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Beeby’s Apprenticeship: Assistant-Director


2.7 Beeby’s Apprenticeship: Assistant-Director

Beeby became New Zealand’s Assistant-Director of Education on 1 September 1938. He served under Nelson Lambourne, the Director of Education from 1933 and who was due to retire at the end of 1939.

Unlike Fraser, Lambourne was generally satisfied with the state of the education system, perhaps even complacent. He wrote in the 1935 annual education report:

The New Zealand system of education, primary and post-primary, is fundamentally sound, modern, and well suited to our requirements; it does not need any drastic amendment … I believe that our secondary schools are in a large measure well suited to our requirements, and that they give the majority of their pupils a sound and liberal education.183

That same year Peter Fraser became Minister of Education, after campaigning for broad educational reform. Fraser’s appointment of Beeby to the Directorship had broken with the tradition of selecting men184 with extensive administrative backgrounds:

For fifteen years the path to the position of Director of Education had laid through the primary school inspectorate which, in turn, had been from men near the top of the primary school graded list.185

However, Lambourne’s complacent attitude may explain why Fraser brought in the more liberal, if less experienced, Beeby to assist in the reform of the education system. ‘His appointment ensured Fraser of continuity of policy’, Massey explains.186

Shortly after Lambourne’s retirement at the end of 1939, Beeby praised his devotion to education:

181 Beeby, in King, 1978, pp. 3-4. 182 Beeby, 1992, pp. 109-110. 183 AJHR, 1935, E5, pp. 2, 8.

184 All past Directors of Education were men. 185 Campbell, pp. 68-69.

Of Mr Lambourne’s abilities, wisdom, and devotion to the cause of education I cannot speak too highly. Not the least of his contributions was the spirit of friendliness and mutual trust he did so much to establish between the Department and all those concerned with education. 187

Beeby later expanded on their relationship:

[Lambourne] … actually did things for me that I know I can’t imagine myself ever doing for anybody. He said ‘Well if you perhaps would like to know a bit about the running of the Department, then I suggest you have a desk in my room for the first three months.’ So I sat in his at a desk with a pile of papers dutifully signing things in triplicate to go over to the Public Service Commission or doodling or whatever it was, and I sat there for 3 months. All the trivial jobs – I took something off his plate and heard every conversation no matter how confidential, how personal. This was an astonishing thing to do. This was the kind of reception I got.188

Beeby later explained how working with Lambourne helped shape him as an administrator:

I got an overview of the department’s work and, more subtly, an insight into the way an excellent administrator handled people, from his secretary to his minister, from a timid young teacher to a belligerent delegation; he was equally courteous to them all. … For my first year or two as director I was to live on the trust Lambourne had left behind.189

According to Alcorn, Beeby learned that he would need to be the kind of leader who could both inspire teachers and work closely with politicians to ensure policy changes met the expectations of the community.190

However, Beeby was a new man in a new job, and as with his previous new job he had very little relevant experience. As Beeby candidly said:

Apart from my time in the family atmosphere of the NZCER, I knew nothing about administration, and everyone in the department was aware of it.191

Just as he had taken up the Directorship of the NZCER with little experience in educational research, here he was in the Department of Education. His close friend Bill Renwick said that Beeby ‘is one of those rare persons with the luck to have genius and the genius to have luck’.192 It was a cliché but there was an element of truth in it.

During this initial period Beeby maintained a good working relationship with Fraser: 187 AJHR, 1940, E1, p. 5. 188 Beeby, in King, 1978, pp. 8-9. 189 Beeby, 1992, pp. 118-119. 190 Alcorn, 1999, p. 140. 191 Beeby, 1992, p. 119.

During my sixteen months of initiation, Peter Fraser had taken me with him on his visits to schools … ostensibly as his advisor but, in the beginning, as his apprentice, for he knew more about the school system that I did.193

Alcorn argues that this contact with Fraser provided Beeby with the opportunity to familiarise himself with Fraser’s philosophical commitment to equality of opportunity:

[T]hese visits were vitally important. They reinforced his own belief in the importance of these direct contacts with grass roots education; as Director he spent time in the field whenever possible. They also helped him to understand the background to Fraser’s ideals, and to appreciate more fully his vision of an education system designed for all citizens, not merely the elite.194

However, according to Beeby himself, what Fraser focused on in their discussions during these sixteen months was a range of specific problems in schools and school districts, rather than ideas of educational equality:

I don’t recall that [Fraser] and I had any profound discussions on the philosophy and objectives of education; most of our talk was about the particular problems of each school or district we visited.195

Fraser was an educationalist idealist with a firm and wide grasp of educational issues. McKenzie explains that he was

an experienced and brilliant tactician who was thoroughly used to grasping the politics and educational issues from the point of view of both professional practitioners and the public.196

In making Beeby his Director, Fraser placed a lot of trust on Beeby’s young shoulders. Beeby’s opportunity to repay Fraser’s trust in him came a few months after his appointment, early in 1939. Fraser had rejected Lambourne’s draft annual report on education, with (according to Beeby) a note to the effect of ‘This report has nothing to say, and I won’t sign it. Send me a report that says something’.197 Lambourne gave Beeby the opportunity to rewrite the draft. He produced a historic report about the state of education in New Zealand that included a list of egalitarian educational goals soon viewed as the core of the government’s policy on education. (For a detailed analysis of the statement, see p. 92.)

Beeby became Director of Education in January 1940. Reference to this 1939 list of sweeping educational goals was a constant feature of his rhetoric and reports during the coming years of educational reform. In the next chapter I establish the administrative background of Beeby’s reforms by describing New Zealand’s 193 Beeby, 1992, p. 122. 194 Alcorn, 1999, p. 97. 195 Beeby, 1992, p. 123. 196 McKenzie, D., 1982, p. 132; Clark, M. 1998, p. 216. 197 Beeby, 1992, p. 123.

educational leadership and legislation from 1877 to 1940. Chapters 4 to 9 then analyse Beeby’s reforms and the extent of his influence on education in New Zealand during his twenty years as Director.

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