Workfare schemes are constantly in the news at the moment. Many of Britain’s historic work camps schemes were very much forms of welfare, aimed at giving unemployed men and other vulnerable groups – including sex workers, people with learning disabilities, epileptics and the tubercular – exposure to a period of therapeutic manual labour.
The idea of some kind of universal voluntary work service for the young, popular among Conservative thinkers when the current British coalition government was formed, seems to have slipped under the radar. But there were persistent campaigns, particularly during the 1930s, for public work – mainly in camps – as a form of universal national service.
Cyril Norwood is best known in Britain for his influence on the 1944 Education Act. R. A. Butler, then minister for education, chose Norwood to chair a committee on secondary education, which produced a report on Curriculum and Examinations in Secondary Schools that in turn influenced the 1944 Education Act, setting out the template for the division of state schools in England into three categories: secondary modern, technical, and grammar.
Little wonder that Gary McCulloch described Norwood as “one of the most prominent and influential English educators of the part century”. He was also a died-in-the-wool establshment figure who had passed the civil service entrance examination before devoting himself to a career in education. He served as a teacher in Leeds Grammar School, then as Master of Marlborough College, then headteacher of Harrow for eight years, before becoming Master of an Oxford College in 1934.
Norwood’s interests were many and varied, but among them was the idea of a national labour service. On a number of occasions Norwood wrote and spoke in favour of compulsory labour camps, setting down his ideas in journals like the Spectator. But his ideas were less concerned with workfare – or work-for-benefits – than with building character through collective body work, as a politically palatable alternative to national military service.
Like a number of other writers – including GDH Cole and the Webbs, socialists who had little in common with Norwood’s political stance – he favoured a universal scheme for all young men. He delliberately contrasted his scheme with the Ministry of Labour’s work camps for unemployed men, presenting his proposals for camps as “places for education and recreation” rather than mere training, which would “shake together the classes of the country as nothing else can”. The result should be “a generation with a new temperament . . . proud of itself and with a new sense of power and fitness”.
This was, of course, a selective and masculine focus. McCulloch points out that Norwood’s career was spent entirely in organisations for boys, staffed almost entirely by men, and this formative environment was common in Norwood’s social milieu. Hard work was widely viewed as good for the male body; Norwood’s argument was that hard work and camp life for young men were also good for the nation.