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Watkin, Sir Herbert George (1898–1966)

by Geoffrey Swan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sir Herbert George Watkin (1898-1966), educationist, was born on 8 October 1898 at East Bundaberg, Queensland, second of five children of English-born parents Richard Frederick Watkin, labourer, and his wife Alice Maud, née Croucher. Herbert attended the local state school and, for a few months, Bundaberg State High School. Having trained as a pupil-teacher (1912-16) at Bundaberg East State School, he joined the staff at Bundaberg North State School in 1917. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 15 May 1918 and served in Britain and, after the Armistice, in France. Discharged in Brisbane on 23 July 1920, he resumed teaching at Bundaberg North and transferred to Bundaberg South two years later.

On 16 December 1927 in her home at South Bundaberg, Watkin married with Presbyterian forms Ettie Winning Cairns, a clerk. That year he had enrolled as an external student at the University of Queensland (B.A., 1936; Dip.Ed., 1938). He spent periods as relieving head teacher at district schools; as he was the proud owner of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, transport presented no problem. Moving to Brisbane in 1928, he taught for eight years at Ascot State School, with a year's break in 1931 when he was an exchange teacher in London. He lectured at Queensland Teachers' Training College in 1937-38, and was acting-principal (1939-40) of Rockhampton State High School and Technical College. After serving as inspector of schools for several years in the Cairns and Mackay districts, he was appointed principal of Brisbane State High School in 1947.

On 17 January 1952 Watkin became director-general of education. He inherited a system with a rigid inspectorial system, too few teachers, a teachers' college housed in makeshift buildings, and an inadequate one-year training course. His problems were exacerbated by a rapid increase in population in the early 1950s that led to large classes and over-crowded schools, and by the Labor government of Vince Gair, which gave education a low priority. Educationists, including (Sir) Fred Schonell and the Queensland Teachers' Union, criticized the State scholarship examination, because of its cramping influence on primary education; Watkin, proud of his success as a 'scholarship teacher', defended it at first. There were some reforms: in 1952 a new primary syllabus was introduced into schools, and from 1957 the locally prepared and outmoded Queensland school readers were phased out and replaced (to Watkin's chagrin) by Schonell's Happy Venture (Edinburgh, 1939-50) and Wide Range (Edinburgh, 1948-53) readers.

In 1957 Jack Pizzey, whom Watkin had known since 1927 when he was a pupil teacher at Bundaberg, became minister of education in the new Country Party-Liberal government led by (Sir) Frank Nicklin; he was ranked third in cabinet and was determined to improve education in Queensland. Watkin was appointed in 1960 chairman of a committee to inquire into secondary education in Queensland. Swept along by Pizzey's reforming zeal, he presented in September next year a four-page interim report recommending abolition of the State scholarship examination, entry to high school after seven rather than eight years of primary schooling, a new secondary curriculum devised to suit individual aptitudes and interests, and an increase in the minimum school leaving age to 15 years. The government moved quickly to implement the changes.

Watkin was considered aloof, authoritarian and conservative by his senior officers and teachers. While he was chairman (from 1956) of the new Queensland Conservatorium of Music's advisory council, his interference led to the resignation of the director William Lovelock in 1958. Outside the department Watkin was seen as hail-fellow-well-met. Deputy-chancellor (1953-66) of the University of Queensland, he received an honorary doctorate of laws in 1960. He was a founding fellow (1961) of the Australian College of Education.

Chairman (1959) of the National Fitness Council of Queensland, Watkin was a trustee (1959-66) of the Queensland Art Gallery. In 1964 he was knighted. When he retired that year Pizzey wrote to him: 'little did we know when teaching together we would be occupying today the positions we do. We shall both have the happiest of memories of a long association which has produced the greatest expansion of educational facilities ever effected in the history of this state'. Sir Herbert was appointed (1965) chairman of the Institute of Higher Technical Education, Territory of Papua and New Guinea. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died of myocardial infarction on 20 August 1966 in Brisbane and was cremated with Congregational forms.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Goodman, Secondary Education in Queensland, 1860-1960 (Canb, 1968)
  • Annual Report of the Director-General of Education, Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1952-66
  • Queensland Teachers' Journal, Feb 1952
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 13 June 1964, 22 Aug 1966
  • Watkin personal file and staff card (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Geoffrey Swan, 'Watkin, Sir Herbert George (1898–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/watkin-sir-herbert-george-11974/text21463, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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