Jamie Trezise, University of Sussex

When considering the educational reforms of the 20th century, it will most likely be the 1944 Education Act, pioneered by Rab Butler, that comes to mind, which introduced secondary education for all.[1] Or perhaps it might be the 1988 Education form act, which introduced the National Curriculum and the Key stage system still in place today.[2] Not many will think of the 1918 Education Act, a product of educationalist and historian H A L Fisher, which tried to introduce a form of compulsory secondary education which had all but five sections repealed by 1921.

So why bother looking at this little-known, short-lived piece of legislation? The reason that I began to look at it was because of how similar the context of the 1918 act is to the act of 1944:

  1. There is an evident influence of pre-war reports from the board of education.
  2. Both acts fit into a more comprehensive post-war social reform.
  3. Furthermore, most importantly, they attempt to introduce a form of compulsory secondary education for all.

What did the 1918 act want to introduce?

Rab Butler himself best describes why David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of the 1918 act, had more potential to introduce meaningful reform, as he states in his memoirs that he had been ‘brought up in an atmosphere of educational and religious problems’, giving him a vested interest in reform.[3] As he had a keen interest in education from the outset, he decided that to create an act which genuinely aimed to progress education, he needed an expert in the field. He invited the vice-chancellor of Sheffield University, Herbert Fisher, to join his cabinet as the President of the Board of Education.

After some initial pushback, the Education Act of 1918 was passed. The reforms included an increase in special needs education, medical inspections in schools, and the abolition of fees in elementary schools, and raising the school leaving age from 12 to 14.[4] But the most exciting introduction was continuation schools, which had a compulsory attendance of 320 hours a year.[5] The type of education that Fisher envisaged for these continuation schools links back to the Acland report of 1909, which suggested that there were many groups, from boys in skilled and unskilled employment to girls who had domestic duties or employment, who could benefit from attendance in continuation education, and how employers would also be able to benefit from encouraging such a form of education.

Did the 1918 Education Act have any succes?

The short answer: no. When it comes to Education Policy, there is one group of people who need to support the changes for there to be any kind of success: the Teachers. A Miss Phipps, speaking at the National Union of Women Teachers (NUWT), said of the Fisher Act ‘[it is] a meagre beginning towards cancelling a huge debt to this generation of children and young people who have suffered from the curtailment of educational facilities during the war, and since’.[6] Most educationalists believed that the Fisher act was not going far enough in reforming the schooling system, and that is before it ran into financial trouble. The war and subsequent economic crises of the early part of the 1920s had meant that there had to be drastic cuts to education and welfare funding. The overall education budget was cut by over £5,000,000, and the free school meals allowance was cut from just over £1,000,000 to £300,000.[7] William Steer, the former President of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), sums it up aptly when he states that ‘the 1918 Education Act from which ardent education reformers hoped so much, lies dormant and probably dying’.[8] From great hope, all that remained were five sections of an act that aimed to change the English education system for the better.

The Legacy of Fisher and his Education Act

Considering that his legislation was by all accounts a failure, Fisher remained remarkably optimistic about his achievements in the progression of education. In his unfished autobiography, he writes, ‘The Act of 1918, embodied in the consolidating Statutes of 1921, is still the substance of our British educational code’.[9] Whilst he may not have had the long-lasting impact of Butler and Baker, Fisher set a precedent for educational reform and the coming of secondary education in the UK. If it was not for the 1918 act, it is unlikely that the Hadow reports of 1923-33, which covered topics of nursery schools to leaving ages, would have been written. If the Hadow reports had not been written, it is inconceivable that the Norwood report, which introduced the idea of the tripartite education system that developed into the system we know today, would have been written, and we would not have had the Butler Act from 1944, paving the way for the schooling system we know and (sometimes) love today. Fisher’s act may not have amounted to much, but his legacy is evident in the reforms that succeeded him.

Jamie Trezise is a graduate of Education Studies and History from the University of Winchester and is coming to the end of his History teacher training at the University of Sussex. He is also undertaking a Master’s module at University College London’s Centre of Holocaust Education, looking at the place of the Holocaust in the Curriculum.

[1] [1] C31The Education Act 1944,

[2] [2] C40 The Education Reform Act 1988

[3] R A Butler, The Art of the Possible (London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1971), 108.

[4] C39 Education Act 1918

[5] C39 Education Act 1918, p. 9.

[6] No Author, ‘National Union of Women Teachers: “False Economy”‘, Times Educational Supplement, 17th February 1921. Accessed 20th July 2020, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/SC5108184087/GDCS?u= ucwinch&sid=GDCS&xid=6dafb723

[7] Brian Simon, Education and the Labour Movement 1870-1920 (London and Southampton: The Camelot Press Ltd, 1965), 54-55.