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Armour, William Allan


School principal, educationalist

This biography, written by Ian A. McLaren, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

William Allan Armour was born at Dunedin, New Zealand, on 30 April 1880, the son of Elizabeth Allan and her husband, Hugh Armour, a shipwright; both had been born in Scotland. William attended Arthur Street School, where he was dux in 1893, then entered Otago Boys' High School in 1895 as a governors' scholar. From 1897 to 1900 he was a pupil-teacher and he completed his training in 1901 at Dunedin Training College. That year he gained a BA at the University of Otago, and the following year was awarded an MA with honours. He represented the university at rugby and cricket, having earlier played rugby for Otago Boys' High.

By the time he was appointed foundation director of Wanganui Technical College in October 1911 Armour was already an experienced teacher-administrator. He had taught at North-East Valley School (1902), Wanganui Collegiate School (1903–5), and Invercargill South School (1906–7). He had returned to Otago Boys' High in 1908 and remained there until 1911 when he also completed an MSc. Shortly after taking up his appointment at Wanganui Technical College Armour married Margaret Wylie Stevenson at Dunedin on 8 April 1912.

The new college was a co-educational school with a unique character: a combination secondary and technical school. Having no history it had, its director said, to work out its own destiny along 'the most progressive lines'. These included the requirement that pupils spend at least one year in a common general course before deciding whether to continue in an academic or a vocational stream.

Armour left Wanganui in July 1915 to become headmaster of the somewhat down-at-heel Napier Boys' High School, attracted by both the educational challenge and by the promise of new school buildings on a new site. Within a short time Armour's reforms had raised the school's standing in the community. He broadened the curriculum to include woodwork, art and music, tightened up school discipline, and introduced compulsory sports and cadets. In 1917 he revived the moribund old boys' association and after the school's golden jubilee in 1922 created a parents' association – the first of its kind in a New Zealand secondary school. In 1927, however, Armour became frustrated by tedious negotiations with the Napier Harbour Board for a new site and by the unwillingness, or inability, of the Department of Education to fund urgently needed capital works. He applied for and won the principalship of Wellington College.

Ironically, Armour inherited a school whose buildings and grounds also needed major redevelopment. With parents' support, but to the chagrin of some of his staff, he quickly organised a carnival which not only raised £716 but also brought the college, the parents and the community together in an unprecedented way. At his first prize-giving in 1928 he stressed, as always, the importance of enriching the curriculum to better meet the diverse needs of the growing number of pupils entering secondary school. He became increasingly keen to integrate kindred subjects in order to create a three-year core of general science and social science. Because such a curriculum reform was impossible as long as the university entrance examination ('matric') remained the measure of a satisfactory secondary education, Armour urged its replacement by a broader-based examination, controlled by the Education Department.

He was able to promote his views through membership of the New Zealand Secondary Schools' Association (he was president three times), the Victoria University College Council from 1939 to 1941, and the Senate of the University of New Zealand from 1942 to 1948. When accrediting for university entrance was introduced in 1945, along with a new post-primary curriculum and new school certificate examination, most New Zealand post-primary schools moved to provide a wider choice of subjects and courses, a move consistently favoured by Armour.

By this time, however, Armour had retired because of a combination of professional and personal worries. Wellington College had been dispersed to five locations following the army's take-over of most of its facilities, and early in 1942 one of his sons serving overseas had been reported missing. These events so undermined Armour's health that he retired at the end of the year. He and Margaret returned to Napier where both again became active in Hawke's Bay community affairs. William served for a second time on the board of managers of St Paul's Presbyterian Church, wrote the church's centennial history in 1958, and contributed substantially to the diamond jubilee history of Napier Boys' High School in 1947. He died in Napier on 21 April 1967, four months after Margaret. They were survived by four sons and two daughters.

Although William Armour had not been as much in the limelight as some of his contemporaries, he was not without influence. He had used his position to support significant secondary school reforms including a more relevant school leaving examination, a less rigid curriculum, and better training, pay and conditions for secondary school teachers.

How to cite this page:

Ian A. McLaren. 'Armour, William Allan', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3a19/armour-william-allan (accessed 5 October 2023)