Story: Combs, Frank Livingstone

Page 1 - Biography

Combs, Frank Livingstone

1882–1960

Teacher, educationalist, editor

This biography was written by William Renwick and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998

Frank Livingstone Combs was born on 19 July 1882 at Napier, the son of Annie Clara Coles and her husband, Willis Edmund Combs, a draper. The family knew hard times during the late 1880s and early 1890s, and Frank’s elder brother, Harry, later recounted its transient life in Growing up in the Forty Mile Bush. Frank went to school at Makotuku, Porangahau, Dannevirke, Ongaonga and Gisborne. He was a clever boy and won an education board scholarship to Napier Boys’ High School.

He began his teaching career as a pupil-teacher at Hutt School in 1899, then moved to Mangatainoka School as an assistant master. He was subsequently head teacher of Rakaunui, a sole-charge school (1905–6), Mauriceville West (1907–15), Fernridge (1916–18), Featherston (1919–26), and Mount Cook in Wellington (1927–36). During his early years as a teacher he was an extramural student of the University of New Zealand, graduating BA in 1914 and MA (with first-class honours in history) in 1915. In Auckland on 22 January 1908 he married Louise Florence Leys Thomson.

From his earliest years Combs was an inveterate reader and his writing was laced with allusions to English literature. Wordsworth and Dickens were his educational lodestars: the ‘Ode on intimations of immortality’ glimpsed a lost world of childhood that could still be regained through education of the imagination; Mr Gradgrind in Hard times stood for everything he came to deplore in the schooling he had experienced as a child and was experiencing as a teacher. The longer he lived the more was he struck by the fact that apparently ordinary pupils showed in their adult lives that they were anything but ordinary. In his view the school system was largely a confidence trick and his writings were his rebellion against it.

From the age of about 35, writing as ‘Old Timer’ in National Education, the journal of the New Zealand Educational Institute (NZEI), he published short stories illustrating the constraining effects of primary schooling on children who did not fit the norm of a good pupil. Some of these were later collected in The harrowed toad, or, the pedagogue’s plaint (1939), Little Ann & what to do with her (1940), and Half lengths of pupils & people (1944). His leading ideas were expressed in ‘Little Ann’, one of his best-known stories: ‘Would human nature reach a fuller, fairer growth, blossom more beautifully, bear fruit more abundantly, if we paused in the midst of all our aspiring and striving to water the roots of the affections?’

Believing that adult society must be changed if children were to have a richer education, Combs became a pioneer of adult education in Masterton, where he gave vigorous, highly regarded lectures on history and contemporary world issues. He was also convinced that political action was necessary for educational reform to be achieved: he was president of the Wairarapa branch of the NZEI in 1913, attended his first annual meeting of the institute in 1916, was elected to the national executive in 1921, and was the first person to be elected twice to its presidency – in 1927 and 1936. He was associated with various moves that strengthened the institute’s internal organisation and the involvement of teachers in its activities. A strong advocate of worker solidarity, he pressed for the NZEI to reconstitute itself as a union under the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, but was unable to gain sufficient backing from the membership.

During the 10 years that spanned his presidencies, and very much under his influence, the NZEI developed comprehensive policies for educational reform, including smaller classes, better trained teachers, better accommodation, the provision of library books and teaching aids (including radio and film), and unified educational administration as recommended in the 1930 Atmore Report. Combs also led the way in earmarking money from the institute’s finances to carry out publicity campaigns. As part of the strategy of getting the institute’s message to a wider public, he was active in creating organisations that brought together teachers and lay people: although short-lived, they broadened support for the agenda of reform during the depression years.

Combs largely wrote the NZEI’s booklet Order out of chaos, which, attractively produced in large numbers, was intended to influence the education policies of political parties at the 1935 general election. His advocacy of reform had brought him into close association with Peter Fraser and other leading members of the New Zealand Labour Party in the 1920s. Labour’s education policy for the 1935 election was the same as the NZEI’s on all matters of concern to primary school teachers.

From 1936 to 1940 Combs was officially vice principal of Wellington Teachers’ Training College, though from mid 1938 he was seconded to the Department of Education as editor of the School Publications Branch. He had championed the publishing of books that would deepen children’s understanding of their national heritage: despite war-time restrictions, he took the first steps to enliven the New Zealand School Journal, to write textbooks in English and arithmetic for primary schools, and to commission the first of the bulletins for students and handbooks for teachers that would become indispensable resources for teachers and learning.

During the Second World War he mobilised teachers and members of school committees and parents’ organisations in a campaign for better teaching conditions in primary schools in the post-war world. Reconstruction in primary education, a booklet setting out a plan of action, was the result. He retired from the department at the end of 1944, but returned to the NZEI in 1952 as part-time publicity officer.

Frank Combs died in Wellington on 31 August 1960, survived by four sons and three daughters. Louise Combs had died in 1957. Combs had the aura of an Old Testament prophet and has been likened to Moses leading his tribe of primary teachers out of the wilderness. As a publicist and professional leader he was unmatched in the history of primary education in this country for intellectual and emotional force.