Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Social Imaginaries and the New Education Fellowship

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_381



The New Education Fellowship (NEF, the “Fellowship”) was the largest, most influential, and enduring of the organizations that emerged from the new education movement. The NEF was established in Europe in 1921 primarily to promote new education ideals following the founding of the Progressive Education Association (PEA) in the USA in 1919. These two progressive organizations were part of a broader wave of “crusades” that comprised the initial global development of “the new education” in the late nineteenth century and early decades of the twentieth century. Both the NEF and the PEA built on the efforts of the new or pioneering schools, the progressive ideas of eminent educational thinkers, and the development of a range of new education teaching methods that enabled pioneering teachers to put new education ideals into practice.

The NEF had a broad agenda that not only included the promotion of new education but also emphasized international tolerance and citizenship, the spiritual development of mankind, and the creation of a global democratic fellowship of educators and affiliated organizations. The organization’s roots were not just strictly in the new education but also drew upon theosophical thought and the Theosophical Society, the conferences and followers of Maria Montessori and the Montessori Method, the so-called first wave of the feminist movement, and the enormous influence of a small group of progressive educators, in particular, Beatrice Ensor.

This entry presents an outline of the origins, founding, organizational structure, and underlying principles of the NEF. The last section considers the central role of the NEF in the international promotion of the new education and how aspects of progressivism came to maintain an enduring place in the educational landscape.

The Origins of the New Education Fellowship (1915–1920)

The immediate antecedents of the NEF organization were forged in the historical, political, spiritual, and educational milieu encompassing the First World War. As the NEF stalwarts, Boyd and Rawson (1965) explained, this conflict forced people around the world to scrutinize every aspect of their way of life leading to greater solidarity and the formation of a range of global organizations. However, while social and economic restoration was a high priority in international politics, educational reformation was not. This role was assigned to voluntary international educational bodies, such as the NEF.

There were significant issues to leaving this task to voluntary organizations. On the one hand, new organizations could be formed relatively quickly to respond to changing needs (as the NEF was), and educators with vision, spirit, and commitment could achieve significant gains where perhaps a larger officially sanctioned international organization might not. On the other hand, such voluntary groups frequently struggled with a lack of ongoing financial security and changing personnel, as well as often debilitating debates around philosophy and strategic approaches. Both the NEF and the PEA as voluntary organizations were to struggle with these issues throughout their existence.

Despite this, the NEF managed to flourish and succeed in its early years by harnessing the passion (and personal finances) of progressive and theosophical educators. The NEF was fortunate to gain high-level national and international political support derived from its inclusive and diverse membership policies, its democratically based, semiautonomous organizational structures, and the broad international appeal of its principles. The NEF was also extremely adept at spreading its philosophy through its international journals, conferences, and networks.

Founding of the New Education Fellowship (1921)

By the early 1920s, the international education community had begun to focus on reconstruction, and unsurprisingly progressive educators worldwide were discussing and writing about the need for educational reconstruction after the war. The theosophical community endorsed this desire for postwar reconstruction. Theosophists had become increasingly disillusioned with Western materialism and modernism. The utilization of modern science and technology to maximize carnage in the war effort had pushed them to critique materialism and look for spiritual solutions to mankind’s problems. The theosophists were not just focusing on educational reconstruction after the war but on a much grander spiritual ideal – the creation of a New Era and the coming of a New Age.

It was amidst this general mood for reconstruction that Beatrice Ensor’s Theosophical Fraternity in Education group held their conference in Letchworth in August 1920. The Fraternity by then had over 500 members in England and sections around the world. This conference had two aims: fostering a global network of educational innovators and education for peace. Resonating with theosophists’ earlier views on educational reconstruction, the Fraternity argued for a major reconstruction of both educational and spiritual provision. This could only be achieved by replacing competition with cooperation, external discipline with self-discipline, indoctrination with critical thinking, and materialism with spiritual growth. During the Fraternity’s 1920 conference, it was agreed to convene a larger conference of new educators in France to be held in the summer of 1921, and it was here that the NEF was to be formally constituted.

What became known as the first world NEF Conference was held in Calais in August 1921 and was deemed to be a great success. There were over one hundred delegates from at least fifteen countries, including Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, England, France, Holland, Ireland, India, Italy, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia. This Conference thus represented the first major opportunity, postwar for educators to meet.

In what was to be the case in successive NEF conferences, there was a considerable variety in the program of lectures. The sessions were broadly based around the theme of The Creative Self-Expression of the Child, and presenters considered core aspects of the new education from a multidisciplinary perspective, including the nature of the child, self-government, creative education, analytical psychology, and the schools of tomorrow. There was also an exhibition of children’s art and craft work including paintings, jewelry, lacework, bookbinding, and needlework from English and Scottish theosophical and progressive schools. This mix of varied presentations and exhibitions of children’s work was to become the model for future regional and international conferences of the NEF.

The Calais Conference was international in nature and intent, bringing together a diverse group of people with varying (and contradictory) views on the nature of education and educational reconstruction. Distinguished international guests included Dr Decroly (founder of a new education movement in Belgium), Dr Ferrière (director of the Bureau International des Ecoles Nouvelles in Switzerland), MR Nussbaum (director of the first Ecole-Foyer), Professor A Beltette (secretary of the International Federation of Secondary Schools), MJ Loiseau (leader of the new Scout movement in France), and James Young (a pupil of Dr Jung).

A major concern expressed, however, was whether there would be enough “community of spirit and purpose” to enable the creation of a workable world organization. The formation of such an organization fell to a small committee (the Committee of Five) that met during the Conference. The Committee argued that the time had come for a union of new educators who could see the signs of the emergence of a New Era and that such a Fellowship should be flexible, non-bureaucratic, and truly democratic. The following scheme was proposed and accepted: (a) there should be three journals (English, French, and German); (b) journal subscriptions included membership of the NEF; (c) there should be no rules or constitution; and (d) member countries would be independent. The NEF as an organization was thus formally constituted in 1921.

Without doubt, Beatrice Ensor was the main force behind the founding of the NEF and she had a multilingual background, a powerful personality, strong theosophical and progressive beliefs, and a persuasive ability. Ensor had been a progressive schoolteacher, inspector of schools (HMI) for the Board of Education, and from 1915 the organizing secretary of the Theosophical Educational Trust, and in 1920, she established the New Era journal.

Organizational Structure and Principles of the New Education Fellowship

The NEF from its beginnings was intended to be an international movement that sought to bring together those who believed that the problems confronting society were fundamentally issues of human relationships that necessitated a new approach to education. The structure developed for the organization was designed to carry out three functions:
  1. 1.

    The promotion of new education ideals. The NEF became a “permanent working laboratory” where new developments in educational theory and practice could be shared. Notably the Fellowship’s network of conferences, national sections and groups, and journals in a number of languages provided a global vehicle for this role.

  2. 2.

    The development of human solidarity. This spirit of human solidarity was facilitated by the Fellowship and manifested through close personal networks between educators nationally and internationally and underpinned the Fellowship’s aims for collective action.

  3. 3.

    The facilitation of internationalization. Members of the Fellowship came to learn about, understand, and respect the social and cultural differences between the regions and nations of the world where previously misunderstandings could lead to division and conflict in human relationships.


There was a small central body organized by a committee structure that comprised an international body of elected representatives and an executive body for more day-to-day affairs. An inclusive “sections and groups” structure allowed countries to join the NEF as a national umbrella “section” under which any number of more local “groups” could be formed. The three initial journals that were the official organs of the organization later expanded to over twenty Fellowship journals in fifteen languages. The NEF also facilitated the organization of official congresses, both regional and world conferences, and was involved in other activities such as acting as a clearinghouse for progressive material, publishing conference proceedings and progressive material, and establishing research commissions. As such, the Fellowship’s organizational structure was a simple, parsimonious one suited to the needs of a voluntary organization that was, in essence, a global network of new educators.

In addition, Ensor argued that the NEF should be nonsectarian, nonpolitical, not committed to any specific educational approaches or methods, and sufficiently flexible for every institution and country to develop independently in order to fully meet their own local needs, while still being true to a broad set of shared principles. The set of common principles developed by the Committee of Five was very broad and reflected the core tenets of the new education. They also closely resonated with theosophical thought, particularly the spiritual references and the placing of “the supremacy of the spirit” as the first principle. The seven principles focused on children’s spiritual development, the development of individuality and innate interests, developmental appropriateness, cooperation, coeducation, and citizenship. This first set of principles was distributed widely and published in each version of the organization’s journals up until their revision at the Nice Conference in 1932.

The 1932 revision of the principles reflected a general trend in the new education literature from fostering complete individual freedom to the inclusion of more social responsibility. In addition, the emphasis on international fellowship was heightened, while the spiritual references were toned down considerably. Again, this new set of nine principles was widely distributed.

The New Education Fellowship and the Crusades of “The New Education”

The rise of “the new education” in the late nineteenth and first decades of the twentieth century was part of a broader movement of social, political, economic, and industrial reforms. Political and social theorists and others were challenging the existing conditions and traditions of the time, and progressive educators were an important part of this movement. “The New Education,” as it was termed at the time, was a reaction against traditional or “old” educational thinking, approaches, and practices, and at the forefront of this movement were many of the leading educational thinkers of the age.

In particular, the NEF increasingly saw itself as the organization that lay at the center of this movement and that could play a leading role in facilitating the development and consolidation of the new education globally. Beatrice Ensor conceptualized the growth of new education as a series of “crusades.” The first crusade was the establishment of new or pioneer schools globally, beginning around the turn of the twentieth century. The most significant of these schools (and their founding date) were: England – Abbotsholme (1889); Bedales (1893); West Down (1897); Little Commonwealth (1913); Germany – the Leitz Schools (1898); Free School Community (1906); Odenwald (1910); France – L’École des Roches (1898); Belgium – the Hermitage (1907); Italy – Montessori’s Orthophrenic School (1900) and Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House School) (1907); Switzerland – Glarisegg (1902); Hof Oberkirch (1906/7); America – Cook County Normal School (1883); George Junior Republic (1895); the Deweys’ Laboratory School (1896); Meriam’s Laboratory School (1904); India – Sanctuary School, Santiniketan (1901); Christian Boys’ School, Kharar (1923); and, New Zealand – the Vasanta Garden School (1919). Each country developed particular pioneering schools and progressive approaches that reflected its own social and educational contexts. Later, the schools were promoted by the NEF and their staff became members of the Fellowship.

The second crusade revolved around the ideas of a group of pioneering educational thinkers who inspired the new educators and which became, as Ensor put it in 1930, “a mighty current changing the whole trend of education.” These thinkers included CH Becker, Boyd Bode, Pierre Bovet, William Boyd, Martin Buber, PC Chang, Fred Clarke, George Counts, Ovide Decroly, John Dewey, Sigmund Freud, Edmond Holmes, Julian Huxley, Susan Isaacs, Carl Jung, IL Kandel, WH Kilpatrick, Homer Lane, Paul Langevin, Arthur Lismer, Norman MacMunn, Karl Mannheim, Maria Montessori, Cyril Norwood, AS Neill, Percy Nunn, JA Lauwerys, Helen Parkhurst, Jean Piaget, Wyatt Rawson, Harold Rugg, Michael Sadler, E Salter Davies, Hu Shih, Rabindranath Tagore, RH Tawney, and Laurin Zilliacus. They wrote articles for the NEF journals and were speakers at NEF regional and world conferences and articulated in their writing and actions a body of progressive educational ideas that quickly spread around the globe in the first decades of the twentieth century. Of note, the majority of these ideas were heavily based on the writing, methods, and educational practices of a number of earlier social, political, and educational reformists such as, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel.

The third crusade involved the adoption of new education methods and approaches by pioneering teachers in State schools around the world. These teachers followed the experiments being undertaken in the new experimental schools and were inspired by the new educational thinkers. They were able to draw upon a burgeoning literature on new school practices and the large body of new education ideas being expounded by progressive educators in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the United States, there was the Dalton Laboratory Plan (Helen Parkhurst), the Project Method (inspired by Dewey and formalized by William Kilpatrick), and the Winnetka Technique (developed by Carleton Washburne for the Winnetka schools in Chicago). In France, there was the School Co-operative (B Profit), the Free Group or Cousinet Method (Roger Cousinet), and the Printing Press in the School Method (Celestin Freinet). Those working with children with physical and mental disabilities included the Montessori Method (Maria Montessori) and the Decroly Method (Ovide Decroly). The “artist-educators” included Franz Cizek’s Viennese studio where children were given free rein to their artistic expression, Émile Jaques-Dalcroze who developed the Eurythmics Method of music education, and Caldwell Cook who developed the Play Way Method. These methods and approaches were frequently discussed in NEF journals and newsletters and at their conferences.

The fourth crusade related to organizations that supported and facilitated the spread of new education globally, particularly from the end of the nineteenth century and into the first half of the twentieth century. The most relevant philanthropic organizations were the various trusts set up by Andrew Carnegie. Many universities made a significant contribution to the new education, including the School of Education at the University of Chicago and Teachers College, Columbia University, the University of Manchester, and the Institute of Education, London University. Progressive educational research institutes also promoted new education ideas, including the Scottish Council for Research in Education, the South African National Bureau for Educational and Social Research, the Australian Council for Educational Research, and the New Zealand Council for Educational Research. Professional organizations that supported the new education aims and the NEF included the Theosophical Society, the Quaker movement, the Institute of Pacific Relations, the Austro-American Institute of Education, the League of Nation’s International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation, the Geneva-based JJ Rousseau Institute’s International Bureau of Education, and the short-lived Bureau International des Ecoles Nouvelles. Organizations established solely to meet the needs of the new education movement were the New Education Fellowship (NEF) and the Progressive Education Association (PEA). The PEA and NEF developed closer ties in the late 1920s, and the PEA later became an official section of the NEF, changing its name in 1944 to the American Education Fellowship. The PEA was disbanded in 1955 (Graham, 1967).

All of these organizations became magnets for new educators and progressive education approaches. The NEF played an important role in promoting their progressive activities while helping to breaking down their geographical isolation, from newspaper and journal articles to overseas visitors and travel grants. Educators globally in the early decades of the twentieth century were very much in touch with the key new education developments that were occurring elsewhere, and much credit must go to the NEF for this.


The New Education Fellowship was a remarkable new education initiative that started from small beginnings and grew to become the largest progressive education organization in the world. From its early origins in the Theosophical Fraternity in Education, the NEF quickly attracted a membership of many of the most eminent educators in the world. While it was formed decades after the first “crusades” of the new education, it filled a global educational vacuum in international efforts for social, political, and economic reconstruction after First World War. The Fellowship’s rapid expansion seemingly occurred without much overt planning, and its spirited ideals and principles for creating better people for a better world struck a chord with educators, policymakers, administrators, official international bodies (such as UNESCO), and others interested in education around the world.

The Fellowship’s democratic grassroots organizational structure also contributed to its popularity and growth, but conversely was to be a source of its inherent weakness. The fundamental issues for the NEF were its financial foundations (that were primarily based on membership numbers alone) and its voluntary status. Despite a rapid growth in membership, and much enthusiasm from its adherents, the NEF was not able to undertake many of the projects that it wished to, and this limited its potential growth. When external funding was available, the organization prospered; when it was not, the organization fell into decline, particularly in the 1940s. The Second World War also disrupted the NEF’s activities globally, and, it could be argued, the conflict broke the “spirit” of the organization, founded as it was to stop such a cataclysm from recurring. Also, the NEF suffered a drop in membership as progressive ideas and methods became more accepted in public schools worldwide.

Into the 1950s and beyond, progressive ideas and methods were being increasingly challenged by other pedagogical approaches and philosophical ideas and its popularity waned. At the same time, fundamental aspects of child-centered education were being seen as much less radical and were being appropriated into the language of policymakers and adapted into the normal practices of educators globally. As a result, the zeal for progressive crusading had passed. The PEA disbanded in 1955 and in 1966, and the NEF changed its name to the World Education Fellowship (WEF) and still exists as a global organization with relatively similar goals, albeit with a considerably reduced funding base and membership.


  1. Boyd, W., & Rawson, W. (1965). The story of the new education. London: Heinemann.Google Scholar
  2. Graham, P. A. (1967). Progressive education from Arcady to academe: A history of the progressive education association, 1919–1955. New York: Teachers College Press.Google Scholar

Further Reading

  1. The various journals of the NEF/WEF - e.g., The New Era.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Education, Massey UniversityPalmerston NorthNew Zealand