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10 February 2017

A career built on opportunities

When planning director Mal Parr first started working at the Department of Education, it was 1972, he was 25 years old and there wasn’t a computer in sight at central office.

The office was then located on Havelock Street in West Perth and Mal fondly recalls his working life without email.

Planning director Mal Parr will finish up at the Department in March.

Planning director Mal Parr will finish up at 'silver city'
in March after 45 years. 

“Any communication that had to be typed was sent to the typing pool. There were about 30 women sitting in rows typing with a supervisor at the front up on a dais and she ruled with an iron fist,” says Mal.

“So you’d put your communications in the out tray, they would go to the typing pool and come back two days later. It was old school stuff.”

It was a different time, says Mal, and the workplace was filled with memorable characters. One employee, who was also a keen fisherman, would smoke fish in the office for lunch – “it would smoke so much the fear was it was going to set off the sprinklers!” laughs Mal – but it was also a time when he became truly inspired.

“The man in charge of facilities at the time was Derek Briggs. He was the superintendent of research and planning. When I think back over my life and the people who really made an impact, other than my parents, it was him,” says Mal.

“He was a terrific bloke and a very good employer who left you in no doubt of what his expectations of you were but at the same time provided young people with many opportunities.”

Mal has frequently grabbed opportunities as they presented throughout his career. His first job was as a maths teacher at Governor Stirling Senior High School in 1968 after which he taught at the old Hollywood Senior High School where he and a fellow teacher ran a computer programming course for talented students on Saturday mornings.

He enjoyed his time teaching, however word of the course’s success soon spread and he was headhunted by a private computer service bureau.

Numbers were his passion – but so was cricket. Mal played cricket outside of work and played it well so that, when the computer company went bankrupt two years later, he reconsidered his options.

“I was playing good cricket at the time – it was 1971 – and I thought, now that I was out of a job, perhaps I should go to England and play. I would have played league cricket and would not have made great money but I would have survived and enjoyed it,” he says.

He booked a ticket to go to England by ship in April 1972 but another opportunity soon presented itself and he never boarded that ship.

“Several months before I was due to leave I saw an advertisement in the paper for an education statistician/mathematics person to work in research and planning at the Department of Education so I applied for it,” explains Mal.

“The superintendent at the time, Derek Briggs, asked me to come in for a chat so I did and a few days later he offered me the job. So I had to decide whether I wanted to go to England to play cricket or take this job – and I took the job.”

Mal was one of the first staff members in the Department’s newly formed buildings branch, and over the years has been instrumental in the building of many of Western Australia’s public schools.

He has worked under 11 directors general and seen many significant changes which include schools opening and closing, the design and construction of schools change from being government led before private architects and contractors were used, increased flexibility and autonomy for schools, the introduction of early childhood education, and the increased school leaving age. He even saw a population boom similar to WA today which saw 28 new schools built in just two years back in 1974 and 1975.

Mal Parr in his early years at the Department.

Mal in his early years with the Department of Education.

Mal’s time at the Department has been what he jokingly calls ‘a sentence of 45 years’. He is a very familiar face around central office and schools, working tirelessly as the strategic asset planning director to get new schools up and running, and helping school staff with facilities issues.

He will be missed when he finishes up at the Department on 10 March, ending his long ‘sentence’ in central office. Mal says he will pursue other interests including visiting his children more, doing volunteer work, travelling and, of course, watching cricket.

“England is coming to Australia for an Ashes series in November so I’ll see some of those test matches around the country,” says Mal.

“Some years ago I was on the executive committee at the Western Australian Cricket Association for about 16 years and, until very recently, I was involved with the Claremont Nedlands Cricket Club so I will have the opportunity to watch plenty of cricket.”

While Mal contemplates life outside of the Department he says he has never stopped enjoying the business of building schools.

“I’m proud to have contributed to building programs that have seen more energy injected into schools. I think Western Australian public schools, particularly the new schools, are just outstanding and compare very favourably with those elsewhere in Australia.

“Improved facilities are, I believe, a significant contributor to teaching and learning, and have always been very satisfying projects to work on.

“New schools are always interesting. How buildings affect the experience is what it’s all about, as well as the improved opportunities for students and teachers. We put the infrastructure there to support the teaching and learning.”

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