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Board, Peter (1858–1945)

by Harold Wyndham

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Peter Board (1858-1945), by unknown photographer, 1923

Peter Board (1858-1945), by unknown photographer, 1923

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 17173

Peter Board (1858-1945), director of education, was born on 27 March 1858 at Wingham, New South Wales, son of William Board and his first wife Margaret, née Cameron. William had migrated from Scotland in 1842 and farmed on the Manning River but he became a teacher soon after Peter's birth. Educated at his father's schools, Peter was able and studious. His uncle Rev. Archibald Cameron, a Scots graduate appointed to the Manning at the instigation of Rev. John Dunmore Lang, influenced him strongly in his youth, helping to determine his intellectual interests and his less than orthodox Presbyterianism.

After two years at Fort Street Model School, Sydney, in 1873 Board passed the university junior examination, and when he turned 15 became a pupil-teacher at Glebe. Following a year on a scholarship at Fort Street Training College he was appointed as a trained teacher in 1877. While in charge of the small school at Gunning, on 26 September 1878 he married Jessie Allen (d.1932), daughter of Rev. John and Euphemia Bowes; their only child Ruby was born there in 1880. At 26 Board was headmaster of the large metropolitan Macdonaldtown (Erskineville) Public School. On 1 July 1893 he became inspector of schools at Lismore. Meanwhile in 1885 he had been one of the first group of evening students to enrol at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1889; M.A., 1891); he graduated with second-class honours in mathematics and, in that subject, was second in his year which included J. A. Pollock and J. J. C. Bradfield.

After his term at Lismore, Board served as inspector in the Albury and Newcastle districts. He became known as a sound administrator who stimulated and sustained his teachers through his own enthusiasm for teaching and his interest in children. By 1903 educational reform had become a political issue. Professor (Sir) Francis Anderson's scathing attack upon existing practices, in his address to the conference of the Teachers' Association of New South Wales in June 1901, had been seized upon by the press and followed by a public meeting organized by (Sir) Joseph Carruthers. John Perry, minister for public instruction, responded by calling a conference of school inspectors and senior officers of his department, and by appointing G. H. Knibbs and J. W. Turner royal commissioners to examine and report on educational practices overseas.

Board then went abroad on long service leave. His experiences were to have deep and lasting effects upon his thinking, but their more immediate significance lay in the quick printing and wide distribution by the minister of his succinct report on Primary Education (Sydney, 1903), which he had submitted on his return. Available almost simultaneously with the massive Interim Report of the Commissioners on Certain Parts of Primary Education (Sydney, 1903), Board's report became the better known. He was outstanding among those who took part in another and more widely representative conference convened by Perry in 1904. Appointed to a committee to draw up a syllabus for primary schools, he was so influential that it became known as 'Board's syllabus'.

The government adopted the commissioners' strong recommendation to appoint a director of education by making Board both under-secretary of the Department of Public Instruction and director on 8 February 1905. One of his signal contributions, was the manner in which he established both the procedures and the traditions of this dual office, maintained by his successors until the reorganization of 1975. He saw his first task as that of ensuring that the spirit and intention of the new primary syllabus were comprehended by teachers: accordingly, he planned a new orientation for inspectors, and he frequently addressed teachers. But, above all, he came to see the necessity of changing the pupil-teacher system as soon as possible, and replacing it by full-time pre-service preparation. In 1905-06 he established the Teachers' College, Sydney, at Blackfriars School as an interim provision until he could find better means of achieving a closer association between teacher preparation and university training. In 1906 Alexander Mackie was appointed principal of the college and a relationship of mutual respect and trust quickly developed between the two men. As soon as he could muster resources, Board facilitated advances in teacher education, leaving Mackie remarkably free to develop its internal programme. In 1910 Mackie was also appointed professor of education at the university. By 1912 the phasing out of the pupil-teacher system was completed. In 1919 the first wing of the Teachers' College building was erected on a site in the university grounds set aside by legislation in 1911.

Board's interest extended to children of pre-school age. Not only did he include them in his statement of principles underlying the primary school syllabus, but he also supported the Kindergarten Union of New South Wales by becoming a member of its executive and by nominating two of his officers as members of the Kindergarten College Council. By 1912 he induced the minister to increase the government grant to the union and that year to send Miss Martha Simpson abroad to study the methods of Dr Maria Montessori; on her return, her class at Blackfriars became a demonstration centre for teachers from New South Wales and other States. Gradually it was assumed that public schools would enrol children a year earlier than required by law.

In his annual report for 1906 Board had set out objectives for secondary education, some of which anticipated developments by more than fifty years. In 1907 he proposed the establishment of a leaving certificate to mark the completion of the high-school course, and of a council to co-ordinate curricula and standards in both government and non-government secondary schools; he was opposed by the latter and by the university, which was already considering a proposal making it responsible for the co-ordination and supervision of secondary school standards. In 1909 Board again went overseas, visiting Canada and the United States of America. The breadth of his interests was indicated by his Report Upon Observations of American Educational Systems (Sydney, 1909), which contained reports on rural schools, education for industrial purposes, secondary education, and the university as a public institution. Many of his views were to find their way into later legislation and administrative decisions.

Confirmed in his outlook on secondary education and declining to wait for co-operation from his opponents, Board submitted draft regulations to govern the conduct of (public) secondary schools under the Act: they defined the scope of secondary and, thus, primary education for the first time, though in terms of examinations. The 1910 elections intervened while the regulations were under consideration and they came before (Sir) George Beeby, minister of public instruction in the first Labor government in New South Wales. Though Labor policy had given priority to evening-continuation rather than to full-time high schools, he tabled the regulations, which were not challenged in the remaining fifteen days of the session. Even before that, Board had completed arrangements to reorganize the secondary classes of Fort Street School into two high schools, and had adopted a new curriculum produced by Mackie and his staff.

Sent overseas in 1911 to report on continuation schools, Board attended the Imperial Education Conference in London. He visited centres in Britain and Europe with S. H. Smith, an inspector of schools on leave. On his return he set up the first day-continuation schools, and placed Smith in charge of them. They failed as the government could not demand day-release from employers and because of the outbreak of World War I.

Board made a significant contribution to the Bursary Endowment Act of 1912, if only for the reason that so much was left to regulations. The composition of the Bursary Endowment Board provided the foundations of the bridges he had sought to build between government and the non-government schools, and between the school system and university. Thereafter, the 'registration' of non-government schools at which bursaries would be also tenable involved inspection on behalf of the board, and parliament rightly assumed that bursaries tenable both at schools and at the university would be awarded on the basis of the department's examinations.

A. C. Carmichael, Labor minister of public instruction, directed Board to prepare a first draft of a bill to achieve the government's intention of reforming the university, 'and such other matters as may suggest themselves to him'. The University Amendment Act 1912 reconstituted its senate, provided for the establishment of evening tutorial classes open to unmatriculated students, and instituted a scheme of exhibitions. Board prepared these provisions in accordance with government policy and on the basis of his own convictions. He added, as part of his bridge-building strategy, the statutory recognition by the university of the Leaving Certificate, in approved subjects, for purposes of matriculation and the award of exhibitions; and the establishment of a conjoint board of examiners, comprising officers of the department and representatives of the university, to 'recommend the award' of certificates. The Act opened the way for his membership in 1913-24 of the senate, where he increasingly won the respect of the chancellor and fellows.

When David Stewart was attempting, in the face of a reluctant university, to establish the Workers' Educational Association in Sydney, Board provided him with an office, telephone and travel vouchers, and secured a special subvention from the government. He arranged for Albert Mansbridge, on a visit to Sydney in 1913, to address the university senate; the outcome was the establishment of the department of tutorial classes which, with Francis Anderson, he later defended in the senate. To the end of his life he maintained personal links with the W.E.A.

In 1912 Board devoted his annual report to a systematic outline of necessary developments in technical education, which set the pattern for growth in that field for the next decade. On the death of Turner in 1913 Board obtained the appointment as superintendent of technical education of James Nangle, who was eager to develop similar ideas. Only on one issue did they differ significantly: Nangle was convinced that technical education should have its own director, with direct access to the minister, but Board insisted on the unity of the educational system.

He had been fortunate in serving under governments whose policies gave him scope, within the limits of available funds, to foster new ideas in primary education, and to promote the establishment of high schools both in the city and in the country. He was able to sustain his professional momentum, despite the stringencies of the war years, and after 1918 quickly turned his attention to the post-war tasks which he could discern. In 1922, however, he found himself serving a minister, Albert Bruntnell, who had little interest in other than primary and vocational education, and who thought to save funds by re-imposing fees in high schools. Board's protests were dismissed and he resigned from the end of 1922, three months earlier than he was due to retire. By this time he had realized a considerable part of his intentions in teacher-training and other ideals. From all sides came tributes to the man and to his services to education, mingled with angry regret at the manner of his going.

Board's years of retirement were full, and his activities reflected the range of his interests and the vigour of his mind. In 1920 the Commonwealth government had accepted the report of a committee, which he had chaired, that there should be established under the Repatriation Commission a Soldiers' Children Education Board, to administer funds on behalf of children who had lost their fathers through war-service; the money was made available, in the first instance, under the McCaughey bequest. It was established in New South Wales in 1921, with Board as its chairman. He was re-elected each year until 1945, taking an active interest in its work, especially after his retirement. In 1921 he had chaired the Western Australian royal commission on public elementary education and, in 1924, an inquiry on state secondary schools in Tasmania. Living now in Leura, he became involved in the project for an Anzac memorial hospital; in 1928 he was elected chairman of the Blue Mountains District Anzac Memorial Hospital and took a characteristically personal interest in its operation over the next decade. He also continued his association with the Kindergarten Union, becoming chairman of its college council; in that capacity he attended the New Education Fellowship Conference in Sydney in 1937. He contributed chapters to P. R. Cole's The Primary School Curriculum in Australia (Melbourne, 1932) and Education of the Adolescent in Australia (Melbourne, 1935), and wrote Whither Education? (Sydney, 1939). He had been appointed C.M.G. in 1916.

Survived by his daughter, Board died at Chatswood on 12 February 1945 and was cremated after a service attended by a large and representative gathering at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney. His estate was valued for probate at £1474.

No director of education in New South Wales has matched Board's achievements. Winning the respect of a succession of ministers, he gave to the Public Instruction Act of 1880 a reality which it had lacked for a generation. Moreover while it is manifest that at the time of his appointment he was the man for the hour, his unique combination of qualities made him a dynamic force in education for nearly twenty years, and the far-sightedness of some of his ideas left tasks for others to complete.

His portrait by Norman Carter is held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales; another, by George Lambert, at the Teachers' College, Sydney, succeeds in reflecting much of the spirit of the man.

Select Bibliography

  • A. R. Crane and W. G. Walker, Peter Board (Melb, 1957), and for bibliography
  • Peter Board papers (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Harold Wyndham, 'Board, Peter (1858–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/board-peter-5275/text8893, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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