The Beeby vision today

  • Steve Maharey

"The Government's objective, broadly expressed, is that all persons, whatever their ability, rich or poor, whether they live in town or country, have a right as citizens to a free education of the kind for which they are best fitted and to the fullest extent of their powers. So far is this from being a mere pious platitude that the full acceptance of the principle will involve the reorientation of the education system."

Peter Fraser and Clarence Beeby, 1939


Thank you for inviting me to speak at your conference today. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to say a few words, on behalf of both Education Minister Trevor Mallard and myself, about Clarence Beeby.

Beeby was a visionary thinker. His famous quote establishes a public good and right-of-citizenship basis for the education system.

It was, in this sense, an inherently social-democratic statement (even if Beeby had originally conceived of it as a social rather than political vision).

Beeby's vision formally commits the state to enabling every child, each citizen, to reach their potential.

Stated simply, it was about, as he put it, "making the education system responsive to the needs of the individual kid."

Leaping ahead for a moment to the 1980s and 1990s, the reason that this statement by Beeby was so widely quoted during that period was that a contrary proposition was being advanced as the basis for education policy.

As part of the reorientation towards the marketplace, education was being seen as a commodity to be bought and sold.

That new vision is one that those of us in this government opposed. We used that Beeby quote ourselves to challenge that prevailing ideology.

This government firmly believes in the inherent value of a quality education for its own sake.

The Prime Minister confirmed our commitment to this vision for education at the opening of the Tertiary Education Commission in February. She said:

"I stand strongly for the role of education in producing well-rounded, highly literate, well informed New Zealanders who are aware of the world around us, of history, of cultural heritage, and of the great ideas and philosophies that have driven mankind.

"Education can never be reduced to a mere economic output. It has the potential to transform the lives of individuals and whole communities.

"Its focus must be broad and empowering, not narrow and confining".

Like the Prime Minister, I see the government as seeking to continue the Beeby tradition of education as a public good. The context for work is, however, very different and this raises particular challenges that I will return to later.

The Development Of The Vision

The video extract that you will see next will centre around the famous quote and in particular:

  • How it came to be written; and
  • What it meant for practical implementation by Beeby and his department.

Because the quote has attained almost a mythical status outside of history, it is worth recalling that it was written in the following, very practical, circumstances.

The First Labour Government, with Peter Fraser as Minister of Education, had already initiated sweeping changes. It had readmitted 5-year-olds to school, re-opened the training colleges, set up the Council of Adult Education and begun an ambitious school building programme.

Perhaps most symbolically, Fraser had in 1936 abolished the proficiency examination at the end of standard 6.

In 1937 a New Education Fellowship conference, hosted by New Zealand, had added to the ferment of ideas.

That was the context in which the Department of Education, drafting the Minister's annual report to Parliament for 1938, produced the usual bland document - a list of events from the past year, written by their statistical officer.

Fraser sent it straight back. Across the front he had written:

"This report has nothing to say, and I won't sign it. Send me a report that says something."

So it was that the Director of Education at the time, N T Lambourne, turned to Beeby, his new assistant-director, and asked him if he could say something Fraser would accept.

The Beeby vision was, therefore, partly an articulation of what Fraser had already been doing. But it also became a guide for future policy initiatives.

Beeby relates a range of practical initiatives done to realise that goal:

  • A complete review of the primary school curriculum;
  • A complete review of teaching methods, with implications for teacher training;
  • The foundation of the School Library Service;
  • Breaking the control of the University Entrance examination over the secondary school;
  • The establishment of school certificate, and the wider range of choices that that entailed; and
  • The extension of vocational guidance services.

Another accomplishment Beeby counted as critical to achieving the goal was the establishment of what we now know as the polytechnic system. "Apart from all these airy-fairy ideas," he told Ian Fraser, "we had to get a new system of technical education".

Beeby had first raised this idea in 1944 but had made no great steps for years until in 1957, as he put it, "Russia did it for us!" The launch of Sputnik gave new impetus to technical education at all levels throughout the Western world.

The Vision In Its Time

Apart from noting how the Beeby statement actually developed it is worth recalling what education was like at the time.

If we take a historical snapshot of the education sector during the early post-war period we can see that while the idea of equal opportunities was strong, in reality only a small group of New Zealanders progressed through to upper secondary schools and further education.

  • Nearly 3, 500 children were in kindergarten;
  • Close to 275, 000 in primary education;
  • Just over 50, 000 in secondary education;
  • 18, 700 in trades training; and
  • Close to 13, 000 attending university to which students could go if awarded a place.

The system was dominated by a series of examinations. University Entrance, previously supreme, was now joined by School Certificate. Those that made it through both would go on to University.

As the difference between the numbers attending primary school and secondary and those in further education shows, the system was based largely on a 'sorting out' strategy.

The system still operated very much as a series of filters, providing for each individual the point at which they should conclude their educational experience.

As people exited the education system they moved off to find a role for themselves in a low skill, low wage, commodity producing economy. For the majority of women, of course, this meant work in the home.

Much of Beeby's effort was devoted to ensuring that those filters worked in the fairest way and did not 'sort' people out of the system prematurely. This led to many battles, in his position as an ex officio member of the Senate of the University of New Zealand, over various aspects of University Entrance exam.

New Zealand Today

Today we can see a very different picture.

No longer do the majority of young people leave school early and move into the workforce. More people are undertaking more education.

Rather than a series of barriers designed to sort people out, the system is slowly changing to provide a series of pathways into and out of education suited to the needs of the learner.

We have a mass education system and, increasingly, a lifelong education system.

Let's update that educational snapshot. In 2002, we can see that we had:

  • ·Nearly 175,000 children in early childhood education (including nearly 46,000 children at licensed kindergartens);
  • ·Just over 488,000 in primary education;
  • ·Nearly 260,000 in secondary education;
  • ·Just over 132, 000 attending university;
  • ·Nearly 96,000 in polytechnics;
  • ·Around 27,000 at wananga;
  • ·Nearly 11,000 attending colleges of education;
  • ·Just over 53,000 at private training establishments;
  • (The figures at polytechnics and private training establishments also count most of the 106,000 industry trainees)

  • ·And in excess of 175,000 people participating in adult and community education programmes

We can see large increases at both ends of the spectrum - early childhood and tertiary - both in absolute numbers and proportionately to the numbers at school.

The kind of society our education system serves is also very different.

Our overall goal as a nation is to lift our skill and knowledge base to equip all New Zealanders for the demands of the 21st century.

This includes coming to grips with what it means to live with the new technologies that are central to the information age we live in.

The education system needs to respond to the distinct expectations and aspirations of Maori communities and individuals. This is not simply a matter of ensuring that Maori get the same educational opportunities as Europeans. It is often a matter of developing new programmes and providers.

Increasingly, Pacific Island people are also demanding more from education, both in terms of opportunity and in terms of offerings that reflect their own experiences.
The education system is critical to meeting the hopes and dreams of new migrants as well. It can be the key to their successful settlement in New Zealand.

We also have a different kind of economy now. We are no longer an offshore farm for Britain. We have needed to, and still need to, build a new economy to meet different global circumstances. This means adding value to goods and services while developing the systems that allow us to constantly innovate.

Literacy and numeracy are now essential for all New Zealanders.

We need as a society and individuals to be able to respond to environmental challenges not faced by previous generations.

The list of demands on the education system continues to grow.

This is a far cry from the commodity-producing agricultural society of Beeby's time.

Education Strategies For Today

So how are we seeking to rebuild the commitment to education as a public good?

In relation to that first requirement, the team of Education ministers have been working together over the last three-and-a-half-years to develop a series of statements that set out the 'what' and the 'how': what we are trying to do and how we intend to go about it.

Two months ago the Government released an overarching policy statement, Education Priorities for New Zealand.

The document begins by referencing Beeby's vision. It then sets out two key goals for the education system. The first goal is:

an education system that equips New Zealanders with 21st century skills.

This goes well beyond narrow technical skills. We are talking about skills that focus on creative and innovative thinking, and skills that will help us to relate to each other.

The second goal is:

to reduce the inequalities in educational achievement to ensure that all New Zealanders can reach their potential.

Our education system produces good results on average, and our highest achievers are amongst the best in the world. But there are too many New Zealanders that the system does not yet work well enough for.

Education Priorities for New Zealand complements and draws together the range of strategies and plan already developed at all levels of the system.

We have an Early Childhood Education strategic plan, with two broad aims - to improve quality and to increase participation.

We have a Tertiary Education Strategy, which focuses the system on the simultaneous pursuit of excellence, relevance and access. I should note here that we used another of Beeby's comments when developing the TES: "It is surprising that we have come so far when it seems that no one knew where we going".

We have had reviews of Industry Training and Training Opportunities and Youth Training arguing (echoes of Beeby) that we urgently need to build our technical and trades skills.

We established an Adult and Community Learning Working Party whose report gives a clear sense of the mission for this sector.

And we have an Adult Literacy Strategy with the goals of increasing opportunities, developing capability and improving quality

All in all, we have a wide range of strategies. In each case they are characterised a commitment to the kind of education system that Clarence Beeby set in place, but against the backdrop of a society that has very different needs.

Educational Investment

Of course key to all this is the question of investment. So that the goal of education as a right of all citizens is not a "pious" hope there has to be a constant lift in investment.

Let give a few examples of what is happening.

We are delivering on our commitments to reinvest in public schooling.

We have fulfilled our commitments to the abolition of bulk funding, an increase in operational funding to schools and an increase in government provided supports for schools.

We have increased staffing across primary and secondary education and have introduced professional qualifications in Early Childhood Education.

Now we're strengthening our focus on the quality of teaching and learning within schools, and strengthening family-school links.

Cabinet has agreed that work on Quality Teaching should be a key priority for schooling over the next three years.

We have kept tertiary tuition fees at 2000 levels and removed Student Loan interest for full-time and other low-income students.

As part of our commitment to offer more options and a greater range of pathways through education, at the recent budget a $56 million package was announced to get all 15-19 year old involved in education, training or other work options by 2007.

This package includes providing a range of structured learning opportunities in workplaces, funding additional Modern Apprenticeships, reintroducing student allowances for some 16 and 17 year olds and introducing specialist programmes to help young people make the transition from school to training or work.

The flexibility of the NCEA qualification is also about providing different learning pathways.

We are just beginning to see the potential impacts this more flexible qualification may have for the way young people learn and how secondary school is organised.

In the tertiary education sector we are putting in place a major reform agenda, with the Tertiary Education Strategy and through the Tertiary Education Commission.

In adult and community education, we have given new direction to the sector and begun the piloting of ACE networks, while we have also committed significant funding to build the capability of the adult literacy sector.

Our Challenge

It is interesting to compare the kind of investment we have today with that in Beeby's time.

In 1947 we spent 10 million pounds on education. That was around 2% of our gross domestic product.

In 2003/04 we will spend $8.2 billion. That will be around 7% of gross domestic product this year.

Of course, today we spend money on aspects of education that the first Labour Government did not. But we have still managed to move ahead.

To take one example, New Zealand now has one of the highest tertiary participation rates in the OECD. In 2002, the OECD reported that New Zealand's rate of entry to degree-level tertiary education was the second highest in the OECD, while our entry rate to vocational tertiary education was also second in the OECD.

This achievement is recognised abroad as something to aspire to. Colin Clarke, the British Secretary of State for Education and Skills, recently told the British House of Commons that their participation levels compared unfavourably to countries like our own:

The comparisons with other countries are instructive. New Zealand is on 70 per cent, Sweden is on 67 per cent., and Australia and Norway are on 59 per cent. Those are the investments that other countries are making because of the knowledge economy and the world to which we are moving. That is why we have to address the matter.

Another example can be found in research funding.

In The Biography of an Idea, Beeby (rightly) notes the "deep significance" of the 10,000 pound grant to the University of New Zealand for research that he had managed to insert into the Department of Education's estimates for 1946-47 (p. 232). It was, as far as he was aware, the first such grant ever made.

In 2002 the amount of public funding to the universities for research, including the degree top-ups, the Marsden Fund and funds allocated by the Foundation for Research, Science & Technology and the Health Research council, exceeded $220 million.

These examples tell us that investment has increased but they do not tell us we can rest on our laurels.

Your organisation exists to remind us that there is still a way to go before the Beeby vision is fulfilled.

So I will leave with the assurance that Beeby is still at the heart of the New Zealand education system. While the challenges of achieving his vision in the context of the 21st century are not insignificant, our aim, as the saying goes, is true.