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The NZCER: Beeby’s Route to the Ministry


2.6 The NZCER: Beeby’s Route to the Ministry

Beeby was the first Director of the NZCER, from 1934 to 1938.158 When he took on the role of directing educational research, he was a psychologist with only a nominal training as an educator: ‘It wasn’t going to be easy for a psychologist who had been neither administrator nor classroom teacher’, he said. When he applied for the position,

155 Beeby, 1992, pp. 71-73. 156 Beeby, 1969, p. 64. 157 Beeby, 1992, p. 224. 158 McKenzie, 1982, p. 131.

he sensibly pointed out in his cover letter that if the organisation appointed him, it should ‘not demand of me immediate practical results’.159

The NZCER was established through a donation of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the work of many educators over half a decade to help stimulate research and innovation in education.160 When the NZCER initially canvassed names for the new position, ‘Beeby’s was not among them’ explains Alcorn.161 When the NZCER opened

the position up for application, Beeby was one of four shortlisted applicants. Fortuitously for Beeby, the two Australian applicants had withdrawn and the other New Zealander was unavailable, and so, after a successful interview in May 1934, Beeby was offered the position.162 The small organisation the Beeby entered originally consisted of just the director, two research officers and a secretary, and had the goal of being

an independent and impartial organisation whose job it was to collect facts scientifically and then make value judgements on some of them.163

Beeby, with his training in philosophy and his PhD in psychology, had little experience relevant to directing educational research. He later stated:

When I entered the NZCER I had never even heard of the annual report to Parliament of the minister of education or read a word on the history of education of this country. My ignorance of sociology was even more complete.164

In an organisation of only four people, Beeby was himself closely involved in research. Here he relied on his training in psychology. He said that in the early years of the NZCER, he felt ‘more at home’ when working on vocational and industrial research into ‘students’ passage through the school system and out into employment’.165 During this period the NZCER ‘demonstrated that education policy could be informed by good research instead of relying upon ideological ad hocery’.166

Beeby initially regretted leaving academic life for his role in the new organisation and made a characteristic comment portraying his attitude to universities and their role:

For weeks I had been cursing myself that ever I took this job. Every school I saw seemed drabber than the last, and every teacher less inspired. I was beginning to

159 Beeby, 1992, p. 89. 160 Alcorn, 1999, pp. 55-58. 161 Alcorn, 1999, p. 59. 162 Alcorn, 1999, p. 59. 163 Beeby, 1992, p. 91. 164 Beeby, 1992, pp. 92-93. 165 Beeby, 1992, p. 94. 166 McKenzie, 1982, p. 131.

regret the lost seclusion of the university post where facts and factors can be, if not ignored, at least brightened up a little.167

He dwelt on what he saw as a lack of inspiration in the teachers he encountered during his school visits in his five-year research plan for the NZCER:

Little else matters if the Council can serve as a rallying point for the curiosity in his craft which alone can keep the teacher alive, and which tends to fade so rapidly in the trying atmosphere of the classroom. That curiosity can die, or can grow, but cannot stand still; it is not the business for the Council to satisfy it but to feed it. If the Council did nothing but ask intelligent questions it would have done a job worth doing. A few may even be answered. But intelligent questions, like most living things, breed; and there should be more unanswered questions in five years’ time than there are now.168

In July 1936 the then Minister of Education, Peter Fraser, commissioned the NZCER to undertake research into the history and role of New Zealand’s intermediate schools. This research led to one of the NZCER’s first published books, written by Beeby.169 Beeby’s experience in both leading the NZCER and performing research

helped shift Beeby’s focus towards more recent visions of education, and the need to bring such ideas to New Zealand’s shores.

Early in 1937, Beeby secured Fraser’s support for a nationwide conference on education.170 The conference’s organisers were able to arrange for many of the speakers at an adjoining NEF (New Education Fellowship) conference in Australia to visit New Zealand. Organised on the general topic of ‘The Bases of Educational Reorganisation’171, the delegation of 14 educationalists spent a week traveling to the main cities to speak about new methods and ideas in education. The dates of school holidays were even adjusted to enable teachers to attend New Zealand’s own NEF conference.172 As a joint honorary secretary for the conference’s national planning committee, Beeby may have met Fraser.173 (Fraser himself did not attend the meetings and was instead was briefed by Hunter, the chair.)

The NEF offered Beeby the opportunity to soak in new, progressive and liberal ideas of education. It expanded his knowledge and infused him with an eagerness to make change. Beeby was more than satisfied with the outcome of the NEF:

167 Beeby, Letter to Tate, 27 August 1934. 168 NZCER, 1935b.

169Beeby, C.E. (1938) The Intermediate Schools of New Zealand. Wellington: NZCER. 170 McKenzie, 1982, p. 131.

171 Cunningham, 1938, pp. xxiii-xxiv.

172 Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives (AJHR), 1938, E2, p. 2. (The AJHR

includes annual Education reports to Parliament)

The NEF Conference was an astonishing success and attracted the general public as much as the profession. … Never before or since have teachers, parents and public studied education together with such passion. Some of the sessions had the flavour of the old-fashioned Methodist revival meetings I had known as an adolescent … The NEF Conference offered an almost unbelievable opportunity to catch up with the thinking of the outside world.174

Fraser also sounded pleased:

The visit of so many eminent educationalists to New Zealand … was not merely the event of the year as far as education in the Dominion175 was concerned; it was the

event of many years. It was an educational and intellectual enterprise which deserved, and obtained, the greatest measure of knowledge about life in its manifold expressions which is the work of education.176

After the conference, new branches of the NEF were set up in New Zealand’s main centres to see ‘how far the ideas gained can be incorporated into our education system’.177 Beeby said that, for him however, it was more like a re-introduction to those


In spite of its importance, I don’t think that the NEF conference had much effect on my ideas on education; rather it confirmed the ideas I had already gained from James Shelley and from my reading.178

This is surprising, however, given the range of expertise at the conference, and the fact that Shelley had arrived from England eighteen years previously.

Even if the conference did not have an immediate effect on Beeby, it nevertheless did introduce him to a range of educationalists who influenced his later ideas on education. Isaac Kandel, one of the NEF visitors, published a report on the Australian and New Zealand education systems a few months subsequent to the Conferences.179 Beeby later wrote that readings of, and discussion with, Kandel made him ‘see education, for the first time, from the view of an administrator rather than the scholar. ... I owe a great deal to Kandel’.180

Beeby’s involvement in planning the NEF conference also turned out to be a pivotal event in his educational career, since it led to him working directly with Fraser. Early in 1938, Fraser invited Beeby to meet with him to discuss personnel changes in the Department of Education. According to Beeby:

[H]e sent for me and said … ‘Look, I want to reorganise the whole of the Education System. … You’ve seen a lot of the people recently in New Zealand education but

174 Beeby, 1992, pp. 105-106.

175 New Zealand was a Dominion of the United Kingdom from 1907 to 1947. 176 Fraser, introduction to Campbell, 1938, p. ix.

177 AJHR, 1939, E2, p.2. 178 Beeby, 1992, pp. 106-107.

179 I.L. Kandel (1938) Types of Administration with particular reference to the educational Systems of New Zealand and Australia, Wellington, NZCER.

the Director of Education retires at the end of 1939 and we want to revive the position of Assistant Director’ which had been created for Rennie [sic] Marsden, you know, years before – who went from that to the Head of D.S.I.R. [in 1926]. 181

Furthermore, Fraser first sought his opinion on suitable candidates for the temporary post of Assistant-Director of Education and then inquired whether Beeby himself would be interested:

He called me back, and told me that I must apply for the position and go through the usual procedure of vetting and appeal. Not being a complete simpleton, I must have guessed by the time I stood up that the curious interview was not quite what it purported to be, though I don’t recall having any notion of its true purpose until his question. Certainly, when I entered the room I had not the slightest intention of ever joining the department, and I should not have dreamt of applying for the assistant- directorship if Fraser had not suggested it to me. I applied for the position and I got it. 182

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