Beeb without the warts, Jim Collinge

To The Fullest Extent Of His Powers: C E Beeby’s Life In Education
Noeline Alcorn
Victoria University Press, $49.95,
ISBN 0 86473 353 4

About 20 years ago I met an old doctor. On learning that I was involved in education he glared at me. “I hope you’re not a Beebyite,” he snarled.

Looking back, it seems astonishing that the reforms associated with Beeby’s term as Director of Education should have been so controversial, although, as Noeline Alcorn states, a pervasive institution like compulsory education is always going to be a focus for criticism, particularly when it is undergoing revolutionary changes. However, the teachers’ organisations were largely in support of Beeby’s reforms, and the ideas that he was putting forward had been around for quite a long while. The New Education Fellowship, whose 1937 conference was such a crucial influence in New Zealand, had been founded 20 years earlier. Susan Isaacs had long completed her groundbreaking work in early childhood education at Malting House, and John Dewey had retired from Teachers College, Columbia University, in 1930.

Beeby always regarded himself as a lucky man. He was fortunate at Canterbury University College to find a mentor as influential as James Shelley, who was immersed in the ferment of new educational ideas overseas. Shelley fostered Beeby’s interest in experimental psychology and awakened his interest in adult education. When the New Zealand Council for Educational Research was set up, Beeby was at the ideal stage of his career to lead it. Peter Fraser’s zeal for change in education gave him the freedom as Director of Education that few public servants have had. As Alcorn points out, Beeby achieved his top positions without having to fight for them.

As Executive Director of the NZCER, Beeby showed early a capacity for decisive and rapid judgement. He commissioned a number of major studies on the history and administration of New Zealand education, including J C Beaglehole’s The University of New Zealand and Crawford Somerset’s classic Littledene. He was a key figure in the organisation of the New Education Fellowship conference of 1937, which brought many of the most important educational reformers to New Zealand. Alcorn is right to see this conference as a crucial event and to devote a chapter to it. Interest in the conference was high, with popular speakers, such as Susan Isaacs, packing town halls around the country. Although the author has given a thorough and interesting account of the events at the conference, I think she could have treated a bit more fully the actual ideas and theories that were put forward. To take one example, two participants, Arthur Lismer from Canada and Paul Dengler from Vienna, brought the new ideas on child art. Given the centrality of art in Beeby’s later reforms, it would have been useful to have had some account of what they said.

Beeby’s appointment as Director of Education was, as Alcorn indicates, the result of a deliberate decision to break with the normal pattern of succession of senior inspectors, a reflection to some extent of the unanimous condemnation of the inspectorial system by the NEF visitors. He was very much in agreement with Fraser’s commitment to change, although later in the book Alcorn makes an interesting comment about the relationship between the two men. At a UNESCO meeting, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain resolved a stalemate on a motion by stating his belief that men of goodwill can often agree on a course of action but can rarely agree on their reasons for it. The author remarks that this was a reinforcement of his own feelings about his cooperation with Fraser.

The great statement of principle for New Zealand education which Beeby wrote was accepted in its entirety by Fraser. The often quoted opening sentence is more complex than is usually realised as it contains two contrasting and sometimes opposing notions of equality. The first part states the principle that, whatever one’s personal circumstance, everyone has the right to a free education. This could mean treating everyone the same way. The sting in the tail is contained in the phrase “of the kind for which he is best fitted”, which has sometimes been called equality of the different and unique. As Alcorn notes, the statement incorporates both Fraser’s and Beeby’s perspectives, the psychologist in Beeby adding the need for recognition of individual differences. Beeby himself wrote that the kinds of change Fraser would approve of were nearly always those he himself would wish to move, “however different some of our reasoning”.

Although there was a lot of press enthusiasm for the NEF conference and considerable general support from teachers for reform, Beeby was well aware of the level of conservatism in the New Zealand community which could often be a major element inhibiting educational change. Always, for him, the key factor was the quality of the teacher. Reforms that stopped at the classroom door could, at best, have only limited impact. It was not enough to publish a new curriculum or introduce a new form of administration. For Beeby, the important element was what happened when teachers faced their pupils. Teachers had to understand and feel secure with change, although he was aware that some changes, such as the abolition of Proficiency, had left many uncertain.

It must be remembered that the first years of Beeby’s reign as Director coincided with the Second World War. Although this caused many problems, particularly with the supply of teachers, the Government made it clear that the war was not to be an excuse for postponing reform. One of Beeby’s first tasks was to review the primary school curriculum, continuing a process of liberalisation that began with the syllabus of 1904. The hallmark of the reform was to be consultation. Whereas earlier curriculum reform had been carried out mainly in the department, Beeby and his new minister, Rex Mason, established a network of consultative committees, comprising representatives from teachers, Department and training colleges, to examine specific subjects. The first subject dealt with was arithmetic, introducing the “social arithmetic” approach. Many people who were at primary school during this era will remember learning to add and subtract in the “shop” in the corner of the infant classroom.

The NEF conference placed great emphasis on creativity in education and Phillip Smithell’s work in physical education provided a model for developing art and craft in schools. Alcorn provides quite a full account of the development of art education, including the fortuitous experiment in Palmerston North which resulted from the Government taking over the school buildings for the war effort. There is a somewhat curious imbalance in her account, though, as only half a sentence is allocated to the work of Gordon Tovey, who became Supervisor of Arts and Crafts in 1946, and who worked closely with Beeby for many years. There is no mention of Tovey’s developmental innovations in Maori art or of the Northern Maori Project of the early 1950s. Tovey is still venerated by many leading Maori artists who worked with him as teachers and art advisers.

A common feature of any reform of primary schools is a public perception that standards are falling. Caldwell Cook’s term “the play way” was misinterpreted to mean that children could do whatever they liked, although, as Alcorn points out, the term was not part of Beeby’s vocabulary. The secondary school reforms also came in for criticism, by far the most trenchant coming from the universities. The Thomas Committee of 1943 had put forward far-reaching proposals for curriculum change which set the pattern of secondary education for decades to come. The notion of a broad and generous education for all resulted in recommendations for a comprehensive secondary education with a common curriculum which included art, music, physical education and the new subjects of general science and social
studies. The last of these was subject to considerable attack, which continues to this day, as a reading of the Business Round Table’s response to the new Social Studies Curriculum will show.

It is interesting to contemplate the emphasis on consultation from a man like Beeby, who, as Alcorn admits, was always convinced of the rightness of his own ideas. But then Beeby was a consummate administrator who realised that, if he was to be successful in his reforms, he had to bring others along with him. Therefore he placed great emphasis on having a teaching and administrative force who understood and supported the reforms. Beeby himself was assiduous in speaking to a wide variety of educational groups, attending conferences of teachers organisations. He wrote articles for the Education Gazette on the new curriculum, articles which are still stimulating to read. From the start as Director he made radical changes in the running of the Department. For example, Alcorn describes his innovation of a weekly meeting of senior staff in his room so that they could become familiar with each other’s work. Outsiders were often invited and the meetings could be an occasion for lively debate. A tearoom was provided so that staff could meet each other informally rather than take tea at their desks. He would occasionally appear in the typing pool, making junior staff also feel valued, and he was an enthusiastic participant in the table tennis played in the wide corridors after work.

Inevitably, the 23 years that Beeby spent in the Department of Education form the core of this book. He achieved what he set out to do, reforming both primary and secondary education and developing a new professional teaching force. Noeline Alcorn gives an admirably full account of these years. Beeby’s retirement from the Department was, however, only the beginning of a number of other new careers. He was Ambassador to France from 1960 to 1963, although I have heard him remark that he was only “an amateur diplomat”. One advantage of this appointment was that he was able to continue his work with UNESCO and to be involved with the new International Institute for Educational Planning.

In 1963 he took up a Carnegie Fellowship at Harvard. The life of a solitary scholar did not in many ways suit a man who had led such a public career; he reportedly would look longingly at his office telephone waiting for it to ring. This period did, however, give him the opportunity to complete the long-awaited book, The Quality of Education in Developing Countries. As he did so often, he placed the emphasis on what happens in the classroom, rather than on the scope and structure of the system. The key to reform was developing a well-trained and educated teaching force, something which he argued could not happen in a hurry. His work on education in developing countries reached its peak when at the age of 67 he took on the formidable task of leading a 10-year assessment programme on Indonesian education, which resulted in another fine book.

In 1992 Beeby turned 90, an event that was widely celebrated, including the launch of his book The Biography of an Idea. He kept his powers into his 90s, although he often regretted the loss of his short-term memory. In his last years he was a neighbour of mine and was only too eager to pause, on one of his daily walks, to talk shop. As always he would maintain a public servant’s rectitude about present-day education, although he would sometimes remark that today he would not want to be Director-General of Education. “Head of the Education Review Office, that’s where the real power lies,” he would say with a twinkle in his eye.

Noeline Alcorn has written a scholarly, detailed and careful account of Beeby’s work. The limitations of the book are summed up in the subtitle. This is not a personal biography. As the author notes, attempting to distinguish the private man from the professional and public one may be a fruitless exercise. Despite Beeby’s own instruction to old colleagues to portray him “warts and all”, the book to a large extent presents Beeby’s own view of events. This is probably inevitable for, as Alcorn herself observes, few New Zealanders have had the opportunity to reflect so systematically on their own careers and the ideas that shaped them. In addition, most of the more than 70 people she interviewed had only positive comment. Beeby created a confident public image of himself through his writing that would be daunting to any biographer.

Jim Collinge teaches in the School of Education at Victoria University of Wellington.

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