The 1918 Education Act and Herbert A.L. Fisher

This week we mark the 100th anniversary of the Education Act (1918) by looking at material we hold relating to education in our Cope Collection. Often known as the Fisher Act, because it was drawn up by Herbert Fisher, it raised the school leaving age to fourteen and included the provision of additional services such as medical inspection, nursery schools and centres for pupils with special needs. It applied to England and Wales (there was a separate act for Scotland).

Photograph from the George Grantham Bain collection at the Library of Congress.

Herbert A.L.Fisher (1865-1940) was an English historian, educator, and Liberal politician. He was educated at Winchester College and became a tutor in modern history at the University of Oxford.  In his autobiography, he recalls his own school days with great fondness:

I enjoyed every moment of my life at Winchester; the work, the games, the society of my fellows and of the masters, and the compelling beauty of the old buildings, of the College Meads, and of the sweet water-meadows…

[H.A.L.Fisher, An Unfinished Autobiography, Oxford: 1940]

In 1916, Fisher was asked by David Lloyd George to join the coalition government as President of the Board of Education because “the country would take more educational reform from an educationalist than from a politician.”  Lloyd George assured Fisher that money would be available for reform and that he would have his full support.   Fisher describes how despite a largely conservative cabinet, the Prime Minister’s support ensured the acceptance of every plan.

In 1917 he submitted a memorandum to the Cabinet, detailing the deficiencies in public education and the appropriate remedies.  His maiden speech in the House of Commons introduced a new scheme of educational finance.  That same year he also obtained a second reading for an Education Bill that would curtail industrial labour and give local authorities the ability to promote education from nursery schools upwards.  It became apparent that his proposals were too drastic: there was concern on the part of local authorities who would have to administer the act plus from employers would be losing adolescent labourers.  However, in 1918 the Education Act was passed.  That same year, it was supplemented by the Teachers’ Superannuation Act which provided a pension for all teachers.

The University’s Cope Collection contains Proceedings of Education Committee from 1918 onwards for the administrative county of Southampton.  The minutes record how. in November 1918, several farmers in Overton and Micheldever Districts appealed for the release of children from school for potato digging.

One aspect of the Education Act was the provision of medical inspection and the Library also holds contemporaneous medical reports of the School Medical Officer.  One dating from 1922 states that medical inspection of school children had been in existence in Hampshire for 14 years: the County must have been ahead of the times in this regard.  What was not so advanced is the language used to describe those children we would today consider to have special needs.

The report describes how two groups of children were assessed: “entrants” aged 5 and “leavers” aged around 12 or 13.  There used to be a third assessment of an intermediate group, ages 8 or 9, but this had to be stopped due to lack of staff time: some things never change. During the year, 3,456 children were discovered to have “verminous heads”: any carer of a school-age child will tell you that head lice are still a big problem today.  It should be remembered that this report pre-dates the founding of the National Health Service.

Fisher’s Act had a significant impact on a whole general of children: education provision in the country was not significantly changed for another 26 years until the Butler Act of 1944.

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