Bill Renwick died at the end of last month. In my view he stood with Clarence Beeby; they were the two greatest New Zealand educationists of modern times.
After a secondary education at Seddon Memorial Technical High School, Renwick trained as a primary teacher, and later secured a good MA in History.
He taught for 5 years in primary schools, mostly at Eastbourne, then became a lecturer at Wellington Teachers College.
Major role in reforms
In his early 30s he played a major role as a researcher and writer for the Currie Commission on Education, which effectively set out the template for New Zealand education for the next quarter century.
He then rose rapidly through the ranks of the Education Department, eventually becoming Director General in late 1975 at the age of 46, retiring a little over twelve years later in January 1988.
Picking up from where Beeby had brought us, Bill Renwick read widely, observed carefully and led the further evolution of an excellent system designed for all children and teenagers.
Girls as well as boys, poor as well as wealthy, Maori as well as pakeha, disabled as well as able bodied, Slow learners as well as fast learners, pre schoolers as well as 7th formers.
The inherited administrative structure had grown ‘like Topsy’ since the 1877 Act, and was widely seen as cumbersome and unsatisfactory.
Every now and then politicians thought about renewal and inevitably got cold feet.
An attempt at reform was eventually made in the mid 1980s, but the outcome was damaged.
Treasury ‘elephant in the room’
When change finally happened, there was an elephant called Treasury in the room.
Treasury officials and some gullible senior ministers believed that a free market could solve all the world’s problems and do everything, including education, better and more efficiently.
They also peddled the notion that teachers were primarily driven by their own selfish needs and wishes.
Driven as they were by ‘Provider Capture,’ it was said that teachers should have no part in the formulation of policy.
When work on turning the Picot Task Force report into what became Tomorrow’s Schools, teachers were initially excluded from deliberations.
Those who were later brought in to discussion were asked to respond rather than create. Nobody from the top three tiers of the old Education Department was appointed to the staff of the new ministry.
Things have slowly improved over the last two decades in that respect but there is still some way to go before the kind of widely accepted wisdom and sound judgement of a generation ago reappears.
Believed he worked in vain
Bill Renwick died believing that his life’s contribution had been worth little. His view was understandable but mistaken.
Much of what he did and encouraged in New Zealand education endures, even if no New Zealand University ever saw fit to give him an honorary doctorate.
Russell Marshall was Minister of Education 1984-87 and gave the tribute to Bill Renwick’s contribution to education at his funeral on 5 July.