Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) is launched in the UK

This year, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) of England and Wales was launched. With the passing of the years, NFER would become one of the world's largest and most important independent education research institutions. The story that led to its establishment in 1946 was characterized by a chain of events.

It all began in 1931, when the Carnegie Corporation of New York undertook to fund the International Examinations Enquiry. A number of UK and European researchers were invited to take part in this Enquiry to check the reliability and validity of formal public examinations. That part of the Enquiry which was undertaken in England whetted the appetite of researchers, educational administrators and teachers in that country to have an organisation which could perform similar surveys on a regular basis. Two of those educationalists who had been involved with the International Examinations Enquiry in this country, Sir Fred Clarke and Sir Philip Hartog, were instrumental in obtaining a grant of $10,000 from the Carnegie Corporation to support educational research on condition that an equal amount of funding was raised in this country.

Considerable delay was then caused by the Second World War (1939-1945) and it was not until 1942 that the campaign to create a research institute was seriously resumed. At the same time, new legislative measures that were vital for the future Foundation were passed. This included the proposal that the Ministry of Education and the Local Education Authorities be given specific powers to fund research to help improve the quality and range of educational provision.

By the end of 1942 an 'Advisory Council of the Educational Research Fund' was formed. This council, which was conceived as a body representative of all the main interests concerned with education in England and Wales, held its first meeting in January 1943. The purpose of the council was to explore new ways of undertaking systematic educational research in England and Wales, and to introduce more co-ordination and effectiveness into whatever research was being done. It was intended that the new body should supplement and co-ordinate the work being done in existing university departments of education and the training colleges while being unhindered by the training duties also performed by those institutions. One of the Foundation's primary functions was to be the dissemination of the outcome of research findings. The passing of the Education Act in 1944 provided the legislative impetus for the creation of NFER.

The Advisory Council began planning schemes of research, work that was to be undertaken with the close co-operation of the University of London Institute of Education. Sir Fred Clarke, who is generally acknowledged as the principal founding father of the NFER in 1946, was a former Director of the Institute and the fledgling NFER was for some years administered and aided in its work by this institution.

The necessary matching funds were raised and the Foundation's first Annual Report in 1947 stated that all the universities, with one exception, 140 out of 147 Local Education Authorities, and all the national teachers' associations had become subscribing members. The first Director of the Foundation, Sir Peter Innes, the recently retired Chief Education Officer in Birmingham, was also appointed in that year. At the same time, the Foundation purchased a long-term lease on a house in the West End of London, the price of this property being provided by a loan from the National Union of Teachers. The decision of the Privy Council in 1948 not to recommend that a Royal Charter be granted to the NFER meant that the Foundation had to content itself, instead, with the status of an educational charitable trust.

The first research launched by the Foundation after it became entirely independent was on a major issue that had caused a number of the promoters of the NFER to want to set up a research body in the first place: the methods of selection for secondary schooling. The allocation of pupils at the age of 11-plus had become of vital concern since the tripartite organisation of secondary schooling, begun in the 1930s, was formalised by the Education Act 1944. This keystone legislation provided secondary education for all and not, as before, only for a selective minority after the age of 14.

After a vibrant beginning, the next few years presented challenges, particularly of a financial nature. The country's post-war financial situation was difficult and a number of authorities withdrew from membership in the light of this doubling of the previous level of subscription. During this period there was a growing involvement with test construction and with the distribution of tests produced in other countries. As well as its own Test Services, a Test Import Agency was formed when agreement was reached with organisations in the USA and Australia for the Foundation to act as the sole agent for the importation of their tests for use in this country. In November 1958, the NFER's journal, Educational Research was launched, a publication which still continues.

As the Foundation grew, the problems of accommodation became acute. The decision was taken to move the Foundation's offices out of the expensive property market of London's West End and The Mere in Slough was purchased. This mansion had been built in 1887 by the Bentley family, book publishers who had commissioned Charles Dickens to write 'Oliver Twist'. By the time that the move took place in 1964, however, it had already become necessary both to retain the London premises (until 1972) and to build a permanent extension at Slough.

The 1960s heralded a period of extensive change when the Foundation greatly increased its staffing and the range and number of its research projects and sponsors. That mainstay of the Foundation's commercial success, its Tests Services and Test Agency, also experienced significant growth and by 1962-63 some 2 million copies of the Foundation's own tests were being sold.

A politically sensitive research issue was initiated at the Foundation at this period, The Comprehensive Education Project, which attempted to assess the extent to which comprehensive schools were achieving their objectives and which also surveyed authorities' plans for comprehensive reorganisation.

In November 1968 the Foundation installed its first (IBM) computer which then enabled the organisation to undertake most of its own data processing and statistical work. In 1970, the Test Agency was transformed into a subsidiary company, called the NFER Publishing Company, and moved to its own premises in Windsor.

In 1971 the Foundation celebrated its 25th anniversary as an independent research institute. Mrs Margaret Thatcher, the future Prime Minister, was the President of the Foundation that year, continuing the tradition of having the government's chief education minister fill this honorary office.

An important development was the commission from the DES and the Social Science Research Council for the NFER to establish a comprehensive register of current educational research and development to assist in reducing the duplication of effort and in searching for a new work in any branch of education. The Register of Educational Research began in September 1973 and employed the EUDISED (the European Documentation and Information System in Education) thesaurus which enabled UK research data to be correlated with other data from European countries.

A vitally important, long-term contract, the monitoring of national standards of attainment programme as developed by the Assessment of Performance Unit (APU), was won by the NFER in the 1970s. At the time, these were to be largest group of projects that the Foundation had ever undertaken.

In the same decade, the Foundation established a national information centre called EPIC - the Education Policy Information Centre - which became in 1980 part of a network known as EURYDICE which provided a means for the exchange of information between the European partners on educational issues of common interest. In 1981, EMIE - the Education Management Information Exchange - service was set up to assist LEAs in this country share management information on educational policy and practice issues.

The establishment of the first of the Foundation's regional offices took place in 1976 when a Welsh Unit was set up in the University College, Swansea. A Northern Office was founded ten years later in the University of York.

In contrast to a number of its early research projects, which often extended over many years, the late '70s heralded the first appearance of short-scale commissions, involving little notice and then intense research activity over a few months to meet the needs of the sponsor.

A major development in 1981 which had a significant effect on future income was the formation of the NFER-NELSON Publishing Company, jointly owned by the Foundation and Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd. The new company took on the trading operations, and the publication of educational and psychological tests and books, from the NFER Publishing Company.

During Sir Keith Joseph's occupancy of the post of Secretary of State for Education and Science from 1981 the tradition of having the holder of this government office as the Foundation's President was ended.

By the 1980s, competitive tendering was becoming the dominant mode of research funding. The national evaluation of the organisation and operation of Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) schemes began in 1985. The Foundation was commissioned to conduct the national evaluation of the Lower Attaining Pupils Programme (LAPP).

In the late 1980s, the Foundation found itself striving to perform its role and maintain its integrity in a far more demanding and politicised environment. A consortium, led by the NFER, was awarded contracts to develop Standard Assessment Tasks (SATs) for Key Stage 1 of the National Curriculum, work which would establish the Foundation in the forefront, both in this country and internationally, of the development of new assessment techniques

A landmark change in the NFER's employment practice took place in 1993. The NFER moved from a situation where most research staff where employed on short-term contracts to one where all staff were given open-ended contracts. This change enabled the Foundation to provide more flexibility in staffing projects and to further the opportunities for staff to extend their research experience and skills. No longer would an ever-present threat of redundancy at the end of a project be a part of the life-style of the NFER's research staff.

The Department of Assessment and Measurement's projects expanded to include the theory test for drivers and riders which became compulsory in the UK in July 1996. This work led to what has probably been the Foundation's best seller ever, i.e. The Complete Theory Test for Cars and Motorcycles. A great deal of media attention and sales was also generated by a Department of Professional and Curriculum Studies project on strategies for addressing the 'summer-born effect' on children's educational attainment.

In 1994, the first of what became a series of NFER Annual Surveys of Trends in Education was launched. These questionnaire surveys of primary school headteachers were intended to collect and then disseminate up-to-date views on current issues in education.

The NFER has also been distinguished throughout its life by the number of international links it has promoted and maintained. In 1996, the NFER celebrated its 'Golden Jubilee'. Many of the world's leading researchers came together for a residential conference in Windsor in December 1996 and the published proceedings of this event provide an important overview on the role that is played internationally by educational research.

For more information, please visit the official website of the National Foundation for Educational Research: 


Griffiths, Jeffrey L (2003) 'NFER: The First Fifty Years 1946 - 1996', published by the National Foundation for Educational Research. ISBN 1 903880 42 4

Prepared by Jeffrey L Griffiths, NFER, 2006.

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