The New Zealand Education Act of 1877 made education free and compulsory for children between the ages of seven and thirteen (or until a child passed the Standard Four exam). Before then, getting an education was only possible for children who had access to a privately-run school and had parents able to afford the fees, or were from one of the few families wealthy enough to employ a governess.

Often the “compulsory” aspect was only loosely enforced. Teachers in country districts (and in the 1870s that meant about 80% of the schools) had to be realistic about the demand for children’s labour on the farms at certain times of the year. Tracks might be impassable in winter, especially for children who might live some miles from school. Older children might be kept home to look after younger ones while their mother was recovering from the birth of yet another baby. Many children simply lived too far from a school to attend at all.

Only the fortunate few managed any schooling beyond primary. For Amy, secondary education would have meant living away from home, and her father would have had to pay for her schooling as well as board. It was 1903 before free High School places began being offered to children who had passed the Proficiency Examination at the end of Standard Six, and 1914 before public secondary schools became free for all pupils.

In the 1880s, many teachers began their careers as pupil-teachers. A child could become a pupil-teacher at fourteen, having passed the Standard Six examination. If Amy had been allowed to do this, she would have spent the next four years training under an experienced teacher, helping in the classroom during school hours and taking lessons with the teacher until five in the evening in subjects such as Latin, Euclid, Algebra, Arithmetic, History and English, as well as in classroom management. Each year the pupil-teacher had to sit an examination, and failing these examinations meant dismissal.

Pupil-teachers were a vital part of the system. Country schools struggled to find staff willing to go to remote schools, and teachers in larger schools often had huge classes by today’s standards. There might be a class of over a hundred pupils housed in two classrooms, taught by one qualified teacher assisted by a pupil-teacher little older than some of the pupils. These pupil-teachers earned every penny of their £20 per annum.