William Watson Bird was born on 8 February 1870 at Crookham Common, Crondall, Hampshire, England, the sixth child of Harriet Hale and her husband, Alfred Bird, a carpenter. The family emigrated to Dunedin, New Zealand, when William was four. He was educated at Caversham School, then Otago Boys' High School, where he won junior and senior scholarships, and at the University of Otago, where he graduated BA in 1892 and MA in 1893. He combined university study with training as a primary teacher, was a pupil-teacher at Arthur Street School from 1887 to 1890, and studied at Dunedin Training College in 1891–92.
Bird was headmaster of Caversham Industrial School during 1893–94. Then he moved to Wellington, where he was first assistant of Mount Cook Boys' School (1894–99) and headmaster of Karori School (1899–1900). On 31 December 1895 at Dunedin he had married Catherine Fleming Morrison, whose father was Arthur Morrison, the labour-sympathising Liberal MHR for Caversham. They were to have two sons and two daughters.
In 1900 Bird was appointed organising teacher in the native schools service with the Department of Education. The inspector general of schools, George Hogben, had re-established this position with the aim of improving teaching methods and broadening the curricula of native schools. Working under the direction of James Pope, the chief inspector of native schools, Bird visited more than 100 remote native schools each year, travelling up to 9,000 miles to do so. When Pope retired at the end of 1903, Bird succeeded him as inspector and, from 1913, senior inspector of native schools. Like Pope, he became a student of the Maori language and came to be recognised as an authority on it. In the 1920s he was one of Bishop Herbert Williams's advisers for his revision of the Maori Bible. After he retired, Bird succeeded Sir Apirana Ngata as the reviser of the Complete manual of Maori grammar and conversation.
By the early twentieth century an increasing number of Maori children were completing standard six and the question of their further schooling or training arose. Bird fostered the addition of workshops at selected native schools so that boys could be trained in craft skills in or near their villages. With Hogben and Pope he thought that Maori boys and girls capable of benefiting from secondary education should for the most part go to state secondary schools near to where they lived. Private Maori secondary schools, all of them residential, performed a valuable service, but their total enrolments were small. Moreover, they argued that most pupils who enrolled in the private schools were not cut out to pass the university entrance examination, and the private schools should therefore offer technical and manual as well as academic courses. Hogben and Bird presented the department's views in their evidence to the Royal Commission on the Te Aute and Wanganui School Trusts, of which Ngata was a member, in 1906. The commission endorsed them, and they remained official policy until the 1940s.
What distinguished Maori education for Bird was its civilising mission, at the heart of which at the primary level was mastery of English. Writers of a later generation would criticise him and his generation for excluding the Maori language from the classroom and playground. His answer was that it was unnecessary for the native schools to teach Maori to children for whom it was the language of everyday life. In common with other authorities of his day, Bird was an assimilationist, but with Pope and Hogben he was convinced that Maori were the equal of Pakeha in their natural abilities and that the education system must provide opportunities that would enable Maori to demonstrate that equality.
The Education Act 1914 transferred district inspectorates to the department's control. Bird was to benefit from the enhanced career opportunities. In 1916 he was appointed senior inspector of schools in the Hawke's Bay Education District, and he continued to be responsible for the native schools within the board's boundary. In 1924 he was transferred to the Wellington Education Board as its senior inspector, and in 1926 he moved to head office as chief inspector of primary schools, the professional position second in seniority only to that of the director.
Bird was at the centre of moves to introduce new educational ideas. Early in his career he had assisted Hogben in writing the 1904 primary school syllabus, which had been intended to breathe new life into the schools. As chief inspector he directed the writing of the 1928 Syllabus of Instruction – the 'Red Book' as it came to be known by teachers -, which was similarly intended to break the old mould. It was one sign of change that, whereas the 1904 syllabus was written in Hogben's office, the 1928 syllabus was the result of considerable consultation with, among others, leading members of the New Zealand Educational Institute, the primary teachers' organisation.
The 1928 syllabus had little impact on the work of the schools at the time. It was much less prescriptive than previous official requirements. It sought, as Bird put it, to offer teachers 'a larger measure of freedom to choose' what they should teach and to enable them to use methods which their 'own experience and craftsmanship lead [them] to consider the most suited to their pupils and [their] environment'. But so long as Proficiency, the primary leaving examination, remained, few teachers would risk their pupils' examination prospects by straying from well-beaten paths. Bird and his colleagues had been attempting to moderate the effects of Proficiency by allowing head teachers of large schools to accredit it, but the depression put an end to that. It was left to the Labour government to dispense with Proficiency after the 1936 examination.
Bird was to retire at the end of 1930, but was persuaded to accept the new post of superintendent of native and island education. He had already visited the Cook Islands in 1914 and set up the native school system there, and had done the same in Western Samoa in 1921. The intention in creating the new post was to bring New Zealand teachers serving in the Cook Islands, Western Samoa and Fiji under the supervision of the native school inspectorate. But at the end of 1931 the post was disestablished as an economy measure.
In retirement, William and Catherine Bird lived successively in Wellington, Dunedin and Auckland. Catherine died on 4 June 1951 after a long, distressing illness. William died on 11 November 1954, survived by his four children.
The private William Bird is elusive in the way public servants of his time often were. His annual reports span nearly 30 years but give few glimpses of his personal attitudes. He was remembered by his colleagues for his personal integrity, his signal contribution to Maori education, and as a source of inspiration and help to teachers.