The First World War & Women Teachers

This week, our blogger is Alix Hall from the Institute of Education, who is talking about the impact of the First World War and the teaching profession: The First World War & Women Teachers.


Streatham County School. Reference SC/PHL/02/0223/5680

The First World War impacted women in tremendous ways, specifically when it came to women and the world of work.  Whether it was in the munitions factory, the Women’s Land Army, or coal mine, women were proving themselves more than capable of taking on traditionally male-dominated roles – and were doing so in unprecedented numbers.

Traditionally, we think of women’s work which directly contributed to the war effort; however, women kept the home front running in a range of ways.  Everyday life needed to continue, and with that, it was imperative for children’s education to carry on.

With so many men away fighting, schools and Head Teachers in England were faced with a difficult predicament during the war: they were tasked to keep schools operational despite a lack of staff, resources, and omnipresent air raids.

Head Teachers became creative in their staffing approaches – combining classes, preventing teachers from enlisting, or acting as teachers themselves.  Practically, they would also make temporary appointments wherever possible.  These temporary appointments came in the form of retired ‘dug outs’ (older teachers ‘dug out’ of retirement); prefects and trainee teachers.

Temporary Masters

However, the largest group of substitute Masters were trained women teachers.  Prior to the outbreak of war, women were commonplace in junior and mixed elementary schools; but they were now needed in boys’ secondary schools as well.  These temporary appointments allowed women teachers to prove themselves in areas of their profession they were previously prevented from entering.

The preface of ‘temporary’ accompanied these appointments; as such, these Masters positions were often short-lived.  Once Masters returned from war service, most of these ‘Temporary Masters’ positions came to an end for women.

Within the archives at the Institute of Education, Elsa Tutin’s staff file reflects just how temporary these Masters positions were.  Tutin, a graduate of Bedford College and the London Day Training College (now the Institute of Education), was appointed to teach at Deacon’s School in June 1918.  Her ‘Temporary War Appointment’ was terminated less than three months after the war, on January 25th, 1919.

Staff Files, Deacon’s School Archive

Staff Files, Deacon’s School Archive

Even the realities of war couldn’t deter everyone from finding fault with the fact that women were teaching the boys of England.  In a 1916 letter to the Times Educational Supplement, a contributor wrote, ‘the best and most brilliant women cannot teach boys to be men – it would be unnatural if they could’.

Agnes Dawson, President of the National Federation of Women Teachers (which later became the National Union of Women Teachers) reflected later that, ‘women proved over and over again their ability, willingness and adaptability’.

While women continued to have to fight for equal opportunities, equal pay, and suffrage following the First World War, the war still brought along innumerable political and social changes.  In nearly every aspect of life, women proved their expertise and interchangeability with their male counterparts.

This post includes research from our frequent archive visitor, Dr Barry Blades; for more information on the role of teachers in the Great War, visit Barry’s website.

For more information on Archives at the Institute of Education Archives head here, and for the more on the National Union of Women Teachers archive collection, visit here.

Alix Hall is the Archive Education Coordinator at the Institute of Education.  Alix develops school and community workshops, getting the archives out of their boxes and opening university and archive doors to new audiences.  Alix has previously worked with the learning departments at Kensington Palace and Tate Britain.  As a former teacher, she is particularly interested in the social history of women teachers.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s