The attempt and subsequent failure by the Department of Education, its Directors and successive Ministers of Education to introduce and popularise agricultural subjects and courses in New Zealand rural high schools, following the passage of the Education Act of 1877, illustrates the tension that existed - and still exists - in reconciling the conflicting official expectation that these schools should provide vocational courses leading to employment in the local economy with the community's demand for access to academic courses and examination credentials that offered geographical and social mobility to ambitious youth.
Instead of reaching a consensus, the central authorities quickly became deadlocked over the type and extent of educational reform required. On the one hand, if rural subjects were made examinable, they would quickly become institutionalised as knowledge to be gained only from textbook study. On the other hand, if these subjects were not examined, there was every likelihood that the more academically able pupils would avoid them, the end result being that rural subjects (and courses) would become identified as the preserve of a non-selective, low-status, low achieving group. The issue was further complicated by the reality that the traditional (academic) subjects had superior status. In practice, then, it was preparation for examinations which came to dominate the work of the rural high schools.
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