Arthur Gordon Butchers was born at Brunswick, Victoria, Australia, on 11 February 1885, the third son of Methodist minister Barnard Butchers and his wife, Susan Ann Cope. At the Church of England Grammar School, Geelong, and the University of Melbourne, Butchers was a brilliant student with an active sporting, social and cultural life. He graduated MA with final honours in Classics and comparative philology in 1906.
Over the following two years he taught at various schools, including Launceston Church Grammar School. In 1908 he became headmaster of the Ararat Church of England Grammar School and in 1909 established his own competing Ararat Grammar School. On 3 September 1914 he married Madge Macdonald Mellis, daughter of a local bank manager. Meanwhile, by extramural study, he had completed the first two years of an LLB by 1907 and a DipEd by 1912.
In October 1917 Butchers was appointed founding headmaster of John McGlashan College, a Presbyterian boys' boarding school in Dunedin, New Zealand. Here his experience in fund-raising, recruiting pupils, designing buildings and establishing school programmes was urgently needed. As headmaster for five years over a difficult war and post-war period, he saw the school firmly founded with excellent facilities and a blossoming tradition. In 1923 Butchers became senior mathematics master at Southland Boys' High School, Invercargill.
In his new post he had time to return to academic interests. In 1925 he completed his LLB; he became a WEA lecturer in English literature, psychology and New Zealand history at Invercargill and Gore, and began an intensive study of New Zealand educational history. At the time the country's costly, decentralised education system was often compared with the economic, centralised one in Victoria, especially when in 1925 the government commissioned Frank Tate, Victorian director of education, to report on post-primary education. In 1924, having enrolled for a University of Melbourne MEd, Butchers began using his Victorian background as a vantage point for studying New Zealand education. His degree was conferred in 1928 and the following year his thesis on the history of education in New Zealand from 1816 to 1877 was published as Young New Zealand. A booklet giving his views on reform, After standard IV, what?, had appeared a few months earlier.
Butchers was able to complete his history project after a deputation headed by Sir Robert Stout sought assistance for him from the minister of education, Harry Atmore. As well as receiving 16 months' paid leave from 1 May 1929, Butchers was provided with facilities for research throughout the country and a generous publication subsidy. His Education in New Zealand, a 652-page book covering the years 1878 to 1930, appeared in August 1930, and a condensed version of this and Young New Zealand was published as The education system, in 1932. Education in New Zealand earned Butchers a LittD from the University of New Zealand in 1933 and these books became the basic texts on New Zealand educational history for decades to come.
Meanwhile, Atmore had moved for educational reform. In November 1929 he set up a parliamentary recess committee to collect evidence and report recommendations for change. Dissatisfied with its initial report, he turned to Butchers, who drafted the final text of the Atmore Report of 15 August 1930, the most substantial review of the system since 1912.
In October 1930 Butchers joined the staff of the Department of Education's Correspondence School in Wellington, becoming the senior secondary assistant in May 1931. Early on he pushed through the adoption of an efficient two-way envelope system for handling pupils' work, and campaigned through the New Zealand Public Service Association for improved pay and working hours for the school's teachers. He was appointed headmaster in 1935 and held the position until his retirement in early 1951.
Butchers showed imagination and persistence in working to overcome the isolation of the school's pupils and build a school spirit. As the new headmaster he helped persuade a reluctant department of the value of teachers' visits by spending vacation time seeing scores of Hawke's Bay and Wairarapa pupils in their homes. In 1937 he visited the agricultural and pastoral shows in Hawke's Bay and Poverty Bay, taking exhibitions of the school's work and meeting again with pupils and parents. From 1931 Butchers had participated in the newly inaugurated educational broadcasts, and by 1937 he had won the school its own weekly broadcasts. The school held its first public exhibition of pupils' work in May 1936, bringing a large number of students and parents to Wellington, which led to the founding of the parents' association. Although his first attempts to run holiday schools for pupils were thwarted by floods in 1938, and by an influenza epidemic in 1939, he held a successful school for over 200 pupils at Waitaki Boys' High in 1941. This was the beginning of the Correspondence School's annual recreational schools.
In 1938 Butchers was New Zealand's representative at the first International Conference on Correspondence Education, held at Victoria, British Columbia. He was appointed to a small continuing executive committee and was chairman of a research committee. His trip included visits to leading correspondence education centres in Canada and the United States. At the second international conference at Lincoln, Nebraska, Butchers was elected president, with the responsibility for organising the third conference. This was held in Christchurch in April 1950, and provided a fitting finale to his career.
In all facets of his work Butchers showed an ability to combine intellectual endeavour with social concern. He was adept at enlisting support for difficult and ambitious projects, and notable for his willingness to lead from the front. He was made an OBE in 1947. On his retirement he accepted a commission to write a Centennial history of education in Canterbury (1953) for the Canterbury centennial celebrations. He died, in Wellington, on 21 April 1960, survived by his wife and four children.