MA, MEd (Qld), MEd (Sydney), EdD (Harvard); Honorary Member AARE; Emeritus Professor (Education), University of Sydney
(Deceased), 2013-11-16

Don Spearritt


Emeritus Professor Don Spearritt died on 16 November 2013. He was born at home in Brisbane on 27 June 1921. His family moved to Bundaberg in 1924 where Don completed 10 years schooling in Bundaberg and, at the age of 16, moved to Brisbane and enrolled in the Brisbane Teachers’ College while undertaking night classes to sit for the ‘senior’ public examination.

He taught in state primary schools in North Queensland until enlisting in the Air Force in June 1942, including service on a radar station in New Guinea. After the war, Don took part in the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme at the University of Queensland in 1946, completed two undergraduate degrees by correspondence and was awarded an MA in Philosophy in 1949.

In 1947 he returned to primary school teaching at New Farm State School and for the following year had to choose between appointments as a teacher at Mt Isa State Primary School or a Senior Research Officer in the Test Division at the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER). He chose the ACER appointment and moved to Melbourne with his wife, Jean, a graduate of the Brisbane Kindergarten Teachers’ Training College. Don completed a MEd through the University of Queensland in 1952.

In 1955, Don won a Fulbright scholarship and enrolled in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University where he completed an EdD. His doctoral supervisor, JB Carroll, encouraged him to study listening comprehension, which Don, using the new tool of factor analysis, established as a separate verbal skill, not simply a subset of reading comprehension. Most of Don’s subsequent research related to the measurement and teaching of verbal skills.

Don returned from Harvard to ACER but in 1960 was appointed to a senior lectureship in Education at the University of Sydney, becoming an associate professor in 1964, professor in 1968 on appointment to a new chair and emeritus professor from 1987. He held visiting appointments as an associate professor and research associate at Harvard University (1966), a visiting research psychologist at Educational Testing Service (1971), a visiting scholar, LL Thurstone Psychometric Laboratory, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1981), visiting researcher, Institute of International Education, University of Stockholm (1977, 1984) and a visiting senior scholar, Educational Research Unit, Singapore Institute of Education (1988).

Don taught generations of students the principles underlying the examination and scaling of different subjects, university entry being based on the scores gained by students for the newly introduced Higher School Certificate (HSC). Not many of the thousands of Dip Ed students who, over the next two decades had to endure these lectures, probably appreciated them. Nonetheless, honours students in educational statistics flourished under Don’s tuition. He supervised scores of masters and doctoral candidates and was still examining theses well into his 80s. Elected a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in 1971, Don was committed to what today would be called ‘evidence-based’ interventions in the school curriculum.

Don’s ability not only to understand but also to implement the scaling required for public examinations always saw him in demand from the NSW Board of Senior School Studies, on which he served from 1974 to 1987. He assisted with HSC scaling into the new century and, on one occasion, was denounced but not named in a Sydney Morning Herald editorial by a journalist whose daughter had not done well in the examinations. Don was a great believer in the importance of public education and competitive examination as the underpinning for a fair society. The idea that universities would revert to being elitist institutions where access was based more on wealth than ability was repugnant to Don. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia, for his services to education, in 1994.

Keen and curious travellers, Don and Jean broached all the continents, including an educational trip to China in the early 1970s. Don had an extraordinary memory and a dry sense of humour, a characteristic he shared with his four brothers. On a trip to Ouyen in western Victoria in 2000, when asked whether he had ever been there before, answered, ‘11am on a Saturday morning, the garage was already closed, and I was running out of petrol’. Only later could the interlocutor glean that the year was 1952. Future historians may find his meticulous diaries of interest.

As committed opera goers, Jean and Don loved the idea of being able to catch a ferry to the Opera House, nearing completion when they bought the last block of land ever sold in Iluka Rd, Clifton Gardens, in 1970. On a steep block, their clinker brick house included a challenging driveway. As an octogenarian driver, Don was allowed to have the driving inspector come to the house. Merely backing the inspector down the perilous driveway saw Don declared fit to drive. For many years Don and Jean hosted a Boxing Day party at their house, which had a magnificent view of the start of the Sydney to Hobart yacht race. Don enjoyed the ever-changing view of the harbour from his study for 42 years, almost half his life.

Don had a long and full life, educating generations of students, but amusing only the numerate. Don is survived by his wife Jean, his children Peter, Elizabeth and Andrew, six grandchildren and three of his five brothers.

Barry McGaw FASSA

Peter Spearritt FASSA

  • Member, NSW Board of Studies Consultative Committees for School Certificate and Higher School Certificate.

  • Spearritt D (2003) Comparative educational achievement studies, In International handbook of educational research in the Asia-Pacific region (pp. 1107-1122). J P Keeves and R Watanabe (eds.). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Beaton A E, Postlethwaite T N, Ross K N, Spearritt D, Wolf R M (1999) The benefits and limitations of international educational achievement studies. Paris: International Institute for Educational Planning/UNESCO.
  • Spearritt D (1999) Language testing in mother tongue, In Concise Encyclopedia of Educational Linguistics. B Spolsky (eds.). Oxford: Pergamon.
  • Spearritt D (1996) Carroll's model of cognitive abilities: Educational implications, In International Journal of Educational Research. H J Walberg, T N Postlethwaite, E De Corte (eds.). Oxford: Pergamon.