Page 1: Biography
Ashbridge, George Richard
Accountant, teachers’ union official, educationalist
This biography, written by William Renwick, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
George Richard Ashbridge was born in Wellington on 13 August 1901, the son of tinsmith Walter Ashbridge and his wife, Mary Agnes Hart. As a young man he tried himself out in a number of occupations, becoming a cadet in the Post and Telegraph Department, then a wireless operator and salesman. He was also a keen swimmer and lifesaver, and was awarded the bronze medallion of the Royal Life Saving Society. On 12 April 1922 he married Hazel Belle Naomi Gelderd, a shop assistant, in Pahiatua; they were to have two sons.
After some years in Pahiatua, the family moved to Wellington in 1928, when Ashbridge was appointed accountant and assistant secretary of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI). He studied economics, statistics and mercantile law part time at Victoria University College, and embarked on a career in accounting and secretarial work. By 1932 he was an associate of the Association of Accountants of Australia, the Chartered Institute of Secretaries (United Kingdom), and the Australasian Institute of Secretaries, which awarded him its gold medal for the highest examination results in its diploma papers.
Ashbridge became secretary of the NZEI in 1933. All previous secretaries of the institute had been teachers, and his appointment reflected changing demands on a national office serving a membership that had grown to around 5,000. By the time he retired in 1965, the NZEI had 13,000 members and was recognised by government as the national organisation with the right to negotiate on behalf of primary teachers on all matters affecting salaries and conditions of service.
The prime cause of the change was the first Labour government’s industrial relations policy, under which employee organisations were actively consulted on matters affecting their members. This gave Ashbridge the opportunity to steer the NZEI towards its long-cherished goal of recognised professional status. With almost 90 per cent of teachers employed in state schools, his ideal of a self-regulating profession was never likely to succeed. By the mid 1960s, however, primary and other teachers’ organisations were negotiating with or being consulted by governments on all aspects of the education, registration, and discipline of teachers. When in his last year in office he was invited to write a guest editorial in the NZEI’s journal, National Education , he chose to write about progress towards professional autonomy.
As the senior officer serving a passing parade of elected executive members, Ashbridge became the NZEI’s institutional memory. He was hard-working, efficient and well organised, thoroughly briefed on all matters where his advice was called for, and a quietly persuasive speaker. Presidents, who were replaced annually, found his guidance indispensable: he was always at their elbow without drawing attention to himself. His regular ‘Secretary’s Corner’ in National Education and his Legal handbook (which went through six editions between 1942 and 1959) were their first resort for answers to questions on their legal duties and professional responsibilities. His retirement marked the end of an era that primary teachers identified with his name more than any other. He was appointed an MBE for services to education in 1953. In 1969 the NZEI made him a life member, the only time that this award has been made other than to a teacher.
Ashbridge was awarded a Carnegie travelling fellowship in 1937 and with his wife spent a year in Britain, France, Denmark and the United States studying the role of teachers’ organisations and making valuable contacts. While in England he attended the opening of the new headquarters of the National Union of Teachers, which had been funded and built by its members, and he was convinced that the NZEI should own its own building. He became the driving force for the proposal which, after many setbacks, resulted in the completion of Education House in Wellington in 1966.
The NZEI had affiliated to the International Federation of Teachers Associations in 1937, and Ashbridge was appointed to its executive board to represent non-European teachers’ organisations. In the decade after the Second World War he played an active part in the consultations that led to the merging of international teachers’ organisations in the World Confederation of Organisations of the Teaching Profession (WCOTP). In 1950 he renewed personal contacts in the United States and Europe on a scholarship from the National Education Association of the United States. Elected to the executive of the WCOTP in 1954, he was regularly re-elected during the next 10 years (once with the highest number of votes), drafted its standing orders, and became one of its leading figures.
He actively promoted the formation of teachers’ organisations in Asia and the Pacific, and was regularly called on to conduct regional seminars on the professional responsibilities of teachers’ organisations, their relationships with governments, and the writing of codes of professional ethics for teachers. His last assignment for the WCOTP was running seminars in nine African countries in 1968 to help produce a legal handbook for African teachers. He was one of the first three people to receive the WCOTP’s Silver Medal for Distinguished Service to African Teacher Organisations.
During the 1950s and 1960s Ashbridge’s personal involvement as a New Zealander in educational development in the third world was second only to that of C. E. Beeby, the director of education. He was a member of the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO for a number of years, and was held in the highest regard in the international fraternity of teachers’ organisations: the Educational Institute of Scotland made him a fellow in 1953, and the Teachers’ College, Columbia University, New York, awarded him its distinguished service medal in 1954.
In retirement George and Hazel Ashbridge lived in Lower Hutt and later Rotorua. He had been a justice of the peace for many years and continued to carry out this role. He died in Rotorua on 25 October 1984, survived by his wife and sons.