Frillseekers: The arts-first pioneers of New Zealand’s world class education


“The arts are the sustaining, vitalising element in the education of teachers as well as children. It is essential for teachers to have personally satisfying experience of music, art, drama, dance, poetry, fiction – of some at least of these – if they are to be lively, sensitive, confident, and sympathetic enough to engage children happily in such activities.”
– Walter Scott, ex-principal of Wellington Teachers’ College, 1967

“Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status… I believe this passionately, we don’t grow into creativity… we get educated out of it.”
– Ken Robinson, precisely sixty years later
Not for the first time, economic crisis is causing us to reassess educational priorities. British educationalist Ken Robinson coaxes audiences ‘to rethink the fundamental principles on which we’re educating our children’, exposing the tired industrial origins of existing practices, challenging the position of arts as a ‘frill’. With the globe in recession and protest over its wealth gap and addictions to fossil fuels, monoculture and exploitative labour, we are increasingly alert to the necessity of holistic, participatory and creative teaching. Our curriculum, bicultural policy and current best practice theory support this. Teacher training lags behind, struggling to reconcile these movements with the pressure to apply linear, standardised and prescriptive educational methods to deliver the measurable outcomes and bottom lines required by government and universities.

Like the 2008 recession, the 1930s Depression sparked a serious rethink of educational priorities. The 30s overhaul resulted in a world-leading Ministry with very different priorities than the one we know today. Education Minister Clarence Beeby – who left an extraordinary legacy in education here and in developing countries such as India, Barbados, Libya and Indonesia – took advantage of the crisis to revitalise education. He appointed Gordon Tovey as head of a new Arts and Crafts Department in 1944, and entrusted Tovey with all the freedom necessary to invigorate arts education. To the Minister, the true measure of Tovey’s success went beyond capturing in statistics (though they left it doubtless): ‘When he came to the Department of Education, most of the schoolrooms were drab and colourless; when he left they were ablaze with colour, buzzing with activity and alive with crafts.’ To this Beeby added that ‘two generations of New Zealanders have reason to be grateful to him and their children’s children will bear some imprint of his hand though they may never hear his name.’

Tovey saw art as the main vehicle for learning, reappraising fundamental assumptions and effecting meaningful change. A notable influence had been the 1937 conference for which an international delegation of educationalists came to Aotearoa: nearly six thousand teachers enrolled, demand far exceeded seating capacity and primary schools were closed for the event. Arthur Lismer – a kind of Ken Robinson forerunner – advocated art’s central place in children’s education through its fostering of the self-knowledge, self respect and vitality necessary for learning. The conference helped boost the Ministry along its new trajectory.

Tovey believed that in order to support that of students, teachers required their own creative practice, which he supported in his famous teacher training workshops. Hung humbly outside a Wellington garage is an invaluable relic of one such workshop, held in 1964. The Feilding Panel is the result of a collaboration between ten trainee teachers carving native wood panels found by Cliff Whiting and Para Matchitt at an old Feilding mill. It is one of the first times both those men ever carved – but the playful geometry of Matchitt’s Wellington City to Sea bridge, and intricate patterning of Whiting’s Te Papa marae and National Library panels is immediately recognisable.

Feilding Panel collaborators – like countless other trainees Tovey worked with – developed notable careers as empowering artists and educators; Whiting and Matchitt as shapers of Wellington’s vibrancy and the notions of biculturalism that inform our governance. Both readily proclaim the influence of Tovey’s training and pioneering of biculturalism. Feilding Panel collaborator David Aitken remembers Tovey wanting ‘to get us into the feel of carving… the rhythms, nature of the wood, skills with tools’. He encouraged tuakana-teina ‘to have some of the abilities of the talented rub off on those beginning, and partly because he was hoping for a blending of different symbolic forms in a cooperative way’. Aitken adds that he was ‘actively encouraging the fusing of Maori and European forms in a fresh and innovative style’. The Feilding Panel captures the role of arts in ako, a holistic education that is integrative, inclusive and inquiring.

Cultivating this educational climate was not without its obstacles – incidents such as ex-headmaster Henry Ball demanding, ‘What’s the use of giving all these kids coloured mud?’. In a 1973 address reasserting challenge to the notion of arts as a ‘frill’, Beeby recalled early ‘dire warnings’ from press and public regarding negative effects on the 3Rs. ‘It was not without a touch of smug satisfaction,’ he continued, ‘that I read recently the results of the authoritative international survey in which… the scores of our N.Z. pupils in reading comprehension and literary decisively topped the list.’ It was under this Ministry too, that School Journal had its golden decades.

Proponents also faced concerns regarding the difficulty of assessing arts outcomes. Yet now we are aware that standardised education and assessment of the 3Rs privileges children (as NZCER’s recent longitudinal Competent Learners study reveals) from households already well versed in academic conventions – namely those with highly educated mothers. Importantly, the arts provide diverse means to teach students of varied backgrounds.

There is also concern that while the idea of education through arts may be sound, it may amount to ‘coloured mud’ if individual teachers perceive ‘arts’ in a manner lacking educational substance, perhaps polarising them against more ‘scientific’ subjects. Beeby laments that his own education was dominated by rote and memorisation in competition and isolation, but recognises the risks (‘horrors’) of the other extreme, having ‘once defined school crafts as the art of making rubbish out of rubbish’. Yet Beeby credits Tovey and Doreen Blumhardt with augmenting arts education: ‘the bright and lively classrooms of today owe much to this devoted pair of enthusiasts’.

Elwyn Richardson’s Oruaiti School in Northland emerged from the Tovey educational climate, and provides a strong model for holistic education of science through arts – one that should interest a government wanting Aotearoa to be a centre for science innovation. The young ‘community of artist-scientists’ at Oruaiti ‘turned a frank and searching gaze on all that came within their ambit. Curiosity and emotional force led them to explore together the natural world and the world of their feelings… Studies and activities naturally grew out of what preceded them’.

Within his critique of standardised education, Ken Robinson discusses health as well as economic concerns, specifically the Western ADD epidemic. As New Zealanders, high rates of youth suicide, pregnancy, poverty, unemployment, obesity and diabetes also suggest we cannot afford to chain students to desks to uniformly prepare them for dependence on a floundering economy and the resources on which it relies. On considering the needs of developing countries, we often consider education as the logical starting point for positive transformation. Here too, whilst education cannot be designed as a panacea, it must work to empower young people in the face of crisis.

As awareness increases regarding the role arts and creativity play in this, we mustn’t be dissuaded by ‘coloured mud’ fears – in fact, those concerns provide all the more reason to prioritise effective and experiential teacher training. To deliver holistic, creative programmes of educational value that do justice to all curriculum areas, whilst meeting policy requirements, experiential teacher training is necessary. As Beeby stated in ‘73, after three successful decades enabling the creative transformation of education (which unfortunately began reversing in decades to follow): ‘moral lectures’ are not the solution.

The potential for enhancing the quality of education does not lie in the antagonism between the union and the Ministry, nor the capacity for solo teachers to go beyond an already demanding call of duty. Our biggest opportunity to enhance mainstream primary education lies in teacher training, which must build the capacity to reconcile the need to teach holistically and the need to generate measurable outcomes for assessment. The Feilding Panel serves as a powerful reminder of the work of Clarence Beeby and Gordon Tovey and their belief that the best way to enable thorough understanding of creative pedagogies was to embody those methods in the work of the training college.

Suggested further reading:
Carol Henderson’s Blaze of Colour; Department of Education’s Art in Schools: the New Zealand Experience; Elwyn Richardson’s In the Early World; Clarence Beeby’s Which are the frills in education?


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