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Researcher, Academic and Children's Advocate (Prof Anne B Smith's story)

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Professor Anne Smith has been involved in research, advocacy, and policy-making on childhood issues in New Zealand for almost 40 years.  She has worked as an academic at the University of Otago, first in the Education Department and later as Director of the Children’s Issues Centre.

Professor Smith has been called on for advice by various governments, departments and ministries in her career. She has had personal contacts with ministers, and government officials, and has taught and collaborated on research with many colleagues. She has also participated in a range of advisory groups, working parties and committees. Her career has been devoted to making New Zealand a better place for families and their children, and to advancing children’s well-being, rights in early childhood education, the family, schools, and in social welfare and legal systems.

 

What was your early life was like? 

I was born in Wales in 1940 just after the start of the Second World War.  My father served overseas in the 8th army, and because of this was absent for the first 4-1/2 years of my life. My parents met at Art School in Cardiff – unusual then for a young woman to go to Art School, but my mother told me one of her aunts had financed it. Their interest in Art has stayed with me all of my life, even though my father never had paid work through his art. My mother, however, later became an illustrator of books for children. During the war, my mother worked in a carbide factory as a draftswoman, and my grandmother looked after me. My mother and I spent the first few years of life staying with my maternal grandparents but often visiting my paternal grandparents (who also lived in Wales). I remember it as a very happy time with plenty of extended family (aunts as well as grandparents around), and lots of time at the beach playing in rock pools and climbing over rocks.  (We lived in Porthcawl, a coastal town in South Wales.) My grandfather was a primary school principal and he taught me to read before I went to school, making my early years at school easy for me. I started school in Tredegar (where my paternal grandparents lived) and we were based there for a few years.  By now my dad was back from the war, and had a job in nearby Merythr Tydfil, as a surveyor. I gather that after the war it was difficult to find a job and housing so this must be why we were still living with grandparents.  In search of better job opportunities in 1948 my father took a job in the Middle East working as a surveyor for an oil company, the Iraq Petroleum Company. So between the ages of 8 and 9, I had another year of father absence and living with grandparents. But after a year my mother and I had the excitement of travelling to join my father in the middle of the Syrian desert.  We took off from Southhampton on the Syrian Prince, a small cargo vessel, and I still remember the overwhelming impression of some of the exotic ports we visited, such as Malta and Tripoli (Libya).  We met up with my father in the sun-soaked island of Cyprus, an idyllic spot at the time (especially for a family from cold, wet Wales!), long since discovered by myriad British tourists.  We flew in a small plane from Cyprus to the desert oil station in Syria, where I lived with my parents for a happy six months. The oil station was a little colony of British people, and I was the oldest of about  half a dozen children. I didn’t go to school at that time, and I remember having a great time playing with other children and reading lots of books. There was a swimming pool and the adults organised lots of family picnics and the like, so there was a close community with a lot of shared socializing.

My parents must have decided by now that I had to go to school, so I was sent back to England to boarding school, Welsh Girls’ School in Ashford, Middlesex.  I spent the next 4-1/2 years of my life in this school, and saw my parents once a year, staying with my Welsh aunties and grandparents in the short school holidays. What a contrast that was to a life of freedom - playing and reading! Every moment of my day was rigidly scheduled. I still managed to be a prolific reader, reading my way through all of the books on the shelves of the small library. It was an Anglican school, so we had chapel twice a day and three times on Sunday, including a visit to the local church.

During the time I was at boarding school my brother Gareth, and sister Jane were born.  My parents were still in the Middle East, now in Tripoli, Lebanon.  Both of my siblings were born in Beirut. Fortunately for my mother, she was able to have domestic help with childcare and house work, and that helped alleviate the stress of having two small children in a foreign country.

In 1954 my family emigrated to New Zealand.  It was a long voyage on the Orsova to Sydney and from there on another boat to New Zealand. My father had got a job (from one of his contacts during the war) with the Hauraki Catchement Board in Te Aroha. We were given a sharemilker’s cottage 5 miles from the town. We had to get through a paddock of cows to reach our house!  My mother’s life changed dramatically for the worse. I was 14, Gareth was 4 and Jane was 2 when we arrived in Te Aroha.  My mother must have been  miserable, so isolated from friends and family, so lacking in support, and in a fairly basic house with only a copper to wash the clothes in and no mod cons. I had to catch the bus to school – a long journey every day.  I only had two and a bit years of schooling at Te Aroha District High School (it became a college in my last year there).  It was not a high standard of education. Many of the teachers had been there for a long time and had not kept up with the latest methods!  I was very much an outsider with my English/Welsh accent though I managed to be the Dux two years in a row.

It was certainly a fairly unusual childhood, with much moving between relatives, a close and deep bond with my mother (and to a lesser extent my father), lots of chances for exploration and play, an abrupt banishment to boarding school and then a new life in a different country.

 

Describe your career path and jobs held

When I left school I worked for a year as a lab technician at the Soil Research Station at Rukuhia outside Hamilton (where my parents lived). I had some idea about wanting to be a scientist, but the work at Rukuhia was somewhat boring and routine, so I was soon ready to move on. My grandfather thought that Home Science was a “good occupation for a woman”, one reason I began studying for a Home Science degree – first in Auckland (where I did Zoology and Chemistry), and then in Dunedin.


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