The 1918 Education Act
Janet Scott writes:
As the Great War wound its weary way to peace through exhaustion, the Minister of Education, the historian H A L Fisher, successfully steered through Parliament a Bill which increased the length of school attendance, regulated child labour, and made provision for physical activity and health.
The Friend, a Quaker weekly journal, commented on the Bill:
The new conditions of the time - the growth of knowledge, the coming of democracy, the arresting circumstances of the War, the awakened social conscience - have exerted their profound and penetrating influence. New occasions teach new duties; new evidence, manual, social and physical, leads to new conclusions. Perhaps not of least effect have been the findings of the school doctor in every community in the land, that health is the primary need and comes before intellect, that premature juvenile labour injures the body and mind of the child, that fresh air and exercise build up its body, that neglect of the little child produces disease in the older child, and above all that the child must be dealt with as an individual.....
In this Bill the nation decides to bring to an end, once and for all, the false and mischievous principle that the education of the child may be subservient, or even sacrificed, to its premature labour; it decides to unify the whole system of education, to improve and safeguard the physical condition of the child and thus of future generations, to secure that the child does not leave school at the critical juncture when its education is of highest value and potentiality, to supplement its training both by more practical instruction and by continuance to adolescence, and to make a highway in England for true learning; and above all in this Bill there is the spirit of man's right to know and to enjoy the treasures of the mind as the basis of good citizenship and of good life.
Supporting these improvements in the public system of education was not without problems for Friends. There were numerous schools, often small day schools, founded and run by Quakers, the existence of which was threatened by a better public system with more highly paid teachers. The dilemma was whether Friends should continue with an education for their own children which inculcated their own principles, or whether as the public system adopted more and more of those principles they should abandon their own schools and use the public provision. In the eventuality, parents 'voted with their feet'; only six of the schools present in 1918 (all with boarding) now survive, and very few Quaker children attend them. The gains for which Quaker MPs (among others) had worked, and which the Society supported were accompanied by loss.
An easy way to cause a conflict in a Quaker meeting is to mention Quaker schools. There are those who are wedded to principles of equality in provision who see independent schools as socially divisive; and there are those who value freedom and the ability to experiment which comes from independence. Some are wary of total state control of the curriculum. All however would probably agree with what Fisher wrote about the purpose of education: it rests upon the right of human beings to be considered as ends in themselves and...entitled, so far as our imperfect social arrangements may permit, to know and to enjoy all the best that life can offer in the sphere of knowledge, emotion and hope.
Whilst things have changed in education over the past hundred years are we any nearer achieving this aim?
Janet Scott is a member of the Society of Friends and a Director of CTE.