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Sir Harold Stanley Wyndham (1903–1988)

by G. E. Sherington

This article was published:

Sir Harold Stanley Wyndham (1903-1988), director-general of education, was born on 27 June 1903 at Forbes, New South Wales, eldest of three children of New South Wales-born parents Stanley Charles Wyndham, grocer and later Methodist lay preacher, and his wife Agnes Euphemia, née Finigan. Harold’s brother Norman was later a surgeon at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney. Following the death of Euphemia in 1908, the family moved to Sydney, where her sister Rachel cared for them, marrying Stanley in 1911; they had one child. After a brief period at Glebe Point, where Harold attended kindergarten, the family moved to the ‘coming’ suburb of Kensington. Short of stature, Methodist and bookish—’I never thought of a time when I could not read’—Harold now went to school with the children of the racing fraternity from Randwick. He transferred, aged 11, to Cleveland Street Intermediate High School. Due to his ‘immaturity’ he performed only moderately, but his stepmother intervened to secure him a place at Fort Street Boys’ High School, then under A. J. Kilgour as headmaster.

At school Wyndham developed an interest in history. He was awarded a Teachers’ College scholarship allowing him to attend the University of Sydney (BA, 1924; Dip.Ed., 1925; MA, 1928); he majored in history but also studied psychology for two years. The lecturer J. F. Bruce fostered his passion for the past while Professor G. A. Wood taught him how to write. He graduated with honours in history and later gained a master’s degree with first-class honours. Psychology introduced him to the ideas of Lewis Terman, the leading world authority on educational measurement.

The importance of utilising science in education was reinforced in Wyndham’s years at Teachers’ College, under the principal Alexander Mackie. Mackie emphasised a progressive philosophy placing the individual child at the centre of education and the professional development of teachers as the way to achieve that aim. In 1925 Wyndham was appointed as a junior lecturer assisting Mackie. Having transferred his interests from secondary to primary education, Wyndham insisted that he spend a period schoolteaching, which he did in 1928 at North Newtown Public School. In 1931 he carried out research with a grant from the Australian Council for Educational Research. The result was Class Grouping in the Primary School (1932), which recommended separate classes for ‘special’ and ‘gifted’ children. With a burgeoning research career, Wyndham successfully applied for travel grants from the New South Wales Public School Teachers’ Federation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York to study at Stanford University (Ed.D., 1934), United States of America.

These years were the most important in Wyndham’s career as an educational researcher and intellectual. By the 1930s America was the world powerhouse of educational ideas and practices. The ideal of the public comprehensive school embracing all in the local neighbourhood had been formulated following the publication of the report Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education (1918). The Carnegie Corporation promulgated American ideas worldwide through the foundation of such bodies as the ACER, and Stanford University had become one of the major centres of educational research. While at Stanford Wyndham learned from Professor Terman the lessons of testing for educational efficiency so as to identify talent, and from Professor Ellwood Cubberley the importance of the principles of educational administration as well as of those of public education and the comprehensive high school as the foundation for democracy.

Wyndham’s doctoral thesis, a cautious evaluation of ability grouping and how far it could be accommodated to progressive education, was published in Australia as Ability Grouping (1934). He travelled across the USA and stayed at International House, New York. Proceeding to Britain, he established contacts at the Institute of Education, London, and in Edinburgh. He maintained these international networks well into the future.

After his return to Australia, in 1935 Wyndham was given the task of organising research and counselling services within the New South Wales Department of Education. He also served as secretary to the newly established Australian Council of Education, comprising the State ministers of education. For the next five years Wyndham applied many of the ideas he had learned in the USA. Through various experiments in primary schools he demonstrated that classification of students should not be determined by the standards of scholastic performance but more on educational science based on intelligence testing. Counselling of students would apparently ensure that they could be guided into the right vocation. On 21 April 1936 at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married (Beatrice) Margaret Grieve, a teacher; they lived at Roseville.

Wyndham had a great command of detail as well as an impressive intellect. He developed his skills as a public speaker, which would later stand him in good stead as an administrator. By 1940 he was an inspector of schools. But some found him a ‘know all’. While he had the support of David Drummond, the minister for education for much of the 1930s, and J. G. McKenzie, the new director of education who had been his modern languages teacher at Fort Street, opponents in the Teachers’ Federation argued that he lacked classroom experience.

In World War II Wyndham served (1942-43) in the Administrative and Special Duties Branch of the Royal Australian Air Force, leaving as an acting flight lieutenant to join the Commonwealth Department of Post-War Reconstruction. He worked in that department in a period when ideas of social and educational reconstruction were assuming a national prominence.

Wyndham’s work for international agencies was even more significant. He had helped to organise the 1937 New Education Fellowship conference, which brought to Australia world-renowned educationalists. In 1945 he was a member of the Australian delegation to a conference that brought about the establishment of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. His role as an international figure in education was formalised when he attended the UNESCO conference in Paris in 1958, and the Commonwealth Education conferences at Oxford in 1959 and New Delhi in 1962.

In 1946 Wyndham had returned to the Department of Education as a staff inspector, becoming secretary in 1948—the first ‘academic’ to hold this post—and deputy director-general in 1951. On the death of McKenzie in 1952 he became director-general. He further decentralised the department, defended its interests against the Public Service Board and suggested to his officials that the rising tide of exchange across the Pacific in the 1950s should be ‘taken at the flood’. His most marked achievement was the formulation of what became known as the ‘Wyndham Scheme’, based on the report of the committee appointed to survey secondary education in New South Wales, which he chaired in 1953-57.

While almost all his educational research had focused on the primary school, Wyndham now ventured into the reorganisation of secondary education. Some associated with the departmental administration of secondary schools resented this intrusion into their area of expertise. As a historian he was aware of the problems that Peter Board, the first director of education, had faced in creating a state secondary-school system. He was also acquainted with the difficulties that had confronted the 1930s committee under (Sir) Robert Wallace, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney, which had attempted to find a solution to the problem of curriculum and examination change. Finally, he recognised the growing demographic and social pressures of the postwar baby boom on the size of school populations.

Wyndham built upon the earlier proposals of the Wallace committee and recommendations of the Board of Secondary School Studies in 1946. What emerged was overwhelmingly ‘his’, even though he drew together a small committee of ‘experts’ to help him. Although he knew that he had the support of his ministers, first R. J. Heffron and then Ernest Wetherell, he proceeded cautiously—he had learned to listen—travelling across the State holding meetings of parents, teachers and community groups. After four years there was not the voluminous official report of the past, but a slim volume that he hoped would be accessible to the public.

Author of virtually the whole report, Wyndham drew on a number of contexts. Following the example of the USA, the coming ‘wave’ of the mid-twentieth century was the public comprehensive high school. He had visited Scotland and Sweden and was aware of similar reforms in New Zealand. The report had a historical introduction that presented a progressive evolutionary view of public education. Wyndham was quite clear about the way forward. As he later suggested, Board had established a ‘comprehensive system’ of different schools for different abilities. With his own research background in the classification of individual differences, Wyndham was now proposing the ‘comprehensive school’ for all abilities in ways that could also accommodate individual differences. This would change the traditional secondary school curriculum, which was often seen as being academic in focus and designed to prepare students for university entrance. To overcome the old tyranny of the examination over the curriculum, Wyndham concentrated his proposals on the first four years of secondary school. The report even had its own cardinal principles like the 1918 American example. Described as ‘Aims’, they were not really transposed into curriculum proposals. Instead, there was still a concentration on ‘subjects’, many of which were academic in orientation, although Wyndham expected that after a ‘transitional’ first year of a common core of studies, students would be able to undertake ‘electives’ and there would be provision within the core for individual levels of ability in each subject.

Expecting most students to leave the secondary school after four years with an externally examined School certificate, Wyndham thought a minority, perhaps one-quarter, would remain for a further two years to complete the Higher School certificate. About one-sixth were predicted to go on to university. As such the Wyndham scheme retained an academic ‘top’ to the overall comprehensive school with the final two years being essentially a ‘test’ of entry to university.

It was not until 1961 that legislation endorsed the Wyndham scheme. Even then there was opposition from three sources. First, the Catholic Church opposed the early introduction of the scheme on the grounds of cost—a signal of the emerging campaign for state aid. Second, a lobby of former Fort Street students and others mounted a campaign that would lead to a small number of high schools maintaining selective entry. Finally, the universities opposed the elements of the new scheme that seemed to threaten their matriculation requirements.

There was also the problem of finding qualified teachers. As a member of Sir Leslie Martin’s Commonwealth committee on the future of tertiary education in Australia, Wyndham proposed that the Commonwealth government take over the funding of teachers’ colleges in order to provide universal three-year training but the suggestion was not enacted until 1974. Overall, problems of class size and teacher pay continued to plague the introduction of the Wyndham scheme.

Wyndham retired in 1968. W. C. Radford, the director of the ACER, told the Carnegie Corporation in 1964 that of all the postwar directors of education Wyndham had ‘made the greatest contribution to constructive change and development’, being ‘the most outstanding scholar’ and ‘the most gifted in exposition’. Appointed CBE in 1961, he was knighted in 1969, describing this as a ‘happy’ event, the first occasion on which someone associated with public education in New South Wales had been so honoured. He was the national president (1963-65) and a fellow (1974) of the Australian College of Education. As director-general, he held ex-officio positions that matched his interests in culture and music. As well as being a member of the governing bodies of the State universities and the Bursary Endowment Board, he chaired the Archives Authority of New South Wales and was a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales, the National Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Sydney Opera House. He was chairman of the Soldiers’ Children Education Board of New South Wales from 1964 to 1984. Lady Wyndham served as State commissioner (1968-73) of the Girl Guides Association (New South Wales).

In retirement Wyndham became a part-time professorial fellow in education at Macquarie University. As increasing enrolments in the last two years of secondary school placed a strain on the Wyndham scheme, he remained vigilant and was disturbed that politicians and others were beginning to claim expertise in areas he thought best left to professional educationalists. Wyndham was the last of the mandarin class of educational administrators who oversaw and expanded public education. When he retired three-quarters of the school population in New South Wales were in public schools. Always conscious of his place in history, at his farewell dinner Wyndham proclaimed that if, in forty years time, his work stood up to review as well as Board’s had done, he ‘would be more than happy . . . on the top of a distant cloud’.

Aware of his duty as a good Methodist, Wyndham ultimately answered to the ‘stern daughter of the word of God’. Survived by his wife and their three sons, Sir Harold died on 22 April 1988 at St Leonards and was cremated. In memory of his work for education the Australian College of Educators awards the Sir Harold Wyndham medal for outstanding contribution to education and the NSW Institute for Educational Research holds a lecture.

Select Bibliography

  • B. H. Fletcher, History and Achievement (1999)
  • J. Hughes, Harold Wyndham and Educational Reform in Australia, 1925-1968 (2002)
  • C. Campbell and G. Sherington, The Comprehensive Public High School (2006)
  • Education Gazette, Dec 1968-Jan 1969, p 656
  • Education Research and Perspectives, vol 29, no 1, 2002, p 1
  • History of Education Review, vol 19, no 1, 1990, p 29
  • H. de Berg, interview with H. Wyndham (typescript, 1967, National Library of Australia)
  • Wyndham papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Carnegie Corporation of New York records (Columbia University, New York)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

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Citation details

G. E. Sherington, 'Wyndham, Sir Harold Stanley (1903–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 27 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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