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In recent years, Dunedin has developed an air of a place that values its history as a proud city of firsts in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Our citizens understand but also enthusiastically celebrate the role their gritty ancestors played in the emergence of New Zealand’s state-funded health and education systems.
As evidenced by the visionary efforts of developers latterly choosing to restore rather than knock down our heritage assets, Dunedin is also undergoing a heritage renaissance. Which is why recent concerns that the Ministry of Education may remove the historic infants’ building (and symbol of the history of education in New Zealand) from its site at Arthur Street School is so baffling.
Heritage New Zealand (HNZ) classifies the Arthur Street School infants’ building - believed to be one of the earliest examples of its kind - as a category 2historic place.
In 2017, HNZ adviser Heather Bauchop assessed the building’s merits. She reported that the wooden structure had architectural, historic and social significance to New Zealand. Opened in 1887, it is an early example of its type in a school dating back to 1848.
When the first European settlers arrived to build anew free society in one of the most remote corners of the world, their children attended Beach School in Dowling St - at what was then the foreshore. In1864, the expanding school was shifted to Tennyson St and renamed Middle School, which in turn was shifted to its current site and renamed Arthur Street School. Consequently, at more than 170 years old, Arthur Street markets itself today as Dunedin’s first school.
At its 150th celebration in 1998, the infants’ building was proudly held up as a potent symbol of the little school’s pioneering history.
One former pupil from the 1920s remembered ‘‘staring wide eyed at the interior of this room, tiered with double desks and heated by potbelly stoves, with blackboards and easels’’.
Embodied in Arthur Street’s ‘‘substantial and commodious infant department’’ (as described in newspaper reports when opened) is also the founding story of free education for all children in New Zealand, and a consequential community campaign to prevent overcrowding at Arthur Street.
‘‘The building represents the 19th century’s evolving approach to the rearing of children as the future citizens of our nation,’’ writes Bauchop.
My grandmother was a beneficiary of these education reforms, and a pupil of Arthur Street School. Born in 1913, and attending Arthur Street until Standard 6, Florence Doreen Parsons could write as well as anyone with a higher education; competently calculate and pay her bills; and read the newspaper (and frequently comment in it).
Despite being orphaned as a child, Gran was a sociable, knowledgeable, quick-witted role model throughout her long life. At 14, she left school to work in a Dunedin boot factory - a path taken by many for whom primary school was their only formal education. Her story shows how state education, even with its limitations, gave her skills that collectively helped build the nation. So yet again, we can turn to Arthur Street School’s history to appreciate that.
The Southern Heritage Trust believes that within context of its location, the infants’ building forms one part of a historic group of structures representing primary and secondary development in New Zealand - that removing the building would dismantle. It sits high on the hill next to Dunedin’s first cemetery on its southern side, and on the north side are the stone structures of Otago Boys’ High School, established 1863. Just down the hill is New Zealand’s first girls’ secondary school, Otago Girls’, established 1871.
The school’s HNZ listing also reflects merit as a surviving example of a typical wooden school building with original high-pitched slate roof still intact. It was constructed using a standard classroom template designed and supervised by Education Board architect John Somerville, responsible for most Otago schools built between 1877 and 1901.
The Southern Heritage Trust believes that the removal of the historic infants’ building would be especially out of kilter following Jacinda Ardern’s announcement last year that our national history is, finally, deemed important enough to be taught in our schools. The plan, to be enacted from 2022, and currently under curricula development by the ministry, is that history teaching should also include the story of first contact and colonial development in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
What an incredible opportunity for young imaginative minds of Arthur Street School to have history classes brought to life in a tangible historic classroom where prior kindred souls were also taught. What fodder for school projects? Except, ironically, that’s not a vision that appears to have crossed the minds of the proponents of a new school that turns its back on the historic asset in their back yard.
The ministry’s public advertisement for the tender process provides no imperative for tenderers to incorporate the infants’ building in the design. There is no mention of a requirement to work with the historic (and by rights, protected) building. If retaining the wooden building in situ was part of the specifications for the tender, then whoever tendered would need to come up with an innovative way to include the building within the new design, and equally satisfy the needs of a growing fit-for-purpose school.
The trust believes this is entirely possible, with the will. Ironically, recent generous ministry funding to improve one of the historic Otago Boys’ buildings next door shows the precedent has been made.
The infants’ building needs to be retained on its present site and afforded the recognition and respect its heritage status deserves. It is in relatively good condition. We strongly urge that the Ministry of Education goes back to the drawing board, and consults with the wider community, staff and parents.
We believe their foresight and innovation, if they tread this path, will be well rewarded; both in terms of the future learning opportunities for Arthur Street’s children, and the continued maintenance of the city’s built heritage.
• This article was written by trustee Jo Galer, with support of fellow trustees Merrin Bath (chairwoman), Ann Barsby, Brent Lovelock, Janet Yiakmis, Joy Baker and Lox Kellas.