Chapter 9 – The Beginning of the 20th Century 1900-1921

This entry is part [part not set] of 20 in the series A Short History of Technical Education



Chapter 8 showed the relatively rapid progress in the development of technical and commercial education particularly from about 1880 to about 1905 and highlighted that before 1880 it had been a period that had been punctuated by a series of promising initiatives but leading to relatively little real progress. From the late 18th century, as we have seen, there had been so many false dawns, in spite of some isolated and amazing initiatives and significant statements and contributions from a number of exception individuals. The momentum generated after 1880 was maintained until around 1905. Chapters 9 and 10 will describe the progress or lack of it between the beginning of the 20th century and the Second World War.

The State of British Industry From 1870 to the Early 20th Century.

In spite of some modest progress in the development of technical education between 1880 and 1905 Britain’s industrial performance still continued to decline when compared with its competitors. The period from 1870 witnessed the decline of this country’s predominance in manufacturing, innovation and more worryingly by the failure to exploit new scientific discoveries and their application to industrial processes. The measures of decline can be described both in absolute and relative terms when compared with our competitors. The country was not only losing its international market share in the traditional industries e.g. steel, ship building and textiles, but more concerning was its failure to capitalise on the newer technologies in such areas as chemical and electrical engineering.

The following few examples attempt to illustrate these two aspects of decline during the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1880 the UK accounted for 41.1% of the world’s manufactured products but by 1913 this had decreased to 29.9%. In 1913 the British chemical industry represented just 11% of the world market compared with 34% and 24% held respectively by America and Germany. The final example shows the country’s failure to embrace and exploit the modern technologies even though we had been in the forefront of many of these discoveries. One such area was that associated with electrical technology where we quickly lost our initial advantage to other countries e.g. by 1913 the UK’s electrical industry was just a third the size of that of Germany. It was the failure to compete in the traditional industries as well as those associated with the new industrial processes which makes the picture so depressing. In addition industry was becoming known for poor quality products and this, coupled with decreasing levels of productivity when compared with our competitors, further contributed to our loss as the first major industrial nation. Some more statistics in 1913 Britain had 9,000 university students compared with approximately 60,000 in Germany. The country sent 5 day release students in every 10,000 to institutions compared with 13 per 10,000 in America. Germany produced 3,000 engineering graduates each year compared with just 350 (1st and 2nd class honours) for England and Wales in ALL branches of mathematics, science and technology

These statistics and other forms of evidence emphasised and reinforced this country’s continued failure to recognise the importance of a national system for technical education and its inability to rise to the challenges and opportunities that technological innovation afforded. In addition to numerous statistical reports a number of influential individuals had conducted a series of comparative studies with our major competitors, for example Shadwell (1) and Magnus (2). Shadwell had carried out a very detailed analysis of the relative industrial efficiencies of Germany, America and England. His findings reinforced earlier reports that English industry was over regulated by government and was reluctant to invest in up-to-date equipment and get directly involved in technical education. A typical quote from Shadwell reflected his view of this country’s performance “Other nations have not only caught up with us from behind but have surpassed us” and he continued that Germany and America regarded England with ‘a mixture of contempt and pity as a spent force.’ Shadwell also pointed out the superiority of the German education system namely that it worked closely with industry and fully recognised the importance of the application of science and technology in industry. Both Shadwell and Magnus commented very favourably on Germany’s commitment to training and the national system for commercial and technical education when compared with this country.

Coupled with this was the continuing indifference of successive governments, mainly fuelled by ignorance of technical and scientific concepts, to recognise the strategic importance of science and more importantly its application in industry and as a result to the future economic health of the country. It is depressing looking back to this period when so much was happening as a result of scientific discovery and technological innovation that the political community failed to fully realise its importance and as a result had little or no impact on government policy not only for industry but also for technical education.

The State System of Education Starts to Take Shape.

After this period of expansion i.e. 1870 to 1905, for a number of reasons some of them understandable, the pace of development of technical education began to slow dramatically after the 1902 Education Act. The devolution of power to local authorities following the 1902 Education Act slowed down the impetus that had been generated during the latter half of the 19th century. The provisions in the Act, which had been place on the local authorities and their education committees, were of a permissive nature and not a duty. Interesting to note that following the 1902 Act politicians became concerned about the loss of central control of education and one of the initial intentions of the next major Education Act of 1918, was an attempt to wrest back some of those powers given to the local authorities. However yet again intentions were thwarted and classic fudge was achieved. When reading the history of education it is a miracle that a national system of education across any of the sectors was ever realised bearing in mind the succession of compromises and political machinations. Even with the development of secondary education in the early 20th century there was still great uncertainty about the importance, role and place of technical and scientific subjects in the school curriculum.

The 1902 Education Act had belatedly established a national system for state secondary education the curriculum it perpetuated was based on the traditional public school academic model. The Act introduced a co-ordinated national system of education but it was very much a compromise. This was evidenced by the fact that the older grammar schools and the public schools remained independent and aloof from the state schools and continued to largely perpetuate and pursue classical education – preparing students for entry to Oxbridge and the professions. The political machinations associated with the 1902 Education Act had produced a set of compromises that amongst other elements had weakened the existing central system and replaced it with power bases devolved to county and county borough level. This left the further development of technical education to the discretion of local authorities which up to then had shown little interest in this aspect of education. This cocktail of localism and discretion laced with the inevitable ambiguities enshrined in the 1902 Act most certainly impeded the development of a national system for technical education. The 1902 Education Act is yet another classic example of the laissez- faire philosophy so beloved by successive governments. This hands off, piecemeal philosophy which by definition is permissive has continued up to the present time as evidenced by the operation of the so called free market recently and will be described in later chapters.

An insight into how local authorities viewed technical education can seen in the way they managed the whiskey tax. The tax had provided additional monies for technical education but not all had been used exclusively. In fact only 59% of the total raised was used for that purpose because some authorities had spent it on strengthening secondary education. Even more concerning was the fact that much of the money had been spent on encouraging and improving the teaching of pure science rather than for technical subjects. This sad fact again reinforces the impression of a hostile perception of technical subjects and their relation to industry, and that this country regarded pure science as more important and of higher status than its application. It finally took the Great War and its consequences to begin to bring about changes in perception of technical subjects. For example it was only after the First World War that craft subjects such as plumbing, carpentry, joinery, welding and fabrication were introduced in a number of technical schools.

One early development at the beginning of the 20th century in technical education was the introduction of the ‘grouped courses of instruction’ some of which had been in operation in the late 19th century. Grouped courses had been offered in Sanitary Engineering at the Manchester Technical College from about 1890. Other courses were operation in Halifax and St. Helens. The grouped courses developed rapidly after 1902 particularly in the north of England and by 1905 over 85% of the larger towns in Cheshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire were staging grouped examinations. Development was slower in London and the south but the system was finally adopted across the country. The grouped courses replaced the rather unregulated and badly co-ordinated arrangements for study by a more effectively managed scheme of instruction. The following illustrates how evening courses were configured:

The Junior Course.
Courses were not specialised and were offered over two years in evening continuation schools for students aged between 14 and 16. Provision aimed to give a good general background in a number of vocational studies.

The Senior Course.
Three years duration from about 16 years of age and taken in technical schools. Courses were more specialised and catered for the educational needs of industry and commerce. Admission to the courses required previous educational experience from schools or other institutions with a leaving age greater than 14 e.g. a continuation school, secondary school or another education establishment.

The Advanced Course.
These courses were of two or three year’s duration and usually available in the larger technical schools. The courses were obviously far more advanced and specialised and built on the Senior Courses. The courses were generally welcomed by students and increasingly by employers who liked the national standardisation and management and relative simplicity of the schemes. The first and second years of senior courses were referred to as S1 and S2 respectively. This designation was adopted later with technician and operatives examinations which I will describe later. The majority of students in evening technical schools were studying on Senior Courses. The courses represented and reflected the demands and needs of a particular industry and students could attend more than one set of classes/courses e.g. a mathematics class was freely available to engineering and construction students whilst an economics course was accessible to banking and insurance students.

The abolition of the school boards inevitably required a great deal of energy, time and resource to be expended by the local authorities as they assumed responsibility for the wider range of duties placed upon them by the 1902 Education Act. They had to develop totally new systems and structures to manage the responsibilities that they were required to manage including a much wider and heterogeneous range of both colleges and schools. In addition they were required to bring together and to integrate the hitherto separate organisations of the Education Department, the Science and Art Department and the educational sections of the Charity Commission. These early preoccupations provided another opportunity to divert attention away from technical and commercial education and as a result slowed down the pace of its development. Obviously the impact of the Great War further added to the other factors that retarded the momentum that had been established between 1880 and 1905.

During the 19th century concerns were constantly expressed about the country’ industrial performance, the inadequate state of education including technical instruction and the resulting weak educational background of the workforce. All of these factors resulted in the loss of international competitiveness. Unfortunately these factors and themes would haunt most of the 20th century and dominate educational and political debates. To be fair the early 20th century experienced a number of massive social, financial and political transformations that inevitably impacted on state spending. However some important and positive developments did occur in technical and commercial education during the early 20th century in spite of these difficulties. So as we will see during the next forty years there was a more ‘gradual evolution, that built on the foundations that were laid between 1880 and 1905.

There was a flurry of political activity with a number of key parliamentary Acts and reports at the beginning of the 20th century. The 1902 Education Act (Balfour Act) has already been mentioned along with its weaknesses but it did establish a national system of secondary education by integrating higher grade elementary schools and fee-paying secondary schools. LEAs replaced the School Boards. The term elementary school was gradually being replaced by a more appropriate title for the early stage of education namely the primary sector and school. The 1904 Secondary Schools Regulations continued the reforms and introduced a subject based curriculum. Subjects included Drawing, English Language, Geography, History, Mathematics and Science as well provision for manual work and physical education. Science instruction was to include both theoretical and practical aspects. Housewifery was introduced in girls’ schools which yet again reinforces the continuing perception of the role of women.

The 1907 Code improved the quality and aims of primary education and introduced free places and scholarships for secondary schools. As you can see the emphasis was very much on schools with little legislation on technical education. In 1909 the Board of Education (BoE) published a consultation paper that recommended the introduction of Day Continuation Education for school leavers. In 1911 the Board published a report on Examinations in Secondary Schools which would have some minor implications for the development of technical and commercial examinations. The Committee was chaired by Dyke Acland a key figure in education during the late 19th and early 20th centuries having been President of the BoE Consultative Committee from 1907 to 1916 and Vice-President on the Committee for Education between 1885 and 1889. The terms of reference were: To consider when and in what circumstances examinations are desirable in secondary schools (a) for boys and (b) for girls. The committees are desired to consider this question under the following headings:

  • Examinations at entrance to school.
  • Examination during school life.
  • Examination at leaving school.

The Committee made a number of recommendations about the conduct and inspection of external examinations and that the examinations for pupils up to 16 years of age which they said should form the basis of a liberal education and serve as a foundation for further studies. They suggested the main external examination should be called the Examination for the Secondary School Certificate giving it credibility to the members of the general public. The Secondary Schools Examination Council was eventually established in 1917 to administer the new School Certificate and Higher School Certificate examinations first recommended in 1911.

The rather late recognition that some form of preliminary technical education for young people was essential in order to prepare them for employment in particular trades brought about additional legislation to strengthen the existing trade schools which were then offering instruction in a number of trades. In 1913 the Board of Education with the promulgation of the Regulations for Junior Technical Schools recognised the trade schools. These Regulations were subsequently incorporated into the 1914 Regulations for Technical Schools, Schools of Art and other institutions offering further education. The regulations and the position of the schools were finally sorted out following the 1944 Education Act when the trade schools were established as an integral part of the secondary school sector. I will describe the range of institutions involved in technical and commercial education in chapter 10.

The Lewis Report in 1917 with an interim report in 1916 focused on the consequences of the Great War. It was entitled: Juvenile Education in Relationship to Employment after the War and its terms of reference were: To consider what steps should be taken to make provision for the education and instruction of children and young persons after the war for those

  • who have been abnormally employed during the war;
  • who cannot immediately find advantageous employment;
  • who require special training for employment.

The interim report published in 1916 recommended the strengthening of the juvenile employment bureaux and the local employment committees. The final report in 1917 recommended the raising of the school leaving age to 14 with no exceptions, followed by attendance for at least 8 hours a week or 320 hours per annum at Day Continuation Classes up to the age of 18 years. These two recommendations were picked up and considered by the 1918 Education Act (Fisher Act) which enacted most of the Lewis Report recommendations. As a result this gave all young workers right of access to day release education. However the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 14 was only implemented following the 1921 Act. In 1920 the Unemployment Insurance Act gave the Government powers to link benefits to training. No national funding was made available and what developments occurred were at a local level.

Earlier chapters have highlighted and continually stressed that the growth and development of technical education was to say the least unsystematic, if not haphazard, and had as a result created a complex, confused and disjointed system, a matter which had become only too apparent at the time of the 1902 Education Act. By the end of the 19th century a wide range of continuing education existed for adults and young people including day-time, evening study, part-time study etc. History had created a heterogeneous group of institutes whether these were evening schools, mechanics’ institutions, polytechnics, and schools of art, tutorial classes, university extension lectures and various forms of the working men’s college.

Unfortunately this confusing complexity has continued in many ways right up the present time and has contributed to the relatively poor public perception and track record of technical education. Successive governments have failed to tackle and implement educational reforms that could have created a national system of technical education that was equally valued with the so-called academic route. The long gestation period to establish and locate technical education within a national education framework has most certainly contributed to this country’s decline and weakened our competitive edge over the past 150 years. The striking feature of the English education system particularly for secondary and technical sectors that emerges was the lack of any central direction and the absence of the essential elements necessary for any overall organisation namely coherence and integration. One essential and critical factor that had impeded the development of a national framework for technical education was the inadequacy of existing elementary and secondary schools and the absence of practical subjects and science which would have provided a flow of more educated young people into the technical institutions that existed at the time. Obviously the ultimate success, well-being and long term security of technical education critically depends on a sufficient flow of suitably qualified young people from schools. In spite of many worthy attempts by a number of visionary individuals in creating institutions for technical instruction e.g. Mechanics’ Institutions, Polytechnics etc the majority mostly failed because of weaknesses in the learners’ educational background. Inadequate basic literacy and numeracy skills, coupled with lack of any scientific and technical awareness, either theoretical or practical, was a result of inadequate and in some cases non-existent schooling. Margaret Gowing made the following a very incisive statement and judgement in a Wilkins Lecture to the Royal Society of London in July 1977:

“Most economic historians seek objective, primarily economic explanations ranging from markets and tariff policy to the complexity of Britain’s inherited industrial structure. In this interpretation, education is scarcely mentioned, and such views attune with our current disenchantment at the results of recent large educational expenditure. Of course it is impossible to draw a simple cause and effect line between education and economic strength – but a smaller group of historians do accept that Britain’s failure in the nineteenth century to develop the educational system essential for national efficiency was a main cause of this decline. I am on their side”

As already mentioned the period between the late 19th and early 20th centuries was one of unparalleled change in science and technology and this inevitably impacted on and subsequently influenced social and economic thinking. Many historians have attempted to describe the industrial decline but as Gowing commented very few linked the decline with the weakness in education particularly the elements relating to industry. However one aspect where historians did agreed was that at the beginning of the 20th century the traditional English view still persisted namely that theory and practice should be separated and the schools should concentrate on the theoretical aspects whilst the practical activities were delivered in the workshop. This was reinforced by the 1889 Technical Instruction Act which had expressly stated that schools should not be involved in the instruction of any trade or industry. This approach was in stark contrast to similar schools elsewhere in Europe, which emphasised the importance of workshop practice and the apprenticeship.

Developments in Examinations.

As already mentioned in 1917 the Board of Education recommended that the junior certificates and other awards that existed at the time should be replaced by the School Certificate Examinations Scheme. Universities would be responsible for their operation and a Secondary Schools Examination Council was established to advise the Board of Education. Thus was born the School Certificates and Higher Certificates often called the School Matriculation, which continued to be offered until their replacement in 1951 by GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels. These were by definition academic in nature with little technical content. I will continue discussing the development of the examination system in later chapters describing more fully the developments with CGLI, RSA, the Regional Examination Unions, ONCs/HNCs and other awarding bodies [see also the history of technical and commercial examinations also on this website].

One of the most fascinating and important developments and a facet of technical and commercial examinations arose out of a collaborative scheme between the Board of Education and a Professional Institution namely the Institution of Mechanical Engineers that was to become known as the ‘National Certificate Scheme’. This co-operation began in 1921 and certification was available to successful students in technical schools and colleges. The National Certificate Scheme and its awards proved a success and subsequently were extended when other Professional Institutions including the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Institute of Building, Institute of Chemistry and the Textile Institute got involved. Similar arrangements were developed later for Commercial subjects. The Board of Education and the Professional Institutions would determine the standard and range of the subject content which would attract the award of the certificate. However they would attempt to allow the greatest degree of freedom to the school/college in terms of the organisation of the work and its assessment.

The success of the scheme soon saw the development of national certificates and diplomas across a wide range of technical subjects. Each provider would draft its own syllabus very often focussed on the needs of local employers and reflecting local industries. The syllabus would then be submitted to the Board of Education and the relevant Professional Institution for their approval. Once the course was approved successful candidates in the examinations would receive a certificate or diploma according to the level of the course and/or the mode of attendance i.e. part or full –time. For example Ordinary Certificates (ONCs) were awarded after a three- year part –time course at a technical college whilst Higher Certificates HNCs) were awarded after a further two years. Ordinary and Higher Diplomas (O/HNDs) required two and three years of full-time study respectively.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Professional Institutions had introduced their own examinations e.g. Institution of Civil Engineering in 1897 and the Institution of Mechanical Engineering in 1913 respectively. In addition the universities and university colleges awarded qualifications in technical subjects although the latter could not award degrees. In spite of the increasing numbers of students pursuing technical subjects there was already a mismatch between supply and demand. Industry wanted qualified people but even during this period complained that the universities and other providers of HE were biased against vocational and technical subjects. Surprisingly there was also evidence in the 1920s/30s that there was also an imbalance in graduate science numbers e.g. a surplus of chemists and deficit of biologists – a problem that persists to this day in e.g. engineering, physics, mathematics and statistics. Finally ,interesting to note that of the 4,439 students in full-time technology courses in 1934 the vast majority of them went into technical i.e. research, testing and design as opposed to the production side of industry – yet another example of academic drift?

Developments in the universities

One crucial indicator of a country’s commitment to technical education is the number of graduates in such subjects as the sciences, engineering and technologies. As has been said before, England significantly lagged behind other countries such as America, France and Germany in this critical area. British industry during the 19th century employed very few graduates at both management and specialist level, again in stark contrast to our main competitors. This to some extent reflected the attitude of industry which did not recognise the need to create qualified scientists and technologists. This negative attitude was further exacerbated by successive governments which had failed to establish a unified educational system. Rather belatedly the newer universities and university colleges (many of which were later referred to as the civic universities) were established to train the cohorts of scientists and engineers/technologists. In addition successive governments had not invested or encouraged the ancient universities to develop provision in line with the emerging technologies and newer industrial processes such as electrical and chemical engineering. The development of the university sector at this critical period especially in the technical subjects again reflects the low esteem that the country held the application of science and its impact on industry. Even at the higher levels of achievement we lagged well behind other countries and coupled with the inadequate provision it sadly reflected how industry was responding to the new technologies.

It will be helpful to quickly review the development of the universities in England as this reflects the level and type of commitment. In 1902 six universities existed in England namely Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, London, Birmingham and the federal Victoria University. This compares with twenty universities in Germany at the beginning of the 19th century many of which had a strong commitment to technical subjects. However during the early part of the 20th century there was a relatively rapid development of new independent universities. Victoria ceased to be a federation and separate institutions of Manchester and Liverpool were established in 1903, and Leeds in 1904 quickly followed by Sheffield in 1905 and Bristol in 1909. These universities and their precursors as university colleges had been encouraged by the government but not supported or funded adequately to develop honours and general degree programmes in technical subjects. Enrolments in these subjects increased although they were relatively low when compared with our competitors. For example in 1910 the total number of graduates in science and technology from all institutions offering these programmes was just 3,000 compared with 25,000 in Germany. Figure 1 attempts to show the relatively slow growth of science and technology graduates from 1870 to 1910. Figures do not include graduate numbers from Oxford or Cambridge, which were dominated by mathematics.

Figure1. Numbers of Science and Technology Graduates between 1870 and 1910

Subject 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910
Sciences 13 38 136 304 800
Technologies 6 17 30 74 431
Totals 19 55 166 378 1,231

The domination of Oxbridge continued well into the 20th century for example even in 1938 these two institutions still accounted for 20% of the total university population. The total student population in 1938 was approximately 50,000. Another interesting but depressing statistic was that in 1908 the number of full-time students in provincial university colleges and technical schools was below 3,000.

In spite of 500 new secondary schools opening as a result of the 1904 Education Act the post-14 participation rate was still under 20% in the first two decades of the 20th century which meant that the reforms had little impact in encouraging pupils to stay on at school, let alone increasing progression on to further study in technical subjects.

The gradual realisation of some of the weaknesses within the 1902 Act had been identified and addressed by the Lewis Report (1917) and 1918 Education Act as described above. Clearly the Great War would have a number of repercussions on the future development and shape of the national education system and this will be considered in chapter 10.

The trade unions still showed little interest in technical education outside the existing apprenticeship programmes. The reason for this reluctance seemed to stem from a fear that the unions would lose influence and their ability to control wages and conditions of service of their members when in employment.
Other relevant developments between 1900 and 1920.

A number of other developments deserve a mention as they indicate that the country was beginning to take science and technology more seriously. In 1900 the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington was founded that carried out testing, research and setting standards. In 1915 A Committee of the Privy Council on Scientific and Industrial Research was established that lead to the creation of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. In 1919 the University Grants Committee was created that fundamentally changed the way universities were funded. A comprehensive chronology in Appendix 1 provides far more detail about key dates in the development of technical and commercial education.

In spite of a great deal of legislation the period between 1900 and 1920 this gave little advantage to technical education.

Chapter 10 will continue to describe developments up to the Second World War.


  1. Shadwell. A. ‘Industrial Efficiency. A Comparative Study of Industrial Life in England, Germany and America.’ Longmans, Green, and Co. 1909.
  2. Magnus. P. ‘‘Industrial Education.’ Kegan Paul, Trench and Co. 1888.

Other Useful References:

Abbott. A. ‘Education for Industry and Commerce in England.’ OUP. 1933.
Maclure. S.J. ‘Educational Documents 1816 -1967.’Chapman and Hall. SBN 412 07960 7. 1968.

Comprehensive book list, chronology and glossary available on this website in separate sections.

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