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Harry Frederick Heath (1903–1992)

by John P. Hughes and G. E. Sherington

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Harry Frederick Heath (1903–1992), teacher, union leader, and public servant, was born on 8 January 1903 at Tatura, Victoria, son of Victorian-born Henry Heath, saddler, and his New South Wales-born wife Mabel Evelyn, née Brady. Harry attended Thurgoona Public and Albury High schools; he was dux in 1920. He trained as a teacher at Sydney Teachers’ College and studied at the University of Sydney (BA, 1924; BEc, 1927). From the mid-1920s he taught in public schools, including becoming deputy headmaster at Narrandera Intermediate High School (1930–31), and headmaster at Norfolk Island Public School (193438), West Wyalong Intermediate High School (193840), and Deniliquin Intermediate High School (194045). On 10 January 1929 at the Presbyterian Church, Strathfield, he had married Eileen Daphne White, a teacher (d. 1977).

Between 1942 and 1945 Heath served part time in the 21st Victorian Battalion of the Volunteer Defence Corps, as a lieutenant from 1943. He was headmaster at Brighton-le-Sands Central School (194549), Gladesville Central School (194951), and Bankstown Public School (195152); he also wrote a number of mathematics textbooks for schools.

Heath became a member of the Headmasters’ Association, which was opposed to Sam Lewis, the communist president of the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation. In 1952 he was elected federation president on a platform of placing less emphasis on political issues and more on securing improved salaries and conditions for members, including equal pay for women. But he maintained earlier demands for additional Commonwealth aid to education, warning that the slight assistance given by the Federal government might turn schools into ‘intellectual slums’ (Canberra Times 1954, 4). A strong promoter of the ideal of the public comprehensive school embracing all students in the local neighbourhood, he opposed any movement for State aid to religious schools. As a member of the committee to survey secondary education (195357) chaired by the director-general of education (Sir) Harold Wyndham, he agreed with its major recommendations to establish comprehensive secondary schools, but failed to convince his fellow members that the State’s selective-entry schools should lose that status.

In 1955 Heath had been appointed to the New South Wales Public Service Board (PSB). As chairman of the board, Wallace Wurth accepted the suggestion of increasing its size by including Heath as a ‘moderate’ teacher representative with ‘allegiance neither to Moscow nor to Rome’ (Curnow 2002). For more than a decade, Heath used his position to influence education and schools, fostering expansion through a program of decentralisation of educational administration and conducting enquiries into areas such as child guidance and paramedical education. He could be ‘abrasive and opinionated’ (Duffield 1990, 30) and it riled Wyndham that a former member of his teaching staff was exercising authority over his department. Heath was also thought to act against former opponents in the Teachers’ Federation. In 1955 his old adversary, Lewis, struck a pupil at Newtown Junior Technical School, leading to a formal reprimand. The PSB later ordered Lewis’s transfer to another school, a measure widely seen as the initiative of Heath.

Such incidents bolstered the views of the federation that education should be removed from PSB control, a demand which began to win acceptance by the major political parties. In 1967 (Sir) Robert Askin's Government created the Rydge committee to investigate establishing an education commission. The board’s submission to the committee, which Heath drafted, argued against the proposal, and insisted that, since policy making remained the responsibility of the minister and implementation the duty of the education department, the effectiveness of execution must continue to be overseen by a body that was independent: the PSB. Although it did not lead immediately to the establishment of an education commission, the Rydge report did result in the board being compelled from 1969 to delegate to the director-general staff recruitment, appointments, promotions, and discipline.

Heath retired from the PSB in 1968. He continued to hold a number of positions in higher education, including those of chairman of the board of governors of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music (197377) and member of the council of the University of New South Wales (195581), with a particular role on the board of International House; he was also chairman of the Sutherland Hospital board and a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1955–72). He chaired the committee that led in 1971 to the establishment of the Riverina College of Advanced Education.

Described as bringing a ‘solid, no-nonsense but genial judgment’ to administration (International House 2014), Heath was also remembered as diplomatic and idealistic (Sydney Morning Herald 1992, 4). He was awarded an honorary doctorate of science from the University of New South Wales in 1979, and appointed OBE for his services to the community in 1973. Survived by a daughter, he died on 13 July 1992 at Carss Park, New South Wales, and was cremated. The Harry Heath room at the University of Technology Sydney is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘N.S.W. Education in “Grave Position”.’ 31 August 1954, 4

  • Curnow, Ross. ‘Wurth, Wallace Charles (1896-1960).’ Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 July 2015

  • Duffield, Jill. ‘The Making of the Wyndham Scheme in New South Wales.’ History of Education Review 19, no. 1 (1990): 29–42

  • International House, University of New South Wales. ‘Harry F. Heath OBE.’ 2014. Accessed 13 August 2015. Copy held on ADB file
  • Narrandera Argus and Riverina Advertiser. ‘Teachers’ Federation: New State President Once a Teacher at Narrandera.’ 10 June 1952, 2
  • O’Brien, John Michael. ‘The New South Wales Teachers’ Federation, c. 1957–1975.’ PhD thesis, University of Wollongong, 1985
  • State Records New South Wales. 13/12365, Public Service Board (New South Wales), Correspondence Files, Miscellaneous Papers and Reports (Chairman of the Board)
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Teacher’s Life of Service.’ 23 July 1992, 4
  • Yelland, Hedley. 'Inspection.' Draft manuscript, Sydney, 1993
  • Yelland, Hedley. Interview

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John P. Hughes and G. E. Sherington, 'Heath, Harry Frederick (1903–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

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