Milner, Frank

New Zealand, 1875-1944

Among the many New Zealand male and female secondary school principals who served their respective institutions and communities dutifully throughout the twentieth century were a small number of school leaders whose educational and societal contributions were, and are, especially noteworthy. Frank Milner features prominently within their ranks. His educational work has been—and remains—significant for several reasons. Milner outlined a comprehensive philosophy of general education that he incorporated into his own secondary school, and advocated successfully for its introduction nationally from the mid-1930s.

The legacy of his work became evident across New Zealand, in the nation’s secondary schools—and in other types of post-primary institutions (e.g., in the technical [predominantly vocational] high schools and in the secondary departments of district [rural] high schools) from the mid-1940s, when key aspects of Milner’s curriculum philosophy were incorporated into schools’ practice and into nationally applicable education legislation. These achievements did not mean, however, that the long-standing arguments in favour of early—or earlier—curriculum specialisation or proposals for differentiated forms of schooling had disappeared. They are evident still in some contemporary educational commentaries, particularly when the focus is directed toward making the vocational preparation of youth allegedly more ‘efficient’ and more overt. 

Educational background and early influences on Milner’s thinking

Milner was born in Nelson, New Zealand, on 7 November 1875, into a working-class, intellectually astute, family. In an era when few children proceeded to a secondary school—the majority of youth did not enter the senior primary school standards, let alone continue their schooling at a fee-charging secondary institution. Milner distinguished himself from his peers by winning a Nelson Education Board Scholarship in 1889 that allowed him to enter a secondary or high school without paying tuition fees. He also gained prizes for high-level academic achievement, subsequently, at Nelson College (the town’s secondary school) in English and in Latin.

Milner’s educational thinking was influenced heavily in his adolescent years by Frederick Gibbs, a Nelson primary school headmaster and, later, a teaching colleague and friend of Milner’s at Nelson College. Gibbs espoused humanistic and liberal educational views, disliked the formal methods of teaching grammar that occurred in New Zealand schools, and advocated the teaching of cultural aspects of education such as art and music alongside the promotion of sciences and physical fitness for youth.

Milner gained an MA (first-class honours) degree in languages and literature (English and Latin) from Canterbury University College (Christchurch) in 1896, and was the colony’s top-performing senior-level student in every examination for these subjects. His love of languages developed further from studying under Professor John Macmillan Brown in Christchurch, whose linguistic imagination, verbal fluency, and moral idealism appealed. Indeed, written and oral dexterity—and the appreciation of fine art, good literature, and of music—was to become central to Milner’s work as a secondary school teacher and, later, particularly as Rector (Headmaster) at Waitaki Boys’ High School (Oamaru, New Zealand) for 38 years. The influence of mentors and colleagues on Milner’s schooling philosophy continued well beyond his university years.

As an English and languages teacher at Nelson College—a boys’ only secondary school—between 1897 and 1906 Milner identified strongly with the teaching practice and philosophy modelled by the newly appointed headmaster, William Littlejohn, who “[sought] to educate [pupils] for life, but not to educate merely for making a living”. Here, Milner saw clear synergies between Brown and Littlejohn’s classroom practice. Littlejohn’s willingness to view pupils’ personal development less in terms of examination passes and results than in the personal development of “good character” found a ready convert in Milner. This was a theme to which Milner would return in most of his educational activities and in his numerous public addresses in New Zealand and internationally for four decades.

Rector of Waitaki Boys’ High School 

Milner had a firmer platform from which to promote his educational ideas when he was appointed to the boy’s secondary school in Oamaru in 1906. As his eldest son and biographer, Ian Milner, noted: “[Frank Milner’s] vision of a school that would embody as a living community his already formed educational ideals sustained him” throughout a long and distinguished career. Given his previous educational experiences it is not surprising to find that, as headmaster from 1907, Milner saw merit in adopting a more relaxed discipline regime —although he did not sanction the abandonment of corporal punishment—in establishing and promoting regular club and social activities, and having the “active participation by the boys in all appropriate branches of school life”.

“Democratic citizenship” was one of several mantras articulated often by Milner. This enabled him to emphasise the merits of teaching art, music, and other aesthetic subjects to all pupils at his school in addition to English literature, science, mathematics, geography, history, and physical education. This “cultural core” curriculum, he declared, ought not to privilege any one subject over another. Milner was confident that provision could also be made for pupils’ vocational interests and requirements through instruction in elective (optional) subjects which, taken along with the core subjects, would form an appropriate course of study (e.g., academic/ “general”, agricultural, commercial, manual and industrial). The practice of devising a variety of courses in secondary schools—for boys and girls alike—was well established in New Zealand secondary schools in and by the early twentieth century, but such courses were created usually around a smaller number of mandatory subjects than Milner had desired. Milner did not deviate from his stance significantly for the duration of his 37-year tenure as rector until his death in late 1944.

Criticisms of conventional secondary schooling in New Zealand        

Milner understood that one of the consequences of the introduction from 1903 of the Seddon Government’s free place system for aspiring secondary school pupils nationwide—a system that required primary school leavers to pass a Standard 6 (“Proficiency”) examination before enrolling at a government–funded high school–was that a wider range of pupils’ abilities had become evident to school teachers and principals than before 1903. Although convinced that courses, and not merely school subjects, could be devised to accommodate this diversity in perceived ability, Milner maintained steadfastly that ‘true’ education necessitated having a humanistic foundation to any curriculum. For Milner this foundation was not negotiable; he deemed it to be more important than examination success.

On several occasions Milner criticised the public fascination with judging schools’ and teachers’ success with reference to the number of passes in high-status national examinations. For example he deplored not only “examinational despotism”, and “the inexorable glacial pressure of the examinational system” but also the tendency of “far too many [secondary school] teachers to specialise on examinational objectives, to the neglect of broader and more vital aspects of education”.  Nonetheless Milner instituted an honours board at Waitaki in 1907 to celebrate the achievements of academically oriented students. As his son observed, while Frank Milner could be seen as being “ambidextrous” in his practice sometimes, Milner senior “was too good a scholar himself ever to belittle scholarly ability, which he was quick to spot and cultivate”.

Waitaki Boys’ High School Honours’ Board Room, c. 1910. Ref: 2143_01_012A; Negative: c/nE6062/17. The Hocken Library, The University of Otago, New Zealand.

Waitaki Boys’ High School Honours’ Board Room, c. 1910. Ref: 2143_01_012A; Negative: c/nE6062/17. The Hocken Library, The University of Otago, New Zealand.

Establishing a more enlightened educational path was possible and essential, Milner argued, whereby “the secondary school teacher] enlists all agencies that will develop the full humanity of the pupil—physical, social, mental, aesthetic, moral, and spiritual”. This curriculum philosophy, however, had several controversial elements to it, not least of which was Milner’s advocacy for the abolition of the well-established and prestigious Form 5 (Year 11) University of New Zealand “Matriculation” (Entrance) Examination  and his promotion of fields of study such as music, arts, and crafts alongside social studies—the latter as an integrated curriculum subject. While Milner’s advocacy for this curriculum model was well known locally and, on occasion, internationally, it was not until the early 1930s that New Zealand secondary school authorities came to learn much more about and to engage with Milner’s educational philosophy.

Proposals for secondary school curriculum reform nationally

In 1933 Milner was elected President of the New Zealand Secondary School’s Association (NZSSA) again, having held this office in 1920 and in 1930.  Such an appointment signalled the high regard in which he was held by secondary school principals throughout New Zealand. In his presidential, address that year he informed members present that a new philosophy of secondary education was evolving internationally and that it must not be ignored in New Zealand. This philosophy, when translated into practice, sought to avoid “[the] gramophonic reproduction [of knowledge]”, “the purely intellectual faculty of receptivity”, and “pedantic and narrow” perspectives on schooling. Having declared that “the public [have] wrong valuations of education”, he stressed that “such factors as tact, tenacity, popularity, address, and personality” were part of  “[the] broader and more vital aspects of education” that had all too frequently been neglected or marginalised.

Photograph of Frank Milner, c. 1940. S. P. Andrew Ltd. Portrait negatives. 1/4-020167-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Photograph of Frank Milner, c. 1940. S. P. Andrew Ltd. Portrait negatives. 1/4-020167-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Although some New Zealand educators may have thought that Milner’s pronouncements were radical if not revolutionary, his views were consistent generally with those being expressed more often—and more widely—by prominent American, British, and European educationists throughout, and from, the 1930s, especially by New Education Fellowship (NEF) devotees. Milner was well aware of educational practices and thinking, not only from his meetings and regular correspondence with people within and beyond New Zealand’s shores but also from having immersed himself in the study of international educational literature. The extent to which he was familiar with secondary school curriculum practices and debates overseas is demonstrated clearly in his 1936 report to the NZSSA, delivered in response to the Association’s invitation to Milner a year earlier to prepare a document describing modern trends in secondary schooling for presentation at the 1936 NZSSA annual conference.

In his paper Milner outlined several deficiencies in contemporary secondary schooling practices—notably in England and in the USA—and proposed a series of solutions for the Association’s consideration. These were not Milner’s ideas solely, however. Having surveyed 36 of New Zealand’s 38 male and female principals of state single-sex and co-educational secondary schools (Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1936, pp. 35-36) on a range of curriculum-related matters (e.g., “What subjects do you consider should be compulsory?”; “What is your ideal curriculum for New Zealand needs?”), Milner believed he had solid evidence upon which to present a series of resolutions for the Association to discuss and, preferably, to endorse unanimously. The fact that he had received responses only from 20 (56 per cent) of these principals did not seem to disturb him. Of greater importance was Milner’s conclusion that his survey results “again and again emphasise the importance of this investigation which in its implications they [the 20 respondents] regard as vital to our educational system”.

Milner drew heavily on his linguistic talents when speaking to his paper. Ian Milner: “As public speaker he now knew [from at least the early 1920s that] he could move any audience to hushed silence or enthusiastic response…. [Frank Milner] treasured his formidable command of vocabulary”. Milner’s address was sufficiently persuasive for all delegates at the 1936 NZSSA conference to vote in favour of adopting a comprehensive, “liberal education”, eight-subject core curriculum common to all secondary schools that “[avoided] prescriptive deference to external examinations” and allowed school principals (but not officers of the central Department of Education) to devise their own courses around the core curriculum in accordance with their pupils’ “special needs”. The conference delegates had now endorsed what Milner had proposed in his earlier report to the NZSSA.

Several educationists have expressed surprise at, and admiration for, Milner’s success subsequently for the reason that many prominent members of the secondary teaching profession in New Zealand tended to be more conservative than modern or liberal in their educational outlook. Yet contemporary commentators omitted to mention that Milner had not proposed a core curriculum for secondary departments of the district high schools or for the technical high schools. Instead, Milner had concentrated on one kind of post-primary institution only—the secondary school. All of his later commentaries on curriculum reform, from the late 1930s, reinforced that focus.

Post-primary curriculum developments after 1936

The election of New Zealand’s first Labour government in 1935 set the scene for the introduction of a host of far-reaching changes in the schooling sector. The new government was committed to extending the period of schooling to embrace a period of compulsory post-primary schooling. This policy took effect from 1944. The school leaving age was raised from 14 to 15 years. Given that Ministers of Education (Peter Fraser, then Rex Mason) and the Director of Education for New Zealand, Dr C. E. Beeby, were united in their thinking that school curricular and examination reforms were overdue, particularly in the post-primary sector, the decision was made in late 1942 to establish a committee to report on “the post-primary school curriculum”.

The Committee, chaired by the retired and highly regarded Rector of Timaru Boys’ High School, William Thomas, deliberated for 13 months. Frank Milner had not been appointed chairperson of the Committee, although Beeby stated later that he was considered for this role. Thomas was seen by Beeby as being more amenable than Milner to diverse viewpoints, was deemed a better listener, and was seen as no less an adherent to educational principles. In essence the latter’s personal disposition, not his intellectual ability, had ruled Milner out of contention. Nonetheless Milner’s 1936 curriculum proposals were endorsed by the Committee which recommended extending them to include all three types of post-primary institutions and not just secondary schools.

The “Thomas Committee”—as it was widely referred to—also considered, at length, substantial revisions to the Department of Education’s Form 5/Year 11 School Certificate Examination that members believed were necessary to ensure the success of its common core curriculum recommendations. For his part, Milner had not contemplated reforming this qualification; instead, he focused his attention on critiquing the dominance of the University Matriculation Examination over the senior secondary school curriculum. The Committee adopted a very different approach from Milner (and the NZSSA) regarding the Matriculation Examination because its terms of reference did not include any consideration of that examination’s place in the post-primary school senior classes.

Notwithstanding differences in minor details, many similarities between the Thomas Committee schooling philosophy and that of Milner are apparent in both documents. Both recognised the importance of making provision for a heterogeneous student population—one where individual differences (perceived and real), abilities, motivations, interests, and vocational intentions ought to be catered for within the post-primary curriculum. Both upheld the concept of a compulsory, core curriculum around which optional subjects could be arranged.

Milner’s educational legacy  

Frank Milner’s advocacy of a core curriculum for New Zealand secondary school pupils was commended by the Labour Government and the Director of Education for New Zealand through the 1940s and beyond. Although there have been no significant challenges to maintaining a compulsory curriculum from that time, the Thomas Committee’s recommendation that this curriculum be delivered over three years was followed rarely by school principals from the later 1940s. School Certificate requirements, they maintained, meant that more often than not the three-year core was reduced to two years. Furthermore, officials in the central Department of Education and the Minister of Education (Rex Mason, 1940-1947) preferred not to exert too much pressure on school authorities to implement the core curriculum in all its detail immediately following its passage into legislation in 1945. As Mason observed in 1945, because these authorities were being encouraged to exercise greater curricular authority than was permitted before, they needed “to feel free to work out their own solutions. The Department and its Inspectors [of post-primary schools] will give then whatever help they can”. Mason concluded that at least five years would be needed before school authorities could be expected to adhere closely to the Thomas Committee philosophy and to the subsequent 1945 legislation. But, as Clive Whitehead has observed, the curricular reforms took much longer than five years to be adopted universally in post-primary schools. A generation, at least, passed before the majority of teachers became familiar with and accepting of “the Thomas curriculum”.

The core curriculum that is in place in the early twenty-first century for both primary and post-primary schools derived some elements from the Milner and the Thomas curriculum models—albeit without acknowledgement—although its orientation is more overtly fiscal and utilitarian than its 1930s’ and 1940s’ antecedents. It remains to be seen if the national curriculum will continue to uphold the Milner curriculum philosophy.

Bibliography and References

Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives. [AJHR]. (1936). E-2, 35-36.

Beeby, C.E. (1992). The biography of an idea: Beeby on education. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Campbell, A. E. (Ed.) (1938). Modern trends in education: The proceedings of the New Education Fellowship conference held in New Zealand in July 1937. Wellington: Whitcombe and Tombs.

Lee, G., & Lee, H. (2008). Some reflections on the New Zealand Curriculum. Teachers and Curriculum, 10, 35-39.

Lee, G., & Lee, H. (2010). Secondary futures: Historical contestation over the nature, content, and purpose of secondary education in Aotearoa/New Zealand. DELTA: Policy and Practice in Education, 59 (1 & 2), 35-101.

Mason, H. G. R. (1945). Education today and tomorrow (2nd ed.). Wellington: Government Printer.

McDonald, K. C. (1958). A history of Waitaki Boys’ High School: 1883-1958. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs.

McKenzie, D. (1987). The growth of school credentialling in New Zealand. In R. Openshaw & D. McKenzie (Eds.), Reinterpreting the educational past: Essays in the history of New Zealand education (pp. 82-106). Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Milner, F. (1933). Presidential address to the Secondary Schools’ Association. STA: The Official Organ of the New Zealand Secondary Schools’ Association and the New Zealand Technical School Teachers’ Association, 1(1), 8-9.

Milner, F. (1936b). Report on the suitability of the secondary curriculum for modern needs. STA, 3(3), 8.

Milner, I. (1983). Milner of Waitaki: Portrait of the man. Dunedin: John McIndoe/Waitaki High School Old Boys’ Association.

New Zealand Department of Education. (1944). The post-primary curriculum: Report of the Committee appointed by the Minister of Education in November, 1942. Wellington: Author.

New Zealand Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand curriculum for English-medium teaching and learning in years 1-13. Wellington: Author.

Openshaw, R., & McKenzie, D. (Eds.) (1987). Reinterpreting the educational past: Essays in the history of New Zealand education. Wellington: New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

Whitehead, C. (1974). The Thomas report—A study in educational reform. New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies, 9(1), 52-64.

Citation of this entry

Lee, G. & Lee, H. 2015. Frank Milner. Dictionary of Educational History in Australia and New Zealand (DEHANZ), 22 January. Available:

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