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Emeritus Professor Anne Smith remembered

Tuesday 24 May 2016 11:35am

Emeritus Professor Anne Smith. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

Otago Professor Helen May pays tribute to a great friend, great scholar and great advocate for the rights of women and children, Anne B. Smith.

The University of Otago Emeritus Professor of Education and Childhood Studies, and Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand, died recently.

Professor May says Anne arrived back in New Zealand in late 1974, with her husband John and two pre-school-aged children, appointed to the University as a lecturer in education, in the field of human development. She had been awarded an Izaak Walten Killam Memorial Fellowship to study at the University of Alberta, where she had obtained her doctorate, as had John.

Thus began a whirlwind career and an adventurous journey over more than four decades, using the resources of academia, through research, writing, presentation, conferencing, film making and travel, to present the research and policy arguments for quality child care, and more broadly for quality early childhood.

This was a journey played out on many fronts. Firstly, within the university, where career advancement for women and particularly women with children was a rocky road. Anne was part of small group of feminist women academics that challenged the pervasive patriarchy of university employment practices.

Secondly, on the local front, Anne was part of the Dunedin Women’s Collective that got funding through the 1975 International Women’s Year fund to establish a childcare centre that demonstrated in its practice, how quality for children and support for women could be realised.

These were heady days that spilled onto national political fronts linking early childhood education and women’s rights. Anne became and remained a figure of national renown: advising, chairing, and working with multiple government agencies on various taskforces, think tanks, committees and working groups.

Back in the mid-1970s Anne was the first academic in New Zealand to actively support the idea that quality childcare could be a good thing for children and families.

She became involved in the advocacy work of the NZ Association of Child Care Centres (now named Te Rito Maioho Early Childhood NZ), undertaking leading work around qualifications for staff working in childcare and, through her research, challenging older myths of maternal deprivation to promote new understandings of the components of quality childcare.

Anne’s advocacy work for early childhood was always grounded in research, a field in which she gained both national and international recognition. Her book Understanding Children went through many editions and has been a standard text for so many New Zealand students of education and teaching.

In 1995, Anne was appointed the foundation Professor and Director of the Children’s Issues Centre. This opened another front as a leading advocate for children’s rights; posing new research questions and confronting key issues for children, including New Zealand’s ‘anti smacking’ legislation. Anne’s stage was truly international, and with colleagues from the Children’s Issues Centre and other like centres of scholarship, the new discipline of Childhood Studies was founded.

Late last year, Anne received the unexpected news that she had an aggressive form of cancer. She actually felt in fine health at the time. Having reached the age of 75 years, she had been delighted to have gained a free ski pass for the Central Otago ski fields where the Smith family liked to gather with their grandchildren. While the prognosis was not good, treatments were possible. In the meantime, Anne hastened work on a number of writing projects, most important was completing her book Children’s Rights Towards Social Justice.

This was launched amidst a great gathering of friends and colleagues in Dunedin in April, and then in May at an even bigger gathering in Wellington, including more friends, Members of Parliament and leaders of organisations and government agencies associated with early education and children’s health, wellbeing and children’s rights.

Anne was also writing other chapters, papers and articles during the past few months; the last being sent off a couple of days before she entered hospital. This was an unexpected and massive set back. Only earlier in the week Anne was cheerfully planning other tasks and we had hoped to meet up over the weekend for tea/coffee and pikelets. Instead, last Saturday at Dunedin Hospital we said goodbye amidst some still lively talk about early childhood education politics, the latest books we were reading, computer technology and family news.

Earlier in the year, Carmen Dalli and Anne Meade, with Anne’s permission, began work on a book to be published later this year by NZCER Press with chapters written by a few of Anne’s colleagues: Research, Policy and Advocacy in the Early Years A book inspired by the achievements of Professor Anne B Smith, a pioneer of evidence-based policy and practice in New Zealand.

My own chapter entitled the ‘Early Adventures of Anne’ tells the story of Anne’s first year at the University of Otago in 1975, and its aftermath. It is based mainly on an earlier interview with Anne where she describes the politics and prejudices around childcare at the time, and the campaigns that followed. In our last conversation together I was clarifying some of the interview content. Anne’s comment was ‘Well I did say it!’ And so she did.