The relevance of historical research for an explanation of the roots of contemporary educational policy and its relationship to notions of equity, democracy and development has been sadly neglected in recent years. This means that policy makers have forfeited the advantages of reflecting on the traditions and experience of past endeavors and examining them critically for potential understandings of present and future policy making. The aim of this paper was to direct the attention of researchers to the complexities and multifaceted nature of educational policy development in inter-war era (1918–1945), with specific reference to British colonial Africa and South Africa. It will also hopefully provide a set of elementary tools for all of those interested in educational policy-making strategies that seek to promote meaningful social, economic and political change in an age of uncertainty.

Current discussion about the decolonization of education raises important questions about the nature of colonial education and requires researchers to avoid the reification of such notions if we are to gain an ample understanding of their meaning for the present. It is important therefore to understand the complexities of educational discourse, policy and practices in colonial contexts in precisely the same way that we need to understand the entanglements of education policy discussion at the present time. As stated by the editors in the introduction to this volume, it is essential to understand the ambiguities and contradictions of educational policy and practice, the variety of influences that informed such changes, and the changing nature of such discourses over time and in different geographical locations. We also need to be careful to distinguish between rhetoric and reality in education policy. What policy makers say about policy is not always the same as what they do in complex real-life situations.

The task of “development” in Africa in the post-World War II era was reconstituted within the frameworks that were evolved by the agencies of the United Nations Organization and the World Bank. Within the optimistic atmosphere of the post-colonial politics of the 1950s and 1960s, a new infrastructure of “development studies” was constructed, with the backing of generous donations of foreign aid—much of it coming from the former colonial powers. Since then, the works of Hetherington, Constantine, Hargreaves, Darwin, Cell, Hodge, Tilley and Cooper have helped us to understand more fully why that gap between intentions and outcomes was often so marked.Footnote 1 A key element of their work is to elucidate the nature of the rickety scaffolding of emergent state-sponsored welfarism, philanthropic humanitarianism, scientific management and research, upon which this emergent enterprise of “development” was built in the inter-war era. In that context, I wish to address some comments to the question of the conceptualization of colonial education during this period and then relate it to the wider issue of welfare policies that provided the backdrop to much of this work.

Conceptualizing Colonial Education

It is not possible to gain a comprehensive understanding of the development of educational policy in colonial Africa without a detailed study of the complexities of colonial educational discourse as it played itself out in the context of a worldwide revolution in educational thinking between the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. The influence of humanism, the legacy of the French Revolution, the impact of the Industrial Revolution and the movements for political and social reform, the challenges of mass education for a newly urbanized working class, the advent of vocational and technical education, the impact of the vast changes in the nature of science and technology, all contributed to the ferment of ideas that informed “Progressive Education,” “vocational education” and “radical education” during the late colonial era (see Chapter 5 by Jakob Zollmann and Chapter 7 by Michael A. Kozakowski). These all impacted on the manner in which education, pedagogy and curriculum were conceived globally by a variety of actors in various context at different times,Footnote 2 and more specifically in relation to the African colonial context.

The origins of the story of mass education in England are to be found in Sanderson’s description of the central policy dispute over education in the nineteenth century which was waged between those who wished to explain the provision of mass education as part of an attempt to ward off radical political and economic change by an increasingly organized urban working class, and those who saw the social reforms through education as a means of extending democratic rights, social welfare and human dignity in modern society increasing divided by class divisions.Footnote 3 The essential ambiguities of mass education in industrial countries were reproduced in the colonial context. Was colonial education to be about creating African Christians/African workers/African subject/citizens who were to be the vanguard of social, economic and political modernization and perhaps Westernization (assimilation for the French) or was the role of the school and missions to prevent such modernization and radicalization by facilitating more productive life on the land for peasant farmers and contented “tribesmen” or educated indigenes who would not threaten the colonial order?Footnote 4

My broad focus is on the construction of a modern network of educational experts drawn from missionary, state and philanthropic backgrounds, who framed a context for professional debate and policy practice in the inter-war era. The origins of many of these debates about colonial education can be traced to the great ecumenical Edinburgh International Missionary Council (IMC) conference in 1910.Footnote 5 From this time, there was an attempt to establish consultative networks of experts who would engage with issues of African education. For the most part, these experts were missionaries and government officials, but after World War I, the grid was expanded to include philanthropic contributions (mainly from American foundations like Carnegie, Rockefeller, Jeanes and Phelps Stokes) and a variety of progressive educators and university-based educators located mainly at institutions like Teachers College, Columbia University, the Institut Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Geneva, the École Coloniale in Paris, and, from the 1930s, and the Institute of Education, at London University. Through these networks which were crafted via various Imperial Education conferences between 1907 and the 1930s,Footnote 6 IMC congresses at Le Zoute, Belgium (1923), Jerusalem (1926), Tambaram, India (1938),Footnote 7 New Education Fellowship (NEF) meetings during the 1920–1930s in Europe, South Africa and Australasia,Footnote 8 and the Yale Education conferences convened by the South African, C. T. Loram, with the assistance of American philanthropic foundations between 1934 and 1939,Footnote 9 a research community gradually emerged which had a degree of influence on colonial education policy and practice.

The origins of the scientific study of colonial education can be traced to this time and to this context. The variety of reports of the English Board of Education (1897–1914), which included a considerable contribution on colonial education,Footnote 10 and the Hamburg Colonial Institute’s report on Education in the German Empire (the Schlunk Report of 1914),Footnote 11 were probably the first attempt to compile data and information on education on a large scale informed by modern statistical methods and a scientific approach to colonial educational policy.Footnote 12 These were followed by the two major Phelps Stokes Commission Reports on African education in 1922 and 1924, sponsored by an alliance of American missionary and philanthropic endeavor.Footnote 13 In a context where “the assumed stability of colonial rule became more questionable during the 1930s, a certain number of persons in Britain and France conceived programmes of reform and renewal which would eventually lead towards the independence of the African colonies,”Footnote 14 but the pace of such reforms needs to be understood in incremental terms with only the gradual emergence of broad plans for social reform.

In the field of education, the first landmark in this regard took the form of the Colonial Office (CO) statement on Education Policy in British Tropical Africa (1925).Footnote 15 These initiatives provided the template for much debate into the 1930s regarding the nature of the school curriculum and the extent of state support for education. Here, the major emphasis was on adapted education to support Lord Lugard’s policy of Indirect RuleFootnote 16 and a “Progressivist” agenda of rural community education that had initially been piloted in the postbellum South of the USA.Footnote 17 Out of these initiatives, there emerged the beginning of a “scientific approach” to education and policy development to replace the previous dependence on the field experience of missionaries and colonial officials. This new approach was based in part upon the linkages between management and science that were being forged in relation to business and education in the USA.Footnote 18 The move by the CO to establish the Advisory Committee on Native Education in Tropical Africa (ACNETA) in 1923, subsequently called the Advisory Committee for Education in the Colonies (ACEC), marked a clear, if tentative, initiative to formalize educational policy discussion in an age of increasing uncertainty. Other significant CO Memos which will be referred to below were: The Place of the Vernacular in Native Education (1927)Footnote 19; A Biological Approach to Native Education in East Africa (1930)Footnote 20; Compulsory Education in the Colonies (1930)Footnote 21; Grants-in-Aid to Education (1930)Footnote 22; Education of African Communities (1935)Footnote 23; Mass Education in African Societies (1944)Footnote 24; and Education for Citizenship (1948).Footnote 25

This led to the emergence of further influences on policy development—namely its increasing association with science and research—the expanded role of Universities and “educational experts” in training educators and conducting research, with the gradual shaping of a research culture which was expected to be “relevant” to policy concerns. This demonstrated the first signs of state intervention in welfare and education issues, despite very constrained budgets for research, and demonstrated that mission and state were to forge new alliance to meet the increasing demand for education, health and welfare services, parallel to the increasingly complex issues raised by the volatile political atmosphere in the international arena and in the African colonial context from the 1930s.

The IMC launched its own initiatives in this regard by establishing a Department of Social and Industrial Research in 1930,Footnote 26 but it was mainly through the efforts of the International Institute of African Languages and Culture (IIALC),Footnote 27 funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, that most of this work was to be pursued.Footnote 28 In that context, it was widely held that the emergent discipline of social anthropology held the keys to the evolution of expertise which would enable more efficient, and perhaps even more just, government/governance of the empire. There was as a result an extended association between colonial education and anthropology, though the outcomes of that exercise did not prove particularly promising from the point of view of the officials charged with framing and implementing policy.Footnote 29 For all that, leading anthropologists like Malinowski at the London School of Economics made great claims for the relevance of this research for addressing the issue of “culture contact” which he asserted was central to understanding the dynamic of the colonial situation.Footnote 30

German missionaries, both under the Kaiser and from the 1920s when they returned to the African mission field, focussed on issues of culture in education which had played a dominant role in the establishment of a German national identity since the 1880s. They were better equipped with the scientific tools of modern research than most other missionaries, and particularly in the East African context, they argued for an increased focus on indigenous cultures and languages in the development of African education—in part because this was the most effective means for proselytization. This view was defended by a range of progressive education arguments in favor of the use of the vernacular as a medium of instruction in education. The work of German linguists like Diedrich Westermann, who had senior posts both at Berlin University and the IIALC in London, aimed at the promotion of African languages and securing the textbooks and materials to make indigenous language instruction viable in West, East and Southern Africa.Footnote 31

Another theme that informed colonial education in East Africa in the early 1930s was the attempt to promote secular and scientific education in the schools. This was defended in terms of the need to ‘modernize’ education and strengthen modern secular knowledge in a field dominated by missions. The drafting of a Memo on Biology and its place in Native Education in East Africa,Footnote 32 promoted by the British Social Hygiene Council (BSHC), was also aimed at introducing a science-based core curriculum that would counter what were considered to be pagan beliefs or the promote healthcare and economic development. This secular/scientific approach to education was linked to international trends which highlighted progressive pedagogy and the promotion of student motivation which sought to move away from the older tradition of passive rote-learning. Educational curricula were to focus on environmental awareness—plants, animals, agriculture, hygiene, nutrition, economic environment—and the role of women and children in society. The linking of the politics and policy of education to wider issues of welfare and society, that were increasingly being stressed by the League of Nations, reflected contemporary political and economic concerns in Britain and Europe in the 1930s. As indicated above, they came to have a significant bearing on policy development in the colonial context.

Welfare and Education

It is important to see the increasing attention to education in the context of wider attempts by the actors referred to above to come to grips with the variety of challenges presented to colonial government in the inter-war years. In this context, there was a broad attempt to establish the elements of a welfare system in British African colonies, by promoting research into areas such as health, child welfare, nutrition, juvenile delinquency, the education of women and girls, as well as adult and higher education from the time of the first Colonial Development Act (1929) to the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940.Footnote 33 The establishment of an Advisory Committee on Social Welfare (1943) represented a colonial postscript to the wartime Beveridge Report on Social Welfare in the UK.Footnote 34 The establishment of a Social Services Department at the CO in 1939 represented a milestone. Although little was achieved in terms of the implementation of broad welfare plans, given the weakness of colonial states and the shortage of financial resources due to the war, there is evidence of some degree of concern with issues that would be taken up more fully at a later time.Footnote 35 Following on the work of Hetherington, Hodge and Tilley, I will therefore attempt to identify those areas that were highlighted in the process in the hope that others will explore them further. As a supplement to this enquiry, I will also indicate to what extent such welfare measures were to influence South Africa during this period prior to the advent of apartheid from 1948. I will refer to the provisional proposal for a national health and welfare system from 1939, and concern for issues such as nutrition (school feeding schemes), juvenile delinquency and vocational education. The key references for these events are the report of the National Conference on Social Work (1937), the establishment of a Department of Social Welfare (1937), the report of the commission to investigate the feasibility of a National Health Service (the Gluckman Report, 1944) and a Report on Social Security (the Batson Report, 1944).Footnote 36

It is important to note at the outset that the use of the term “development” changes during the time under review, and this has considerable significance for this enquiry. The 1929 Colonial Development Act was entirely focussed on economic development, or growth, and essentially shared the ethos of the Empire Marketing Board (EMB, 1926) which stressed the expansion of the colonial economies as a contribution to the British exchequer and a direct solution to the economic woes of the Depression. It was only successful after a long battle with Treasury over its potential as an element of the solution to the problem of mass unemployment in Britain.Footnote 37 Only incrementally over the course of the 1930s did the term “development” come to take on its modern connotations which focus on the social or welfare aspects of the colonial situation—what Hodge terms “the ‘human side’ of development.”Footnote 38 This was reflected in the remarks of Lord De La Warr, the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in the late 1930s, when he argued that “the real Development needed in Africa today is not the investment of large sums of capital but the improvement of human capital.”Footnote 39 This took place in the context of challenges presented by emergent social policy discourse in Britain with the rise of the Labour Party and Fabian influence, the tensions over the meaning of the Empire generated by the Closer Union debate,Footnote 40 and Labour’s experiment with the “Doctrine of Native Paramountcy” in East AfricaFootnote 41; the rise of fascism and communism in Europe, and, perhaps most significantly, the rise of African nationalism.

The focus on “the African child” and child welfare seems to present a potential litmus test for a sensitivity to wider welfare issues. It also highlights the influence of the League of Nations in focussing attention of the colonial powers on development and welfare issues. The initiative can be traced to the international conferences on the topic held under the aegis of the League of Nations. The CO sent delegates to the first International Congress on Child Welfare in 1925Footnote 42 and to the larger International Conference on the African Child (1931), both held in Geneva. Here the issues of child rights and humanitarian concerns took center stage.Footnote 43 It does not seem as if this issue was taken up directly by colonial governments, but it was tackled obliquely in various ways and with varying degrees of success.

In general terms, the health and medical issues relating to the colonial context had focussed on specific issues like the treatment of sleeping sickness or yellow fever prior to 1920 when there was a comprehensive report by a Departmental Committee on Colonial Medical Services.Footnote 44 The CO created the post of a Chief Medical Officers and this remained part of its establishment from 1926 to 1961. In the 1930s, a Colonial Medical Research Fund was initiated with a Committee to oversee its affairs. This led to a joint initiative by the British Medical Association (BMA) and the CO to establish a Medical Research Board.Footnote 45 Two conferences took place in the wake of these moves: one on Medical Research in East Africa (1934) and a Pan-African Health Conference held in Johannesburg in 1935.Footnote 46 Only after World War II was a Director of Colonial Medical Research appointed by the CO. During the War, the South African government also established a Commission to report on the feasibility of a National Health Service on the Beveridge model under the future Minister of Health, Henry Gluckman.Footnote 47 One of the key issues of concern that emerged from these activities was the question of food security and nutrition in Africa. The League of Nations enquiry into this issue produced a comprehensive four-volume report in 1936,Footnote 48 which set the tone for a wealth of publications on the topic in the next few years, and this provided the foundation for a variety of initiatives in this field. This was followed by the establishment of Standing Committee on Nutrition in the Colonial Empire under the auspices of the CO Economic Advisory Committee. It produced a report on Nutrition in the Colonial Empire (1938–1939)Footnote 49 and another from the newly established CO Social Services Department in 1943.Footnote 50 Audrey Richards also conducted pathbreaking work in anthropology, by linking ethnographic work to economics and diet in Central Africa.Footnote 51 However, it is difficult to establish to what extent these initiatives were to influence policy in colonial Africa. In South Africa, these trends were reflected by the holding of a National Nutritional Conference hosted by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) and the publication of findings on the topic in 1939.Footnote 52 One of the consequences of this event was the establishment of state-sponsored national school feeding scheme in 1941–1942 that was expanded to include black school children.Footnote 53 This policy was in operation until the 1950s when it was abandoned by the National Party government in terms of apartheid policy.Footnote 54

Another area of focus in relation to health care, social welfare and education was associated with the role and place of Woman and Children in colonial society.Footnote 55 At one level, this was about the access of this group to welfare services and education. At another, it was concerned about the place of women in society, to what extent they were subject to indigenous law and practices, and to what extent they fell under the legal mandate of the colonial state. The Church Missionary Society conference on “The Education of Women and Girls” in 1925Footnote 56 was a precursor to much debate on the topic in the 1930s. In 1927, the Australian-born British educationalist, Amy Whitelaw, and Canon Broomfield reported to ACNETA on the Education of Women and Girls in East Africa. This was followed by a Memo on Education of African Women by Sara Burstall and Whitelaw to the ACEC. Mary Blacklock’s work on “The Welfare of Women and Children in the Colonies” was pathbreaking, linking health to social issues and education.Footnote 57

In 1937, the CO produced a document on the topic Welfare of Women in Tropical Africa.Footnote 58 The published correspondence on this paper reveals the complexities of the legal status of women in East Africa and the problem of how this was to be handled by the CO. Between 1940 and 1943, there were a number of reports on the education and welfare of women and girls in Africa including a comprehensive 1943 CO Memo on Women’s Education and Welfare in Africa (1943).Footnote 59 Charlotte Hastings has completed an excellent study of the influence of these policies in the specific context of Southern Nigeria in the inter-war years.Footnote 60 In South Africa, there seems to have been little focus on these issues.

Reflecting international trends, the issue of juvenile delinquency attracted systematic attention in some area like Kenya and South Africa where youth crime and antisocial behavior among male Africans was defined as an important social problem in need to state intervention. As Ellen Hellman pointed out in relation to South Africa, this often represented “an attitude of defiance from African and Colored juveniles toward the existing social structure” that required intervention in the form of welfare of some kind.Footnote 61 Between 1933 and 1936, there were four reports on juvenile crime in Kenya which led to the passing of legislation to deal with the problems including the establishment of the Kabete Reformatory near Nairobi. There was also a CO report on Juvenile Welfare in the Colonies in 1942.Footnote 62 In South Africa, legislation was also passed to deal with this issue, but it was initially aimed at white juveniles. There was a government report on the topic in 1937 and a National Juvenile Delinquency conference held in Johannesburg under the auspices of the SAIRR in 1938.Footnote 63 Ellen Hellman’s pamphlet on Problems of Urban Bantu YouthFootnote 64 led to an expansion of the system for dealing with these issues, including the passing of a revised Children’s Act (UG No. 31-1937) with the extension of Industrial Schools for whites, and the establishment of Ottery School of Industries for Colored boys in Cape Town and Diepkloof Reformatory in Johannesburg for Africans, but the facilities supplied for African and Colored youth were always grossly inadequate.Footnote 65

In addition to the above measures, the provision of education gradually drew greater attention during from the 1930s. In addition to the four major Memos on topic in 1933, 1935, 1944, 1948, cited above, there were also a variety of attempt to focus on technical and vocational education Footnote 66 and higher education.Footnote 67 In South Africa, there was also a flurry of activity relating to these issues during the war years relating to adult education and technical/vocational education.Footnote 68 Much of this related to the provision for whites, but there were indications of the relaxation of the color bar in the interests of economic growth and a broadening of the social security net.


These various political, scientific, religious, philosophical and humanitarian themes contested the policy terrain in colonial Africa and were joined up in multiple ways against the background of the debates about Keynesian economics and social welfare that were the informing political debate about education in Europe and the America during the 1930s. Lord Hailey’s great An African Survey made an effort to place all the debates about African development within a scientific and analytical framework.Footnote 69 Education was a key issue of contestation in the context of future policy concerns relating to the nature of “development.” Although “adapted education” was not entirely abandoned, and although the culturalist vision of the German linguistics and anthropologists was not forsaken, formal curriculum models based on international norms for formal mass schooling retained their popularity with African educators, parents and students and had a conservative influence on the nature of the school and the curriculum in the years beyond 1945, inhibiting radical educational reform.

The goal of widening access to schooling was a constant refrain, but the lack of resources in these fragile colonial states restricted this expansion. By the advent of World War II, little had been accomplished with regard to the establishment of comprehensive welfare or schooling systems. Yet, as Hodge demonstrates, it was “on the basis of these fragile (policy) constructions that the key policy objectives on which the post-war colonial development offensive would hinge.”Footnote 70 Although beyond the scope of this enquiry, recent research indicates that many of the initiatives which dated from this time provided the scaffolding for the task of “development” in the very different context of independent Africa from the 1950s referred to by Hans Weiler. The strands of development policy were subsequently reconstituted within the frameworks that were evolved by the agencies of the United Nations Organization and the World Bank. Within the optimistic atmosphere of the post-colonial politics of the 1950s and 1960s, a new infrastructure of “development studies” referred to above was created. Yet, as Hans Weiler noted graphically, that project was best understood as an aspect of an “Age of Innocence” that characterized the post-colonial era. Looking back from what he saw as an “Age of Scepticism” in the late 1970s, Weiler sought to understand how the dreams of increasing equity had failed to be realized and why education had failed to contribute to the goals of equity in ways that had been taken for granted during the heyday of the “Development Decades.”Footnote 71 This chapter hopes to provide preliminary answers to these challenging questions (Table 2.1).

Table 2.1 Welfare and education in colonial Africa and South Africa, 1910–1945