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Sport 43: 2015

Jane Blaikie — Beeb and Us

page 144

Jane Blaikie

Beeb and Us


Beeb has become a shadowy figure of education, a ghostly Zorro, a code word among older teachers. He is from that other country, the past, where New Zealanders can be reluctant to go. Just this week, a Massey University academic was in a national newspaper calling for New Zealanders ‘to look forward, not back’.

But Clarence Beeby matters. The idea for this essay-of-stories seeded itself at Victoria University, in a room with an old plum tree pressed to the window and the harbour glittering beyond. At Victoria, student numbers have doubled in the last twenty years. Many of these new students attend because their parents and grandparents went to secondary school. That was Beeb: open up the secondary schools, everyone to be educated ‘to the fullest extent of their powers’.

Not of course that Beeb reformed the education system on his own. There was the grumpy Scot, Peter Fraser. And world wars and the Great Depression. Philosophers and psychologists put up the ideas. Democracy bloomed. There was wool. But Beeb is credited as being the reason for New Zealand doing it well. We pop up at the end of the last century recognised as having one of the best compulsory education systems in the world. We are on the way down now. The Beeb story gives a way into the why.

That said, Beeb cannot be corralled to a few sheets of paper. Even toward the end, aged 85, he was off to advise on the teaching of English in Tanzania. On the way, via London, he met a friend for lunch, fell over and badly grazed an arm and leg. At Heathrow he lost his passport and went on hands and knees to search for it. He got stuck in a hotel lift in Dar es Salaam. The doors were forced opened and a chair lowered for him to stand on so he couldpage 145 be pulled to safety. The group that sponsored him, the Aga Khan Foundation, ‘praised his superb planning and monitoring’.

He went home. He wrote a book, Biography of an Idea. The World Bank asked him to go to Mauritius. ‘Don’t they know how old I am,’ he said. They did not. Invitations kept coming. He did what he could. He died in 1998 aged 95.


But—‘If I put this image on paper . . . I am reducing this man to the ranks of a vulgar character’—says the French writer Laurent Binet at the start of his book HHhH, the story of two men who tried to assassinate a prominent Nazi in Prague in 1942. Binet justifies his ideas about verisimilitude and character by saying, ‘I just hope that, however . . . blinding the veneer of fiction that covers this story, you will still be able to see through it to the historical reality..

For the Beeb story, I rope in my family because of how well they illustrate the story—as a diaspora of social mobility. There are bits sketched in to make the thing run. Enough, I hope, to invite a glance at the past.


In the summer of 1977, I left home in Tawa late one night with my father running after. He shouted, ‘Come back here now!’ I kept running.

After years of travel, carousing and journalism, I washed up at the Wellington Media Collective—a design agency that took an interest in history and politics. I stopped running. And like in an Ursula Le Guin novel, when you stop running from the fearsome creature, and you turn and face it, it starts running from you. You follow. It becomes more interesting.

At the collective, they talked about Beeb—the educationalist Clarence Beeby. Clearly, he was a big deal with various saint-like qualities associated with the ‘New Education’.

Later I worked for the New Zealand Educational Institute,page 146 an organisation of early childhood and primary educators. Beeb, Beeb, Beeb—whispered in and out of conversation.


I imagine him. Beeb. A lean-cheeked man wearing a cardigan and glasses with stylish, dark rims. He was astute, intuitive—a psychologist. Not an economist or a lawyer or a general or a farmer or an accountant. No. This time the man tossed up by history liked people. He put people first. He didn’t send them to labour camps or army camps. He didn’t pack them into ships, then tanks, and race them across deserts. He opened his heart to children.

But I have to check. Was he actually a child psychologist? A quick look shows Beeb first studied law before switching to Christchurch Training College. In 1925 he travelled to Manchester to study for a PhD. He warmed to Charles Spearman’s ideas on the strong hereditary component of intelligence.

Oh. Was this the tail end of eugenics?

I don’t look further. The man in the cardigan—forest green, hand-knitted with garter stitch detail—carried a pipe in one hand. He moved on, deeper into the building. Weak electric bulbs blotted out the gloom. Beeb avoided the broad spiral staircase, cut down a steep back stair. He went a little faster, a touch of swing at the corners. For a few minutes all the words and people and ideas that crowded his mind were swept aside. What’s left is blurry, a kind of static. Out through a side-door. From this back courtyard, hardly that, he could see across to the road that led from Parliament. There, that night four years ago, Fraser had walked him down the hill—pointed to this grand old building, the one he called the Big Matchbox; and said, ‘Mr Beeby, I have made up my mind..

Looking back up the hill now, Beeb breathed deep, shoulders loosen. Fraser had turned to him and said, ‘The position of Director of Education will be offered to you.’ And after a pause, ‘These notions of yours—try them. For the children. While we can.’

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Later, I find that much of this is wrong.

For one, the hand-knit cardigan seems unlikely. There was no little wife at home. Beeb and Beatrice met at the teachers’ training college. He had dropped ‘Clarence’ and renamed himself Beeb. Soon after their engagement he wrote a story for the Lyttelton Times about the dangers for a marriage if one partner enjoyed opportunities for intellectual growth that the other did not. By the time Beeb’s career began to soar, Beatrice herself was a respected psychologist. In 1952 she was the first female Visiting Justice of the Peace.

Indeed, in the early years of their marriage she became close to Beeb’s colleague James Shelley, the charismatic educationalist, who would later be New Zealand’s founding director of broadcasting and the founder of the Listener. Beeb refused to answer questions about their relationship. Before the Shelley episode, Beeb and Beatrice had a daughter, Helen, who became a teacher, and afterwards, a son, Christopher, an influential diplomat.

But the swing on the stairs is right. Beeb developed an interest in jazz, and his biographer Noeline Alcorn begins a chapter, ‘As Beeby climbed the stairs of the rambling wooden building which housed the Department of Education . . .’—this building known then as the Big Matchbox.

But my worst mistake was to assume the Education Minister Peter Fraser invited Beeb to try out Beeb’s ideas. In fact, Fraser invited Beeb to try out Fraser’s ideas. And there’s the rub. Beeb might have been happy enough to jump on board and run with the radical reforms, but he was far more complex than any do-gooding Zorro.

After Fraser was voted out in 1949 (he became Prime Minister in 1940 when Michael Joseph Savage died), Beeb directed his charisma at the incoming National Government’s Education Minister, Ronald Algie, and after a little initial suspicion the two developed a ‘productive’ working relationship.

Indeed there was something of a physical resemblance betweenpage 148 Beeb and another slim-built, silver-tongued, copper-curled and influential cultural figure of the early-mid twentieth century: Ezra Pound.


Also like Pound, Beeb was flamboyant in his youth; he was ambitious, witty, industrious and a formidable networker. But that probably is where the likeness ends. Beeb never took to fascism as Pound did, or came anywhere near, although Beeb did have some rather unexpected doubts toward the end of his life about the effect of the reforms on academic schooling.

Beeb emigrated from Yorkshire at the age of four. His parents came of Methodist working-class stock (seafaring, stoking), but they had raised themselves by way of trade—shopkeeping and pharmacy. They clearly loved and indulged their sons, with Beeb seven years younger than his brother. A grainy photo shows an unsmiling Beeb sitting on a donkey in Christchurch, wearing a cap and an Eton collar. He had been reluctant to leave Leeds, and in particular the donkey he had ridden at Blackpool. His father promised to buy him the first one he saw in Canterbury, but it proved old and slow.

At primary school, Beeb flew through the high academic hoops that at the time kept most children out of secondary school, let alone university. In 1899, the Liberal government had passed legislation setting ‘standards’ in primary education. After the infant classes, six standards were established over six years and a child had to meet the ‘standard’ before they could move up. There were instances of ‘bearded youth who had not passed the standard one exam’.

If, despite the odds, students did reach standard six, they had to pass a Proficiency Examination to receive two free years of secondary education, which was otherwise prohibitively expensive. In 1916 only 37 per cent of children went on to secondary school.

Beeb entered Christchurch Boys High School in 1915, and won prize after prize. His foray into law studies, though, founderedpage 149 when he realised parts of it relied on rote learning. He switched to the teachers’ training college, while also studying philosophy at Canterbury University. There he quickly discovered the new discipline of psychology, taught then under the wing of philosophy.


It was like a tech boom—wildly exciting for those involved: the flowering in the early twentieth century of the science of child development. There was an innate pattern to it and stages; recognise and support these and the child would flourish. Child-centred learning, teaching for the whole child. Every child to reach their full potential.

In the background to these whirling ideas, the first of the world wars threatened then broke and millions of young men marched away to die. The new psychologists believed they held an antidote, if not for that war, then at least for the future: children raised to think for themselves, to be active democratic citizens, to create an effective self-government of ‘wise social and moral choices’. The old elites and the crusty generals, their war passions, would fade away. There would never be war again.

These advocates put up the most pressing rationale for the reform of education pretty much since the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith said of the workers 200 years earlier—and I paraphrase—that they were destined to such dull lives that their minds would degenerate and prevent them from ‘conducting a full, fulfilling private life’. They should at least be able to read, write and ‘account’. A limited education would help them to respect their betters and make them more manageable.


Beeb, in the 1920s and 30s, was broadly aware of the new ideas while he settled into what he saw as the science of child psychology. For himself, however, he developed an interest in the assessment and measurement of children. Another photo shows a smiling Beeb with three small boys standing on a wooden bridge over a 150 In the Depression, five-year-olds were kept out of school to save money so Beeb, thriving in academia, set up his own little school for the children of friends and neighbours, and by the by he could monitor them more closely.


But back with the suffering workers, my grandfather for example. Enough of the family stories about him survive.

He’s at Gallipoli. He’s a character from a Where’s Wally of popular history, crouched on Chailak Dere in the moon shadow of a low tree. His forebears feature as hard-scrabble settlers; at Gabriel’s Gully; in the ranks at the Battle of Waterloo.

But here, out on the escarpment, with dawn just peeping and a trace of pine in the air—shots pucker out of the gloam ahead. He’s late. The change to orders, strapped now in his satchel, held him up. The Turks are up. The lads awake and the last of his sprints—from gully to boulder to dip to trench—will be—there’s no point to thinking.

But he makes it. And he grins and the boys at the top, they grin. He stands up for the ache in his legs from the bent-over running—and the boys pull him down. When they pull, he falls. His hand, flailing, brushes his trouser—the wool sodden, his fingers wet. That night he’ll lie in another scene. On a stretcher, among cries and groans, on a beach, he’ll wait for a ship.

Mac, as he was known, heals up in Cairo. He steams back to Gallipoli. Shrapnel rips into his back. He ships out to New Zealand. He becomes a recruiting officer in Gore. He gets a rehab farm. He gets the Spanish flu. He’s sick for nine months. He loses the farm. He gets another rehab farm. It’s marginal. Agricultural prices plummet. He loses the farm.

A few years later, Mac decides to break with a family tradition of righteous conservatism that quite likely goes back for centuries.

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An uncle slips me a photo of my father, Ross, from the mid 1930s that shows him in a much-patched, too small jacket. It is this jacket, a blazer almost, with its overtones of boys’ schooling, and the way my father has jammed himself into it as if he holds to a future involving shirts with collars, that changes the way I see him.


‘I am going,’ says Mac to his wife, but looking down the hall through the door at the Model T out front. Three older sons walk round it, hands in pockets, glancing about. They can’t see Mac—the sun sets behind the cottage and bright on the hills above the valley. A sharp line on the slopes marks the shift from dark scrub to yellow tussock.

One of the boys goes to climb up on the driver’s side and Mac yells, ‘Get off ya mongrel.’ They scatter, over the fence, sprint to the back paddock where dogs in kennels let rip.

‘I will go,’ says Mac, looking again at the Model T—black, the sides open like a fire tore through and left just the frame. The back door of the kitchen flings open and the middle son, Ross, hauls in a pail frothy with milk. His mother at the range, three young children close by under the table—she nods as he passes.

‘I’ll take him,’ says Mac. The boy’s in that grey school jacket passed on from someone, patched at the elbows and pockets. Never out of it. ‘I’ll take him.’

In the car, Mac and Ross rattle along in silence for an hour, then Ross asks, ‘Where do we go?’

Mac says, ‘Labour Party meeting.’ After ten minutes he adds, ‘I’m going to join.’


The Labour Party won the election with a landslide in 1935, and the Scottish immigrant Peter Fraser became Minister of Education. Of all the stories about Fraser, one stands out: an image from his biography by Michael King and Michael Bassett of a boy, in Fearnpage 152 in the Highlands, so hungry he goes into the fields to eat swedes that are frozen by winter. According to the biography, Fraser was gifted but his parents could not afford to send him to secondary school.

In New Zealand, Fraser’s socialist politics evolved toward a less radical, more electable platform, but he remained passionate about education—‘every child, whatever his social and economic position and whatever his level of academic ability has a right as a citizen to a free education of the kind and length to which his powers best fit him..

He sent five-year-olds back to school, allowed ‘social promotion’ through the standards, abolished the Proficiency Examination, ‘which has crippled curriculum and teaching methods in primary schools’; improved school buildings and equipment; extended health programmes in schools; began to look at curriculum reform.


Beeb himself did not travel such an heroic narrative arc. He was more your canny opportunist. In Christchurch in 1934 he received two offers: one, a position as Professor of Philosophy at Otago University; the second, a role setting up a New Zealand Council for Educational Research in Wellington to be funded by the Carnegie Foundation. He opted for Wellington. The foundation advocated ‘adaptation to changing needs which is the keynote of educational progress in the more advanced democracies’. It gave Beeb a free hand. Beeb read more about the New Zealand education system and thought it too driven by its colonial past and an imported system of authoritarian, class-based education.

A few years later, Beeb was recommended to Fraser when Fraser needed a new Director of Education to roll out his plans, but Fraser wasn’t sure. Beeb, a natural administrator with an eye for commissioning timely research, charmed most people he met. But not Fraser. Beeb had also been working on standardised intelligence tests and Fraser was not impressed—Fraser had a strong (and prescient) scepticism of such tests. A visiting South Africanpage 153 educationalist E.G. Malherbe, however, helped Fraser change his mind. Malherbe wrote later that he told Fraser: ‘The only way I saw any suggestions [from the 1937 New Education Fellowship Conference] being implemented was for the Minister to appoint Dr Beeby as Director of Education. The only man with ability and imagination.’


And so Beeb and Fraser turned their attention to transforming an education system that had been founded on ‘selection and privilege—to a truly democratic form where it can cater for the needs of the whole population over as long a period of their lives as is found possible and desirable’—as Beeb ghost-wrote for Fraser’s Annual Report on Education to Parliament in 1939.

It was possibly just as well for them that a second world war broke out as Beeb began to dismantle old institutions and remake the department, because not long after the war ended the backlash began. Older academics and newspaper editors joined in their outrage at the lowering of ‘standards’ engendered by the opening of secondary education to all comers. But by then it was too late. A generation that had just fought and died to defend democracy insisted their children would have the advantages of further education.

The attacks on Beeb were vicious and personal but he kept his head down and went about organising for dozens of new secondary schools to be built. A boom in wool prices, as the United States sought large quantities for the Korean War, paid the bill. For a few postwar decades ideas about opportunity for all children would prevail.


‘Beeb and Us’ is an extract from a work-in-progress. Noeline Alcorn’s fascinating biography, To the Fullest Extent of His Powers: C. E. Beeby’s Life in Education (VUP), is gratefully acknowledged. Thanks also to Professor Harry Ricketts and Professor Howard Lee for their advice and assistance. Any errors are my own.