the local Presbyterian minister Thomas Norrie managed to acquire five acres with a building, in the area then known as Maketu, for the purpose of setting up a school.

Local historian Iain Wakefield has been researching the school for the 150th jubilee, held late last year.

“The property was up for auction and both Norrie and the Anglican George Selwyn were after it. Rather than bid against each other, they agreed the Presbyterians could use it as a school, with Anglican services able to be held there once a month.”

Norrie paid £60 for the property in 1867 and opened his school, making it available to all. Evidently a man of enormous energy, every Sunday he traversed roads that were scarcely more than tracks to conduct up to six services for his far flung parishioners from Papakura to Te Awamutu, in between fathering 15 children.

As the settlement of Maketu grew, so did the school role. A nearby school for Catholic children eventually closed in 1893 and its pupils were absorbed into what had become known as Maketu School.

In 1879 the original school building was replaced by a purpose built school funded by the Board of Education, and teacher accommodation was provided, a necessity in a comparatively remote rural area.

Iain says 40-45 children were registered, but only half might turn up for classes on any given day.

“Attendance was only required for six half days a week, changed in 1885 to 30 days per quarter. The rest of the time the kids would be needed at home for help on the farm.

“Between the ages of seven to 13 schooling was compulsory, but some pupils might be younger or older. All were taught in the one room, divided by a curtain. Promotion to the next class only happened if a child passed the tests set by school inspectors.”

Passing the Proficiency exam entitled a child to two free years of secondary education until the Labour government of the 1930s introduced free secondary schooling for all. Most children did not have the benefit of post primary education, however, and young Amy McDowell would have been typical of many girls in the early 1900s, leaving school at 14 to help care for her large family.

Beside the school was the equivalent of the modern parking lot, a paddock where ponies could graze after transporting their riders to school, often two or three at a time. Some, like centenarian Mary (Molly) Fisher (nee Clarke), the school's oldest living ex-pupil, recalls riding to school on her Shetland pony with her younger sister Joan. If the pony was lame, it was a five kilometre walk each way. Other pupils walked every day, along muddy bullock tracks that were often 'improved' with stones which bruised the feet. One of the first pupils, Agnes Allen (nee Harkness), recalled chillblained toes and fingers, as well as aching decayed teeth in the days before school dental nurses.

The potbelly stove looms large in early pupils' recollections, not only as a source of heating but also for cooking and for heating the milk (provided free to schools between 1937-67) for cocoa in winter. Bill Thorburn recalls the sugar for the milky drink being spilt on the floor by boys larking about, who then swept it up and stirred it into the cocoa with apparently no ill effects for the consumers – although the perpetrators gave the cocoa a miss that day.

Pupil power was called upon for various tasks, including cleaning the school pool in the days before filters. Sue James (nee Gellatly) remembers a swimming pool “always green and slimy, and full of frogs” in the 1950s. A weekly scrub and refill would restore it to pristine condition for a few days. Senior pupils also did caretaking duties, cleaning and tidying classrooms. In pre-septic tank days in the 1940s, Rod Miller was among the older boys whose weekly task it was to dig a hole and bury the toilet waste - without gloves.

In 1915 the district was rocked by a crime of passion which occurred next door to the school. A neighbouring farmer, John Perry, was shot in his bed and his wife arrested for the deed. The jury acquitted her after only 31 minutes' deliberation, but although suspicion lay heavily on her lover he was never arrested and the murder remains unsolved.

In some respects Mr Perry's demise may have benefitted the school. His livestock had repeatedly breached the boundary fence, damaging the carefully tended garden where the children learned many skills and garnered horticultural prizes.

In the 1890s the school and district were renamed Rama Rama to avoid confusion with Maketu in the Bay of Plenty, the two word spelling persisting until the late 1970s. The ramarama tree was not identified as the school symbol, rather being translated as 'torchlight on the river bank'.

The school's third makeover was in 1966, with a hall added in 1999. But more than physical changes were occuring, with the advent of the Tomorrow's Schools reforms in 1989. Former school secretary Ellinor Redgwell recalls “many hours of meetings” and much work writing policy and meeting with the community to establish needs.

“That was also the year the school got its first computer. I had to share it with the form one and two classes.”

Photocopiers were just a dream, with a Gestetner machine used for producing printed material, “leaving black stuff all over the place”.

Now with a role approaching 200, Ramarama School is firmly embedded in the 21st century. Skipping, marbles and playing hockey with sticks made of supplejack have been replaced by an enviable variety of sports and the inevitable electronic screens. The annual school picnic and concert are no longer the highlights of the school year, although Calf Club is still a treasured tradition. Wayward pupils no longer need fear punishment from the dreaded strap.

Schoolyard memories are clearly a uniting factor for the district. The 150th reunion attracted over 200 attendees, including every surviving principal, some in their 80s or 90s, and ex-pupils from all over New Zealand and overseas. One family had 32 members educated at Ramarama. But Iain can see huge changes ahead.

“The whole environment of the school will alter in the next five years because of the Drury South development. The rural atmosphere is changing, and the area will be transformed in the next 10 years.”