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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Obedient servants

Bill Hannan

Bill Hannan joined the Victorian teaching service as a student teacher in 1949. As a high school teacher he was a leader of the Victorian Secondary Teachers Association. His recently published book The Best of Times describes the turbulent expansion of secondary schooling in the 1960s; the following excerpt portrays the meaning of a school visit from the 'legendary figure' of one of the Department's District Inspectors.

The Service consisted of many servants and few masters. When I started my life in the Service, teachers still ended official letters with the rubric 'I am, Sir, Your obedient servant'. Our hero was the bloke who finished off with 'You are, Sir, My obedient servant'. The many claims about the bloke’s identity suggest the story is what we would all like to have written. Inspectors were the masters and teachers were their obedient servants.

Inspectors, as well as being the itinerant bearers of good news and feared judgement, also administered the Department. They did the day-to-day work of planning, opening and closing schools, supervising teacher training, staffing schools and ensuring equality of provision across the state. In short, a career ladder rose from the playgrounds of state primary schools through the foothills of training, teaching and inspecting to the high plains of Director.

At inspection time, which until 1964 came annually, teachers dressed as though for a wedding or a funeral. Dark suits and striped ties replaced tweed coats, checked shirts and brown slacks. Hairdressers and cosmeticians prepared the women.

This aspect of waiting for the inspectors was not a problem for me. In those days I fancied myself as a flash dresser, though in retrospect I guess padded shoulders, three button coats, narrow trousers, no cuffs and pointy shoes might not have impressed every inspector. As a teacher of French and Italian I no doubt had some latitude. The way I dressed, a racy sixty-year-old told me at a recent Moreland High School reunion, made her feel confident that being European was OK. She went travelling and took up with a Frenchman. He was all show, she said. She didn’t blame me. Had the rhythms of the musette danced in the background of my French lessons?

At the dawn of state school time (in 1873 when the newly-formed Education Department took over school inspection), primary schools were allotted to districts, each with a District Inspector. The legendary first Director, Frank Tate, had been a DI before he became a teachers college lecturer. Whereas the head master was the boss, the DI was the boss of bosses. He (almost never she) brought fashions and new methods as well as tried and true methods to the schools. Above all, the DI assessed. He tested the pupils, examined their work and marked the teacher for efficiency. The efficiency mark determined the teacher’s promotion. Thus developed the dual role that would eventually bring inspection down, one hundred and ten years later, in 1983.

In the spread of state schooling, DIs are legendary figures. For a long time, they did indeed hold together a fragile, dispersed system of small schools with lowly qualified teachers. In particular, they are identified with the romance of one-teacher bush schools on the frontiers of settlement. Secondary and technical school inspectors who circulated through large towns and regional cities never shared in this romantic lore. 

Specialised inspectors for secondary schools did not arrive until 1914. Because the secondary school curriculum was based on subjects, the inspectors were constituted as a board of subject experts. Between 1905 and 1914, District Inspectors oversaw schools, but Drawing and French had specialists in the persons of Ponsonby Carew-Smyth and Ferdinand Maurice-Carton. The members of the first Board of 1914 – Hansen, Wrigley and Flynn – had more prosaic names. Against the winds and currents of the times, a woman, Julia Flynn, joined their ranks. This was doubly unusual, for Flynn was also a Catholic. She was perhaps seen as a suitable person to inspect Catholic schools for girls.

In schools, secondary inspectors became known as 'the Board' or 'the beaks'.  On their stationery, they were the BISS (Board of Inspectors of Secondary Schools). Until 1968, the boss of the BISS was the Chief Inspector (CISS). The title then changed to Director of Secondary Education (DOSE).

Of course I understood that we were supposed to put on a show for the inspectors.  The head was very excited and urged us to do the school proud. Senior men close to promotion, soon perhaps to have schools of their own or to join the inspectors, got to their classrooms early, carrying hitherto unseen teaching aids. I made sure my blackboard work was showy and that I had prepared a sound balance of instruction and application for each forty-minute lesson. Unhappily the inspector seemed either to turn up during the application part or come to a lesson late in the day that I hadn’t fully prepared. This nullified any tricks I might have put in place, legendary tricks of the trade such as those Barry Breen was introduced to at Shepparton High: best student to the back row with an empty seat next to him/her; right hand up if you know the answer, left if you don’t. Tell the worst kids to stay home for the duration. (Use realistic threats if necessary.) 'Tell your students that they, not you, are being inspected and that you want to help them (against the enemy) so you are going to rehearse the lesson.'

These are the same legends that grew out of the combat with DIs in primary schools. No one knew them better than the beaks themselves. Geoff Lloyd, an inspector of Geography recalled (for David Holloway’s The Inspectors) that the Board’s visit 'saw the appearance of a school transformed. Blank walls became colourful with maps and posters … Displays of pupils' work appeared, blackboards showed lesson summaries, or assignment questions, or even beautifully drawn maps, and all with the note at the bottom "Please leave", meaning of course until after the inspection. Syllabuses or courses of study were filed, equipment tidied, and the marking of assignments and notebooks brought up to date.

'Invariably there was the inviting empty seat at the rear of the room … One day I was occupying such a seat, and the lesson appeared to be running well … I was interested in the question and answer segments, and I noted that the boy beside me had given two good answers to questions. After a third very good answer, I murmured, "That was very good". Without taking his eyes from the teacher the lad turned slightly towards me and murmured back, "Aw, that’s nothing, we had all this yesterday." '

Some back-seat observations could influence an inspector more positively. In his second bonded year as a high school teacher, Brian Conway was at Benalla High School. He remembers: 'With a colleague Alastair Balfour (known to the kids as Alfalfa Balfa), we were fossicking one weekend in a north-eastern stream when we found a small smooth stone which was well shaped. It had a flat base with a top that gently rose up at one end and fell sharply at the other. For a bit of a giggle we painted a mouse face at the lower end, four legs en accroupissement on its sides, a tail at the other end and, finally, a coat of lacquer. The exhibit was then inserted without fanfare in the rock collection of the geography classroom with a neatly-lettered card describing it as a fossilised mouse believed to be from the early Mesolithic period. There it rested for a month or two, seemingly unnoticed or unremarked upon until "The Board" happened to come to our school. An inspector, seated at the back of the classroom as was their custom, happened to spy the ancient mouse among the rocks in the glass display cabinet.

'To the surprise of the coordinator of the Geography faculty, the late Alec Crisp was highly praised for such an unusual way of generating interest in the study of Geography. Legend has it that this was the start of his ultimate and well-deserved promotion to the ranks of high school principal.'

The Best Of Times: The Story Of The Great Secondary Schooling Expansion. Lexis, 2009. ISBN 9780949873972 (paperback) $40 (plus postage: $8)

To order, email lexis@netspace.net.au or send a cheque for book(s) and postage to: Lexis, PO Box 2007, Hotham Hill 3051. The book may also be ordered from the Victorian Branch of the Australian Education Union tel: (03) 9417 2822, or email Jeanette.McCarthy@aeuvic.asn.au.


Subject Headings

Teaching profession
Educational evaluation
Education policy