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 by Catherine Burke

Thinking about Alec Clegg in Australia and New Zealand,1950s-60s. So far to travel! Who did he meet? What did he do and which schools did he see?’ [my diary entry 5th February, 2015]

Education through art in Australia is a book published in 1958, edited by Bernard Smith with a foreword by Herbert Read. Smith was, alongside art educator John Dabron and artist Hal Missingham, a member of the Australian UNESCO Committee for the Visual Arts. I discovered the book on the open shelves of the Melbourne University Library when I recently spent time in Australia as a MacGeorge Fellow. 

The Fellowship required me to spend six weeks researching or engaging with the arts ‘in the widest sense of the word’: And so I did. Soon I was reading the reports of the 1937 New Education Fellowship conference that took place in Australia (Melbourne) and New Zealand and came to realise that the use of the term ‘education through art’ was evident well before Herbert Read’s 1943 book that used the same term in its title. I soon found myself tracing the various international influences that had pointed towards the notion of the arts at the centre of educational experience in the decades between the 1930s and 1970s.

The starting point for my journey during the late Australian summer of February and March 2015, had occurred a couple of years earlier. John Clegg, a son of Sir Alec Clegg, had contacted me shortly after his mother’s death. Jessie Clegg had died in 2010 and the family was clearing the family house, the contents of which included her husband Alec’s collection of books journals and pamphlets concerning education. My colleague Peter Cunningham and I agreed to take these as custodians until a suitable depositary was found. Picking through the boxes of items, I came across repeated references to Australian and New Zealand educational developments and these demonstrated that there had been regular and frequent visits and exchanges between the Cleggs and those parts of the Southern Hemisphere.

On arrival in Melbourne, I decided to embark on seeking out what evidence I could find of Alec Clegg’s engagement with educational initiatives in Australia and New Zealand during the time as Chief Education Officer for the West Riding of Yorkshire, 1946-74. I soon discovered that Clegg’s visits to Australia and New Zealand were part of a global exchange of progressive educationalists linking the Commonwealth and the USA over these years.

The axis upon which these exchanges occurred was the ‘humane’ and ‘lively’ education that was recognised to be flourishing in the English primary school. Any progressive educator worth their salt during the 1960s and 70s was planning a visit or recovering from the experience of visiting schools in Hertfordshire, Oxfordshire, London, Bristol, Leicestershire and the West Riding of Yorkshire. The English primary school was then considered to be the most advanced in shaking off the shackles of the nineteenth century mechanical model, developing an educational experience for the young child enjoyed in an atmosphere of freedom, humanity and openness.

Most interest among scholars in assessing the significance of such radical changes that did occur in primary education during these years has to date focussed on the nature and consequences of educational openness. However, I found that in the interpretation of openness, the concept of humanity and the recognition of what a humane educational experience looked like and felt like was an essential element in the various testimonies I encountered. ‘Humanity in the classroom’ was a phrase used by the only living person in Australia I was able to meet who had met Clegg and played host on Clegg’s visit to Queensland in 1980. Phil Cullen had been director of primary education for Queensland over 17 years and had made a visit to England in 1970 to see for himself why there was so much excitement about what was occurring there. I contacted Cullen by email and received the following comments on his memory of that seminal visit.

‘I paid a special visit to the West Riding because I had heard that the Authority, under the leadership of Sir Alec Clegg had some special things going for it in regard to children’s capacity to learn at the primary school level by increasing the humanity of the classroom. I was not disappointed. It was a real educational experience. You could ‘feel’ an atmosphere of real learning in the schools.’

Retired Director of Primary Education for Queensland, Phil Cullen, relaxing at home in Banora Point NSW, reading a chapter he contributed to the book entitled The Modern Primary School in Australia (1982)

Cullen continues his interest in education today although he has been retired for 27 years. He keeps a lively blog and newsletter called “The Treehorn Express” named after a children’s book that wonderfully illustrated how adults ignore kids (

The concept of humanity in the design of educational environments continued to arise throughout my time as I began to try to make sense of the impact of engaging aboriginal elders in decorating school walls with mural designs – a project led by Geoffrey Bardon in the early 1970s that led directly to the recognition of aboriginal art more generally. It emerged once again as I began to fathom the importance of the New Education Fellowship conferences in Australia and New Zealand in 1937 and the later UNESCO sponsored gatherings.

In the public lecture that I was required to present, I found myself reflecting on the connections not only between individuals across continents in pursuit of a more humane and meaningful educational experience but also between ideas about art education and the design of the curriculum and learning environment. In 1949, James Hemming, author of ‘The Child is Right’, unorthodox ex-teacher from England and campaigner against corporal punishment, caused a stir when he spoke at an Educational Conference in Melbourne, Australia. The conference was organized by the New Educational Fellowship (NEF) and Hemming, who later became a founding member of the British Humanist Association and from 1977-80, its president, had been especially invited as a speaker.

A year earlier, in 1948, the State of Victoria had commissioned Herbert Read to advise on its school syllabus as his recently published book Education Through Art was becoming well known in Australia and New Zealand. Hemming continued to advise on educational matters in Australia and New Zealand for many years and during his visit in 1949 was said to have charmed the audience with his warm humanist delivery.

Later, in Melbourne I visited several schools; some public schools and some independent. Once again, the notion of designing an environment that respected basic human needs and aspirations reemerged as a theme. At Preshil school, founded in 1931 in the suburb of Kew, I met with Marilyn Smith, an inspirational head teacher who had inherited this radical experiment in education from one of its founders, Margaret Lyttle. I was impressed not only by the physical environment that had resulted from a close collaboration between the architect Kevin Borland and school pupils in the early 1970s but also in the informal constantly changing remarkable architecture of the cubbies or treehouses evident in the grounds.
Preshill school, Melbourne

Preshill school, Melbourne

My interest in school decoration (see and the history of the idea that beauty and aesthetics of the environment mattered and exercised the imagination of pupils was stimulated by the mural art that I saw in the city of Melbourne and in some of the purposely designed schools. I met with the interior designer Mary Featherstone, whose work I had known about for many years and had the chance to visit her in her home designed by Robin Boyd. This particular research interest was further stimulated when I visited the north Island of New Zealand where I saw some splendid Maori art integrated into the built environment of many schools.

Public school in Hamilton, New Zealand
So, to return to Clegg, who accompanied me on this journey into the past exploring the relationship between the northern and southern hemispheres following the thread that united them; the significance of the arts in education. Clegg once declared ‘the entire object of true education is to make people not merely do the right things but enjoy the right things’. That education should be a delight and a joy, Clegg believed, could only come about through a fundamental change in the way that children were viewed. Children might be regarded as first and foremost artists rather than technicians in their capacities and proclivities to learn, discover, experiment and invent. 

Clegg’s call for ‘a change of heart towards children’ became the title of the lecture I presented and is, I think, a plea which is as relevant today as it was in the 1970s. The change of heart was to attempt to come close to realising the experience of being a child through an empathetic engagement with their material and social worlds and the engagement with the arts was central to this endeavour. Communicating a change of heart during Clegg’s time of greatest influence relied on travel and serious degrees of exchange. Constellations of mutual interest formed around realising a humane educational plan. The notion that art and creativity were human entitlements and their practice and expression was universally provided for by nature but unequally accessed due to social inequalities generated the optimism of a generation of educators that fundamental change could be achieved.