In the early days of European settlement in Taranaki the education of the young was sadly neglected. No provision was made for general instruction by the Plymouth Company, the New Zealand Company nor the Government of the Colony and the district was too sparsely populated, and the people generally too poor, for the employment of private teachers.
In 1868 the Provincial Council passed an ordinance to provide for the establishment and maintenance of schools in the province, and by 1874 the province had been divided into two Education Board Districts with headquarters in Patea and New Plymouth.
Town schools which came under the North Board’s administration were the West School near Mt Edgecombe Street, a boys’ school with a roll of 61; East School in Cameron Street, a boys’ school with a roll of 45; Gill Street School, a girls’ school with a roll of 51; and Kawau Pa at the end of Gill and Currie Streets, a mixed infant school with a roll of 53. Beside the schools mentioned there were a number of private educational establishments operating. One of the better institutions was the Beach House Academy in St. Aubyn Street near the present site of Tasman Towers.
Total funds at the disposal of the two Boards were an advance from the Provincial Council of just over 600 pounds. The system of education established by the Boards was neither free, secular nor compulsory and as the curriculum varied from teacher to teacher, there was no co-ordination.
In 1878 the New Zealand Education Act introduced the free, secular and compulsory system and, by 1880, the new system had begun to take hold in New Plymouth. In 1882 the Education Board procured land in the vicinity of Poverty Flat, tenders were let to build a school to accommodate 120 pupils and Central School was officially opened on May 26th, 1884. This was the first school built in New Plymouth, at a cost of 1794 pounds. Adverse comment was made in the district about the extravagance and embellishments. On opening it absorbed the pupils from a number of the existing schools in the area. This school occupied the site of the present school. The Courtenay Street School was a separate girls’ school with a roll of 84 and it was incorporated with Central School in 1885.
Mr Robert Foulis, previously Inspector of Schools in the Wanganui Education Board, was appointed headmaster and his stated aim was to impart to the children that knowledge which would make them industrious and God fearing citizens. Immediately the school’s pursuit of academic excellence became apparent as Central School pupils gained three of the four Taranaki Scholarships awarded in 1885 and six of the seven awarded in 1886. This trend continued with Central School taking the majority of scholarships for many years.
The school continued to grow and new boundaries needed to be drawn. In 1919 the side school of Vogeltown, attached to Central, became a school in its own right, providing a temporary set-back in the roll. A new building was built on the Courtenay Street site and housed the school’s infant department on its completion in 1923. This building was demolished in 1990 to make way for the New World supermarket. A school dental clinic was also established in 1923, the Home and School Association was established in 1929, and by 1930 the roll had reached 900 with a staff of 22 teachers.
Although this was an average of over 40 pupils per teacher some teachers faced daily classes of 70 or 80! At this time Central was the second largest primary school in New Zealand. After a fire in the main school that year it was recognised that school numbers were becoming unwieldy. A new school was started at Welbourn and, coupled with the removal of pupils to there and other districts, the roll dropped back to 730 by the end of 1931. Scholastic records were still maintained when 7 out of 10 successful Taranaki candidates for Junior National Scholarships in 1934 were from Central School.
It is interesting to note that during the first fifty years of the school’s existence only four headmasters controlled its destiny. These were: Robert Foulis - 1884-85, Mr Foulis was thrown from his horse when riding on the beach and received such injuries he never regained consciousness; Hector Dempsey - 1885-1919, Mr Dempsey was appointed from a field of 36 applicants and he occupied the position for 34 years, a record surely never to be surpassed; Arthur Stratford - 1919-1922, Mr Stratford previously had been headmaster of Inglewood School and took up his position after returning from the war, however the effects of the war told so much on his health he died in 1923; David Evans - 1923-1938, during this time the school continued to retain its high state of efficiency and clearly became the leading establishment in the district. The Central, as it was known, holding an enviable reputation for order, discipline, and manners. There have only been eleven headmasters in the history of the school.
During the period of 1938-1949, under the headship of Mr Wilf Wagstaff, the first radio system was installed, pupils’ bank savings were introduced, milk in schools, apples in schools and free English and Maths textbooks also started. The learner’s pool was built in 1944. There were a greater number of women teaching as many men went overseas to fight in WW Two. The roll once more climbed to 900. Mr Wagstaff had a great interest in nature study and the grounds were developed greatly during his tenure.
From 1950-1961 Mr John Linehan was the Headmaster. Highlands Intermediate was opened and the school lost its Form 1 and 2 pupils. Merrilands School opened in 1960 and the school roll dropped by a further 200 pupils. Mr Linehan was nationally known for developing infant playground apparatus.
The years from 1962-1969 were further years of achievement for the pupils of Central School. Mr George Wellington was the Headmaster and instigated and oversaw much school development. During this time the Special Education Classes were started that were a feature of the school for the next 35 years. Music became a focus and many children learned to play instruments at school.
During 1970-1975 Mr Stan Lonsdale was Headmaster. The school at this time finally ceased to be on two sites and the infants transferred to the main school. The roll continued to fall to around 200. Soccer became an important part of the school sports programme after harsh criticism from some old boy rugby die-hards. However, much goodwill was restored as Central teams stayed consistently near the top of the Saturday morning competition.
The school’s roll continued to fall during Mr Alistair Kirk’s time as Headmaster from 1975-1985. In fact at one stage the School Committee advertised in the newspaper for pupils. During this time the school was extensively remodelled, a major undertaking that took 4 terms and nearly $700,000.00 to complete. The focus on music continued and children began to participate in new endeavours such as Save the Children and World Vision.
Mr Neil Neilson was Headmaster from 1985-1987. Sound educational programmes across the curriculum were continued, and community involvement in the school encouraged.
Mr Doug Hislop was appointed in 1988 and in 1989 he managed the introduction of the national education reforms ‘Tomorrow’s Schools’. Major changes to many of the soundly established traditions of the school were instituted. The relationship between the curriculum and school management is an important one and Doug was committed to extending children’s skills and interests in a wide range of academic, cultural and recreational pursuits. Unobtrusive excellence was the term Doug often used to describe the school’s performance.
Mrs Juliet Ormrod, the first woman in the role, was appointed from the beginning of the 2008 year. Her principalship provided an opportunity to make her mark on the school as New Zealand education implements a new national curriculum.
Quality academic programmes, team and individual sports, outdoor education, art and craft, music, drama, second languages, the wide use of technology: all provide the opportunity for fun, challenge and leadership and make Central School a particularly desirable institution, now well into its second hundred years of service to the community.