In May 1950 I turned five and started school at Mount Eden Primary School. I joined a class of over 40 Primer Ones, the advance guard of the baby boom. On my first day, I traced a camel into a drawing book made of brown paper, and learnt to sing:
Squirrel Nutkin with his coat of brown
Quite the loveliest in Woodland Town
I had seen a camel at the zoo; but it was to be 30 years before I saw a real squirrel, in Regent's Park — and then it was a grey one. My life in Primer One set a pattern for my schooling which was to last until the seventh form. I had been an only child until I was nearly five, and had little experience of other children. I enjoyed most of what went on in the classroom, but I dreaded playtime and lunchtime. The noisy hordes in the playground terrified me, and I had no strategies for making friends. Going to the toilet was a major ordeal. There were no inside latches on the primer toilet doors — apparently so that little children could not trap themselves inside. A strange custom had developed of mercilessly teasing any child who was shy enough to close the door. Groups of kids, mainly boys, would stand round outside the cubicle chanting 'Baby! Baby!' and trying to push the door open, as I desperately tried to get my pants down and up again while holding the door shut.page 226
After six months of the easy life, scholastically speaking, in Primer One, I 'skipped' Primer Two — much to my relief, as it was taught by an elderly woman who was very free with the strap, and was rumoured to be a witch — and went straight to Primer Three. There I met Janet and John and learnt to read.
Janet and John started school in New Zealand the same year as I did — 1950. Their migration here from Britain had its origins in the enormously influential New Education Fellowship Conference of 1937. Dr Beeby's autobiography recalls that conference and the discourse it was part of.2 He describes the large numbers of people who flocked to hear the most popular speakers, such as Susan Isaacs, and the flavour of 'old-fashioned Methodist revival meetings'. He goes on: 'In a period of sophistication and cynicism [that is, the 1990s] it isn't easy to give a satisfactory explanation of this outburst of interest and faith in education.'3
He cites the strong sense of professional isolation felt by New Zealand educators then; this had been exacerbated by the Depression, when even books about education became scarce. But he also stresses the 'abiding sense of guilt towards the young, who had suffered in both war and times of want. . . here were experts offering us ways of making reparation to the next generation'.4
The political context was encouraging for reformers: 'we had the knowledge that the new Labour Government was pledged to social reform, and that its minister of education [Peter Fraser], the second-ranking member of Cabinet, was one of us in the audience and applauding as enthusiastically as we were.'5
How was reparation to be made? In sum, education was to reject what Beeby calls its first great myth, survival of the fittest, and embrace the second two: education of the whole child, and equality of opportunity. The creed was encapsulated in the famous statement written by Beeby for Peter Fraser in 1939, although, as he points out, it does not actually mention equality at all:
The Government's objective, broadly expressed, is that every person, whatever his level of academic ability, whether he be rich or poor, whether he live in town or country, has a right, as a citizen, to a free education of the kind for which he is best fitted, and to the fullest extent of his powers.6
Linked with this shift was a new approach to the curriculum. Under Beeby as assistant director-general from 1938, and as page 227 director-general from 1940, the Department of Education embarked on an ambitious programme of syllabus reform, culminating in 1948 with the big one — reading. Janet and John arrived as part of this reform.
Before the Janet and John series appeared, most New Zealand children had been faced with the formidable Progressive readers. They were home-grown: the author/editor was Hilda Freeman, and Whitcombe and Tombs first published them in 1928. By 1940 they had overtaken all other reading series in New Zealand and were widely used in Australia too.
Like Janet and John, the Progressive readers centred on a family — Pat, May, Mother, Father and Baby — but before long they leapt off into a confusing mishmash of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Altogether, 47 new words were introduced in the First Primer, including 'jig', 'jog', 'pig' and 'hog', 'roast beef (this was a pre-vegetarian age), 'Elfland', 'cupboard', and — ominously, perhaps — 'market'.
Beeby's Syllabus Revision Committee on Reading in the Primary School listed the ideal characteristics of a reading series. The stories should have a sequence of thoughts, and be based on a controlled vocabulary. The books should be suitably graded, attractive, and interesting, with a helpful layout.7
Obviously, the Progressive readers did not measure up. But what was to replace them? In a 1985 interview8 Dr Beeby recalled that it was not possible for New Zealand to produce its own new series: firstly, because all the painstaking research into graded vocabularies had been done by the experts overseas; and secondly, because New Zealand did not then have the printing capability to handle large runs of extra-sturdy books in full colour. Even good quality paper was still in short supply. So there was only one solution: to buy an overseas series. Janet and John was the eventual choice of the Syllabus Committee.
By the time they reached New Zealand Janet and John had a complex genealogy. They had started out in the United States in 1936 as Alice and Jerry.9 In 1949 two women, Rona Munro and Mabel O'Donnell (Mabel came originally from New Zealand) revamped them for the English publisher John Nisbet and Co. Although some of the illustrations still showed their American origins, most had been thoroughly anglicised.
Eighty thousand copies of each book were printed and distributed free to New Zealand schools from 1950 on. By 1956 stocks were low, so Whitcombe and Tombs, using originating material from England, printed 20-30,000 more of each title, followed by 12-20,000 of each in 1959. Printing in New Zealand saved scarce overseas funds and boosted local manufacturing.
Also available to support the basic books were several series of little reading books, though schools had to buy these. To give an idea of the numbers involved, three books published by Whitcombe and Tombs for the Family series — Family fun (1951), Holiday fun (1952) and Country fun (1956) — sold between 93,000 and 115,000 copies each between 1951 and the early 1960s.page 229
As Hugh Price notes,10 there was no clean break between the Progressive readers and Janet and John. Right up until at least 1961, Whitcombe and Tombs continued to print the Progressive readers, obviously to meet a demand, in large runs of 10,000-20,000 at a time. However, the department's annual report for 1950 noted with satisfaction that six of the seven Janet and John titles had been sent out to schools. It commented: 'Already these books, through the use of carefully graded text and attractive illustrations in full colour, are having a beneficial effect on the teaching of reading in the early stages.'11
With Janet and John's help, I learnt to read quickly and painlessly. This was partly due to my mother, who read Little Golden Books to me every night — Counting rhymes, The shy little kitten, The saggy baggy elephant. So I was definitely 'reading ready'. But there was another factor at work too. Apart from the fact that we lived in a flat over a shop, rather than a pretty suburban house surrounded by lawns, the central themes of the Janet and John series were entirely consistent with those of my own home life.
Long before Book 3 it is clear that Janet and John live in far more affluent circumstances than their predecessors Pat and May had done. Baby has disappeared, and Janet and John are so close in age that they could be twins. Unlike Pat and May, who ran errands and entertained Baby, Janet and John are never shown helping their parents or 'working' in any way, except for one trip to the local shop. What they mainly do is play.
Pat and May had of course played too. They played houses, pretended to be rabbits, dogs and horses, and made a row of chairs into a train. Nothing so wildly imaginative occurs to Janet and John. They seem unable to amuse themselves without a menagerie of pets and a cornucopia of expensive shop-bought props. By the end of Book 1, Here we go, they have played not only with a puppy and some kittens, but also with a swing, some boats, a toy plane, a hoop, a ball and an inflatable rubber horse.
The only make-believe roles they take on are those of customer and shopkeeper. In Book 3, Out and about, John sets up a shop where Janet and her friend can get toys. In fact, although the sordid topic of money is never mentioned, Book 3 is based around shopping, both imaginary and real. The nearest approach to a plot centres on an incident where Mother and Father both buy John a new cap. He resolves this problem by giving one of them to Janet. In Book 4, the children move calmly and confidently among the page 230 merchandise, putting into practice the consumer skills they practised in Book 3.
Shopping had figured in the Progressive readers too — but of a very different kind. In the First progressive primer , published in 1929, Mother told Pat, 'I am too poor to let you buy a roast of beef... but buy a big rabbit. Buy a bone too, so that we can make broth.'12 Food and shelter are taken for granted in Janet and John: nothing gets cooked or eaten in words, though a doughnut and sandwiches appear in the very first pictures. Mother does not cook or clean, and Father seems to lead a fairly leisurely life too, though they both do a little light gardening. They are shown doing only two things for or with their children — taking them out into the glamorous adult world of shops, boats and planes, and buying them things. The major function of good parents, it seems, is to supply their children with the luxuries of life — made all the more attractive by the bright full-colour pictures that accompany the carefully graded words.
Janet and John were part of what John Berger had in mind when he wrote, 'In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages.'13 He went on, 'We are now so accustomed to being addressed by these images that we scarcely notice their total impact.'14 But in the 1950s we did notice them. As printing techniques rapidly improved, post-war print media quickly became saturated with attractive full-colour images.'15 Advertisers led the way; the advertisements were always the most colourful, dominant images in my mother's overseas magazines, which I read from cover to cover every week.
From the start, the images were designed, as Berger puts it, to 'propagate society's belief in itself',16 showing it not as it was, but as it should — and largely did — desire to be. Janet and John were no exception. Post-Depression, post-war Western society desired two things above all: peace and prosperity. The image on which both centred was that of the small, privatised, consuming nuclear family.
There had always been plenty of advice to the poor — or rather to poor women — on how to manage their children and their households. (Much of this advice was delivered via compulsory schooling; indeed, Mother's quoted instructions to Pat about eschewing roast beef in favour of thrifty rabbit and soup bones may well be thinly disguised advice.) But never before had the page 231 general public, including or perhaps especially children, been so efficiently bombarded with one powerful prescription for happiness, one overriding definition of normality. It hardly mattered whether the families were New Zealand or American or British, whether they smiled out from reading books or Plunket manuals, from Health Department posters or the pages of the New Zealand woman's weekly. They all looked much the same — mother, father, two closely spaced children — and they all carried the same message: this is the only right way to live.
It was in part the increasingly obvious gap between those images of happy conformity and the realities of New Zealand society that paved the way for the radical shifts of the 1980s. Something had clearly gone wrong somewhere. But had the family, and the economy, been fatally weakened by too much state welfare, as the neo-liberals insisted'17 — or had the vision simply been too narrow in the first place?
Yet Janet and John can be read another way. Their images and their presence in our hands, like the Bertie Germ posters and the polio vaccines, or even the revolting school milk and the dental nurses in their feared 'murder house', were all of a piece. They sent children a consistent message which can perhaps best be summed up by the word 'entitlement'. Liz Heron, a British writer commenting on the 1950s, puts it well:
... the reality of our childhood experience was that these good things (education, health care) were our birthright. We took them for granted, just as we took for granted our right to be in the world. Along with ... the malt supplement and the free school milk, we may also have absorbed a certain sense of our own worth and the sense of a future that would get better and better, as if history were on our side.18
In New Zealand, as Margaret Tennant has shown, the welfare state programme and the focus on families worked for children at the most basic level. By 1954 the average 15-year-old boy was 100 mm taller and 12 kg heavier than in 1934. Though girls made less dramatic gains, they were taller by 40 mm and heavier by 7.5 kg. School medical inspections showed that malnutrition had page 232 fallen from 9.49 per cent to 2.4 per cent for Pākehā children, and from 7.94 to 3.27 per cent for Māori children.19
As for education, primary classrooms were transformed by the approaches derided by critics as 'the play way'. Secondary schooling changed too, though less dramatically. In 1942 over 25 per cent of pupils had not gone on to full-time post-primary education, and another 50 per cent had left in their first or second year. That year the Thomas Committee was set up to look at the curriculum and the examination system. In 1944 the school leaving age was raised to fifteen, and in 1946 School Certificate was introduced as a qualification for those who were not going on to university. And all these reforms were being put in place at a time when school rolls were soaring. Between 1943 and 1950 primary rolls rose by 10,000 children a year; over the next five years the increase doubled to 20,000 a year. The total primary roll had been 280,000 in 1943; by 1955 it was 453,000.20
In hindsight, the achievement is remarkable. But it fell far short of its creators' intentions. The driving force behind all the innovations was equality of opportunity — the right of every citizen to an equal chance in life. However, equality was narrowly defined. By and large, those at the top and the bottom of the socio-economic tree were believed to be there because of their respective levels of ability.
As Dr Beeby later explained, he, like virtually all other educators at that time, thought of differences in native ability as the prime cause of differences in achievement, and believed that high intelligence, like truth, would out.21 The Syllabus Committee on Reading agreed. They stated bluntly that under really efficient reading instruction, the gap between naturally 'bright' children and naturally 'dim' ones would widen rather than narrow, as the most able pulled ahead. Yet they believed that any suggestion that a 'survival of the fittest' philosophy was operating could and should be banished from the classroom: 'In no sense should the teacher's guidance of individuals or groups cause some children to feel inferior or superior to others.'22
The boys in the Standards classes at Mount Eden Primary certainly made sure that any signs of superiority in bright girls were quickly stamped out — though they cut uppity boys down to size, too. Boys and girls were frequently pitted against each other in spelling or mental arithmetic contests. As a successful female speller who wore glasses, I was dealt with at playtime by page 233 jeers of 'brainbox!' and 'four-eyes!' accompanied with surreptitious thumps. (Any boy caught hitting a girl would have got the strap.) Male teachers did not seem overjoyed at my constantly raised hand either. At my all-girl secondary school, it was a huge relief not to have to feel ambivalent about knowing the answers.
But until relatively recently, the complex ways in which schooling reflected and perpetuated systematic discrimination and disadvantage along lines of gender, race and class were not even visible, let alone understood. And just as they were beginning to be understood, the political pendulum started its long swing back to the right. 'Money is life', says Berger. 'The power to spend money is the power to live. According to the legends of publicity, those who lack the power to spend money become literally faceless. Those who have the power become lovable.'23 The other dominant sub-text encoded in Janet and John and the bright magazines became dominant, as the metaphor of the shop spread to encompass more and more of our social landscape.
Ironically, one of the few places where New Zealand's growing ranks of faceless children can now see themselves positively reflected is in the pages of their reading books — including those which continue to be supplied by the state. But in virtually every other area of their lives, the message is no longer one of entitlement or equality of opportunity. Once again, it is survival of the fittest.
1 Hugh Price in his book School textbooks published in New Zealand to 1960 (Palmerston North: Dunmore Press; Wellington: Gondwanaland Press, 1992) provides an invaluable account of school textbooks published in New Zealand and a fully annotated bibliography of reading books. Hugh Price kindly gave me access to his collection of early textbooks, particularly reading books, enabling me to read the Progressive readers and to reread Janet and John.
7 See Repport of the Syllabus Revision Committee on reading in the primary school (Wellington: Department of Education, 1953).
10 Price, School textbooks, p. 160; Price interview (1995)-
11 Department of Education, 'Primary and post-primary education' in its Annual report for 1950, AJHR 1951, E.2, p.3.
12 Hilda Freeman, First progressive primer (Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1929) [Price 25/90], p.14. This title was the most widely distributed, selling about 200,000 copies by 1941 (Price, School textbooks, p. 159).
13 John Berger, Ways of seeing (London: British Broadcasting Corporation; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), p.129.
14 Berger, Ways of seeing , p. 130.
15 Berger, Ways of seeing, comments that 'Colour photography is to the spectator-buyer what oil paint was to the spectator-owner.'
16 Berger, Ways of seeing , p. 131.
17 For one of the most strident New Zealand exampples, see Ruth Richardson, Making a difference (Auckland: Shoal Bay Press, 1995).
18 Truth, dare or promise: Girls growing up in the fifties , ed. by Liz Heron (London: Virago, 1985), p.6.
19 Margaret Tennant, Children's health, the nation's wealth: A history of children's health camps (Wellington: Bridget Williams Books and Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, 1994), pp.200-1.
20 See Department of Education, Annual reports, AJHR, 1946-55, E.2.
22 Report of the Syllabus Revision Committee on reading in the primary school (Wellington: Department of Education, 1953), p.13. 23. Berger, Ways of seeing , p.143.
23 Berger, Ways of seeing, p.143.