Marie Bell was an educator and tireless campaigner for the rights of both children and parents, challenging educational orthodoxies to ensure more child-centred practices and an environment more supportive of parents. Through her work with a network of like-minded organisations, her advocacy for women, her education of trainee teachers and other adults, and as an academic and public servant, she influenced the lives of thousands of teachers, parents and children in New Zealand. Her active involvement with education lasted almost 75 years.
Marie Heron was born in Wellington on 19 February 1922, the eldest of three children of Olive Marcia Mackie and her husband, Albert John George Heron, a teacher at Rongotai College and a prominent figure in Wellington education circles. She had a rich and happy childhood at home and at primary school, but did not enjoy the focus on exams and competition during her time at Wellington East Girls’ School. She later said her parents both valued education: her father because he had it and her mother because she had not had it.
She entered Wellington Teachers’ College in 1939, simultaneously studying towards an arts degree at Victoria University College. At Teachers’ College she first encountered the progressive and child-friendly ideas that were to govern her life, although such practices were not yet the norm in New Zealand classrooms.
Marie joined the Teachers’ College Māori club and Wellington’s Ngāti Poneke Young Māori Club, learned te reo, and began a lifelong commitment to Māori education. One of her first teaching positions was at Te Kaha Native School in 1943, where she ensured mātauranga Māori was woven into her teaching. While at Teachers’ College she had met Paetahi (Pat) Metekingi, from Pūtiki, Whanganui, and against parental opposition they married on 14 May 1943; he was almost immediately called up to serve in the Second World War. Their son John was born in May 1944. Within six weeks of John’s birth, Marie’s father died and Pat left to serve overseas with the 28 (Maori) Battalion.
Marie was 22 and already caring for her mother, younger siblings and young son, when she received the news Pat had been killed in action in Faenza, Italy in January 1945. She soon took up a sole-charge teaching position at Matahiwi on the Whanganui River, which kept her close to her husband’s whānau. She became an important part of the tiny Māori community, but was required to give up her position to a returned serviceman. Determined to secure a career for herself, Marie returned to Wellington, where she continued her studies at Victoria University College while also working as a teacher. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1947 and a Diploma in Education in 1949. Her work and observation of her own child had given her an interest in the value of pre-school education.
In 1949 she travelled with her mother and young son to the United Kingdom to undertake postgraduate study at the University of London’s Institute of Education. There Marie was taught by the leading theorists of the progressive child development movement, including Dorothy Gardner, Anna Freud and John Bowlby. She worked at a nursery school which emphasised the importance of free play, and took part in a course aimed at training people to educate teachers.
On her return from the United Kingdom in 1951, Marie was appointed head of a kindergarten in Pahīatua. Under the influence of Clarence Beeby, the New Zealand education system was undergoing a radical transformation, including a move towards child-directed learning, and Marie was given a mandate to introduce the concept of ‘free play’ into kindergartens. She commuted to Wellington at weekends to see her son, who was living with her mother; when this proved too difficult she returned to Wellington and became the supervisor of junior classes at Mount Cook School. Here she had the opportunity to introduce her ideas of child-led education into a primary school, allowing children to learn curriculum subjects grounded in their own interests and development.
Her success at the school led to her being appointed to lecture in Junior Education at Wellington Teachers’ Training College in 1953. There she was able to interest trainees in ideas of child development and child-led education. She was also involved in providing teacher refresher courses through which she influenced those already in the profession. Marie emphasised the importance of a happy and creative classroom, and allowing children to choose their own activities. She got involved with the Association for the Study of Early Childhood, which held regular discussion evenings and conferences on education topics. She became ‘a beacon of progressive ideas’ in education circles.1
Marie married a second time, on 14 January 1954, to National Airways clerk James (Jim) Bell. Their daughter Kathrine was born in 1958, and the couple adopted another son, Simon, born in 1962.
Marie resigned from the Teachers’ College on the birth of her daughter, but continued part-time work. She trained Playcentre supervisors for 20 years, and taught Parents Centre classes and kindergarten children. She remained involved in Parents Centre, an organisation which fought to give parents a voice in childbirth and child-rearing, for the rest of her life. She prepared evidence on behalf of Parents Centre to the Consultative Committee on Infant and Pre-School Health Services and the Royal Commission on Education in 1959 and 1961 respectively. Her work on the former helped ensure that mothers were able to keep their babies in their room in hospital after birth and stay overnight with sick children in hospital. She also took part in a highly controversial review of maternity services in 1960 which caused deep divisions within the National Council of Women. In 1975 Marie led the Parents Centre’s contribution to New Zealand’s second United Women’s Convention.
Her involvement in Playcentre, and desire to provide her children with a school education compatible with her ideals, led to Marie’s involvement in Mātauranga School in Wellington from 1963. She helped establish the school, and was convinced to become its first head teacher when other parents agreed to care for her young son. The school was a parent co-operative and became one of the most progressive primary schools in the country. Its philosophy was low adult-to-child ratios, parent participation, and educating children as individuals within a rich environment of activities, as well as freedom from corporal punishment. A colleague at Mātauranga wrote that Marie’s rapport with children and her wide experience meant her teaching style ‘defies all analysis’.2 She taught at the school until the cohort she began with graduated in 1971.
After leaving Mātauranga, Marie lectured at Wellington’s Kindergarten Teachers’ College for a time and then worked as an education officer at the Department of Education from 1974 to 1982. There she secured professional development and certification for early childhood educators, and worked towards the unification of the early education sector. She led the Prime Minister’s Conference on Women in Social and Economic Development in Wellington in 1976, which helped put the relationship between early childhood education and the role of women on the political agenda, and an influential national early childhood convention in 1979, the International Year of the Child.
As her children grew Marie became involved in secondary school education, joining Wellington High School’s Parent Teacher Association and then its school board, influencing the school to adopt the liberal values she believed in.
Throughout her life, Marie was a strong advocate for involving parents and the wider community in education, and believed that all children had the right to live up to their potential. She worked with networks of women who helped her progress these ideas and urged other organisations to consider women’s points of view. She offered assertiveness training courses to combat the loss of women’s voices in meetings. Marie and Jim lived in the same home in Melrose, Wellington, for more than 50 years, and Marie was a very active member of the Labour Party’s Rongotai electorate committee for many years.
A friend observed that Marie ‘lived long and passionately, savouring life to the full and always setting herself one more goal or project to achieve’.3 In 1982, at age 60, she was forced to retire from the Education Department, but later wrote that ‘I tried retirement and I didn’t like it!’4
Instead, she continued lecturing and training adults until 2003, more than 20 years later. During this time she was also the Parents Centre’s first travelling training officer; in one year alone she conducted 65 training sessions in 37 centres. She was appointed to the council of Victoria University of Wellington in 1985, where she battled again to have women’s points of view heard; she held this position until 2000. She held a series of other important public service roles in the 1980s and 1990s, including chairing the Teachers’ Appeal Board, the Area Health Board Steering Committee and the working party which oversaw the move of state-run childcare services from the Department of Social Welfare to the Department of Education. She also sat on the Department’s Curriculum Review Committee. Marie returned to teaching trainee teachers at Wellington College of Education, combining this with tutoring at Victoria University.
Jim Bell died in 1997. In 2004, at the age of 82, Marie graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with a PhD on the early pioneers of the Parents Centre. She observed that she had simply not had the time to do a doctorate earlier. She also visited her first husband’s grave in Italy.
Marie received many accolades from the education sector, and was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2006 for services to early childhood education. When she died in Wellington on 3 November 2012, aged 90, she was working on yet another project, a history of her attempt to deliver her liberal educational principles in the real-life setting of Mātauranga School. She wrote of her particular love for Wellington, which had, she said, offered her ‘involvement, challenge and satisfaction in the education of many children and their families’. The title of this memoir, ‘Standing against the wind’, is a fitting summary of her life’s work.5