Clarence Edward Beeby was born at Meanwood, Leeds, Yorkshire, on 16 June 1902, the second son of Anthony Beeby and his wife, Alice Rhodes. His forebears on both sides were working class but his father had been apprenticed to a pharmacist and owned a chemist shop when Clarence was born. The family migrated to New Zealand in 1906 and, in the way of migrants, kept Yorkshire in their heads long after they had relocated in Christchurch. The tension between inherited culture and colonial adaptation became an important feature of Beeby’s adult thought.
Alice Beeby was determined that her sons would have the education denied her and would ‘get on’ in the world. Clarence was a clever, bookish boy who took immediately to the competitive nature of school life. He was small in build and had no interest in team games. From about the age of 12 he was known as ‘Beeb’. He was dux of New Brighton School and one of the top scholars of his year at Christchurch Boys’ High School. One sign of his precocity and his mother’s nurturing influence was his induction as a Methodist lay preacher at the age of 16 or 17. His interests were largely intellectual – debating, drama, and serious discussion of literature and life’s purpose – leavened with laughter and high-spirited student pranks.
Beeby intended to be a lawyer when he enrolled at Canterbury College in 1920 and combined study with work as a law clerk. His introduction to a wider world of ideas began to undermine his religious faith and prompted him to switch from law to primary school teaching, a vocation that would, he thought, give greater scope for his sense of moral purpose. 1921 was his annus mirabilis. He enrolled at Christchurch Training College where he met Beatrice Eleanor Newnham, with whom he fell in love, and Walter Harris, who became a lifelong friend; all three came under the influence of the charismatic James Shelley, Canterbury’s first professor of education. Shelley’s knowledge of art and drama, skills as a craftsman, striking good looks and histrionic gifts profoundly influenced Beeby throughout his life.
In 1924 Beeby graduated MA with first-class honours in philosophy, a course that included some study of psychology. The previous year he had been appointed part-time assistant lecturer in philosophy and education and Shelley’s assistant in Canterbury College’s educational and psychological laboratory. On Shelley’s advice he enrolled for a PhD at Victoria University of Manchester, but it was Charles Spearman of University College, London, who supervised his research. Spearman was a world authority on the nature of human intelligence, and his view of intelligence as a largely inherited human capacity strongly influenced Beeby’s views as an educational thinker.
Beeby and Beatrice Newnham had become engaged before he left Christchurch, and they were married at St Mark’s, Cheetham, on 3 June 1926, when she joined him in Manchester. They were to have two children, a girl and a boy. Late in life Beeby acknowledged that Beatrice humanised his ideas as an educational administrator, when the heart could have been over-ruled by the head.
After Beeby’s return to Canterbury College in August 1927 he was appointed lecturer in experimental education and experimental psychology and later took over from Shelley the direction of the educational and psychological laboratories. Visits to psychological laboratories in the United States and Canada in 1929–30 enabled him to learn at first hand about developments in the fields in which he and Shelley were working: educational testing, remedial teaching, educational and vocational guidance, and industrial relations. He took over Shelley’s duties while he was on study leave during part of 1932, and held the position of acting professor of philosophy in 1934. Lines of preferment seemed to be opening for him within the college.
Instead, he moved to Wellington as first director of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research. In four years he transformed the NZCER from an obscure acronym into a recognised national research organisation respected for its independence and the quality of its research and commentary. Notable among its publications were studies by J. C. Beaglehole, L. C. Webb, H. C. D. Somerset, J. E. Strachan and L. J. Wild, and Beeby’s own survey of intermediate schooling. Of direct relevance to a generation of teachers and pupils was the standardisation for New Zealand conditions of an intelligence test. But the overriding event with which Beeby and the NZCER were associated was the landmark New Education Fellowship Conference of July 1937, when a panel of distinguished overseas educationalists presented the ideas and aspirations of child-centred education to large, enthusiastic audiences. It brought Beeby to the favourable notice of the minister of education, Peter Fraser.
Beeby’s writings during these years record his transition from a research psychologist to an educational thinker. The upheaval of the depression years and the rise of fascism forced him to think not only about differences in human abilities but also about the right all individuals should have to education in a democracy. In his view the education system suffered from undue centralisation and conformity and should open itself to variation, experiment and change. The abolition of the proficiency examination in 1937 held out hope for primary schooling responsive to the range of children’s abilities. But the exclusionary nature of secondary and university education was at odds with the country’s democratic ethos, its economic conditions, and the expectation of parents that formal education should enable their children to get on in life. All young people had a right to continuing education not because they were especially brilliant academically but because they were citizens of a democracy. Scholarly ideals must of course be maintained but the university colleges should broaden the range of their teaching and the composition of their student enrolments. Beeby also foresaw the need for technical schools to take up the vocational and cultural education of apprentices and technician trainees, in order to prevent a national crisis arising from shortages of skilled labour.
In 1938, anticipating the retirement of the director of education in late 1939, the government reinstated the position of assistant director and Beeby was appointed. Fraser had encouraged him to apply. Twenty months later he was appointed director of education and took charge of the department on 1 May 1940, a month after Fraser became prime minister. Fraser relinquished the education portfolio at the end of April. However, Beeby said that, irrespective of who was minister, Fraser and Walter Nash controlled education policy during the first Labour administration.
The policies initiated and presided over by Fraser and administered by Beeby transformed public education. Though they started from very different standpoints – Fraser from socialist conviction, Beeby from tenets of educational psychology – they were virtually of one mind as to what must be done to bring about equality of educational opportunity for all New Zealand citizens. Without Fraser there would have been no requirement for Beeby to manage the programme of comprehensive educational reform he had initiated. If Beeby had not shared Fraser’s vision, it is unlikely that Fraser’s reforming intentions would have been realised in the way they were during his 20 years as director of education. Beeby believed in himself and what he was doing, and he had a razor-sharp mind, a sure grasp of issues, enviable powers of persuasion, determination and stamina.
When Beeby retired in 1960 few parts of the education system remained untouched and there was much that was new. Kindergarten and other preschool services had been developed as a partnership between the state and voluntary organisations. (Beatrice Beeby was one of the founders of parent-run play centres.) Primary school curricula had been completely revised, and teachers were assisted by an increased range of advisory services and by new teaching materials from the National Film Library and the School Publications Branch. Post-primary curricula had been reorganised with the introduction of a common core of studies, with the aim of providing a broad, balanced education for all pupils, and new multi-purpose schools were planned and built to cater for the diverse educational needs of all children from a neighbourhood. Various special educational services had been developed for children with disabilities. A great deal of attention had been given to the educational requirements of children in remote rural districts. The apprenticeship system had been rejuvenated and training schemes for technicians were operating. Technical high schools in the main centres had begun their evolution to senior or tertiary technical institutes. University education had greatly expanded and now reached a wider range of students, and the University of New Zealand was about to be dissolved and replaced by autonomous universities, whose dealings with central government and each other would be managed by a university grants committee.
Beeby knew that educational plans were one thing and their implementation quite another. In particular, he knew that most classroom reforms would be stillborn without reductions in class size. But wartime austerity, large increases in the birth rate from the early 1940s, and shortages of teachers at all levels during the 1950s meant that teaching conditions remained adverse during his entire term as director. The largely unchanged state of teacher education during these years also acted as a brake on reforming intentions. The all-important post-primary reforms were complex and controversial. The intended centrepiece of the first three years of post-primary schooling, the common core of studies, seldom carried much conviction with teachers of academic inclination, and the reorganisation of fifth- and sixth-form curricula ended in compromise. Beeby had hoped that the reformed School Certificate would be internally assessed, but the external examination remained and School Certificate quickly replaced University Entrance as the nemesis of innovative teaching in lower forms.
The Labour government’s reforming intentions were broadly supported by teachers, but sections of the profession and of the public were unsure, sceptical or opposed to them, and from the early 1940s ‘Beebyism’ was a catchcry for everything thought to be wrong with the new education. This personification was regrettable but it showed how quickly Beeby was perceived to be the architect of the reforms. Those policies were put to the test when the National Party came to power in 1949, but the new minister endorsed them after making extensive visits to schools and consulting parental opinion. Labour returned to power in 1957, pledged to set up a commission to inquire into all aspects of the education system. An assessment of Beeby’s stewardship would clearly be an important part of such an inquiry. He was still more than two years from retirement age at the end of 1959 when the government moved to set up the commission, and the prime minister decided that he should be appointed New Zealand’s ambassador to France.
This decision acknowledged the important contribution he had already made to international education, particularly to UNESCO. It had begun in 1945 when Fraser sent him to review educational arrangements in the Cook Islands, Niue, and Western Samoa. He led the New Zealand delegation to the first general conference of UNESCO in Paris in 1946 and played a leading role in its deliberations and in several later general conferences. The government granted him leave of absence in 1948–49 to be assistant director general of UNESCO with the task of devising its educational policies and working methods. During the 1950s he was the government’s chief educational adviser on New Zealand’s assistance to the countries of South and South East Asia under the Colombo Plan. In 1959 he led the New Zealand delegation to the first Commonwealth Education Conference at Oxford University and played a key role in drafting the Commonwealth’s programme of educational development. He was appointed to the executive board of UNESCO in 1960, and his residence in Paris enabled him to become closely involved in its work. At the end of 1962 he was elected chairman of its executive board.
On the completion of his term as ambassador in October 1963, Beeby became a research associate at the Center for Studies in Education and Development at Harvard University, and in 1967–68 he was Commonwealth visiting professor at the Institute of Education, University of London. Debates on the economics of educational development during the 1960s were dominated by quantitative models. Beeby’s vast experience told him that such models, while necessary, could not be sufficient, and in speeches, articles and a book, The quality of education in developing countries, he persuasively advocated a counter-model built around factors that determine qualitative improvement in education systems.
He returned to Wellington at the end of 1968 and took up office again at the NZCER as director emeritus. He was regularly called upon to advise governments and international agencies, speak at conferences and seminars, write papers for symposia, edit manuscripts for publication, and advise people from many parts of the world. From 1970 to 1975 he was a high-level policy adviser on Indonesian educational development, and this resulted in Assessment of Indonesian education. He undertook his last international consultancy in 1987.
Beeby’s work in education was widely acknowledged in academic and professional awards. The University of Otago, the University of Canterbury and Victoria University of Wellington conferred honorary doctorates on him, the New Zealand Educational Institute made him a life member, the United States National Academy of Education elected him a foreign associate, and UNESCO awarded him its Medal of the Silk Road of Dialogue. Public honours came in 1956 with his appointment as a CMG and in 1987 when he became one of the five foundation members of the Order of New Zealand, the country’s highest public honour.
He published his memoir, The biography of an idea, in 1992, the year of his 90th birthday, an occasion celebrated with a Festschrift, an international seminar, numerous other functions, and messages of gratitude and praise from all around the world. It was a grand finale to the career of New Zealand’s most distinguished educational thinker. Clarence Beeby died in Wellington on 10 March 1998. Beatrice Beeby had died in 1991.