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Susan Sutherland Isaacs

Susan Sutherland Isaacs

Isaacs, Susan Sutherland, 1885-1948, British educator. After studying at the universities of Manchester and Cambridge, she became a lecturer in early childhood education. A disciple of Sigmund Freud and John Dewey, she ran an experimental progressive school, Malting House, in Cambridge from 1924 to 1927. The school emphasized direct instruction and had no established curriculum. She was one of the first critics of Jean Piaget's stages of child development. From 1933 to 1943, she taught at the Institute of Education, Univ. of London. Her writings include Intellectual Growth in Young Children (1930) and Social Development of Young Children (1933).

Susan Sutherland Isaacs (née Fairhurst) (1885–1948) was an English educational psychologist and psychoanalyst. She published studies on the intellectual and social development of children and promoted the nursery school movement.

Portraits of Susan Isaacs can be found in the National Portrait Gallery.

Early life and education

Susan was born on 24 May 1885, in Turton, Bolton, Lancashire, England. She was the daughter of William Fairhurst, journalist and Methodist lay preacher, and his wife, Miriam Sutherland. Her mother died when she was six years old. Shortly afterwards she became alienated from her father after he married the nurse who had attended her mother during her illness. She was an intelligent child and eager to learn but was frustrated by Primary School.

At the age of fifteen, Susan was removed from Bolton Secondary School by her father because she had converted to atheistic socialism; her father refused to speak to her for 2 years. She stayed at home with her stepmother until she was 22. She was first apprenticed to a photographer and then she began her teaching career as a governess for an English family.

In 1907, Susan enrolled to train as a teacher of young children (5 to 7-year-olds) at the University of Manchester. There, she transferred to a degree course and graduated in 1912 with a First class degree in Philosophy. She was awarded a scholarship at the Psychological Laboratory in Newnham College, Cambridge and gained a master's degree in 1913.


Isaacs embarked upon a series of lectures in infant school education at Darlington Training College, in logic at the University of Manchester, and in psychology at the University of London.

In 1914, she married William Broadhurst Brierley, a botany lecturer. A year later they moved to London where she became tutor to the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and, from 1916, lectured in psychology at the University of London. In 1922 she divorced Brierly and married Nathan Isaacs (1895-1966), a metallurgist who collaborated with Susan in her later work.

Susan also trained and practiced as a psychoanalyst after analysis by the psychoanalyst John Carl Flugel (1884–1955). She became an associate member of the newly formed British Psychoanalytical Society in 1921, becoming a full member in 1923. She began her own practice that same year. She later underwent brief analysis with Otto Rank and in 1927 she submitted herself to further analysis with Joan Riviere to get personal experience and understanding of Melanie Klein's new ideas on infancy. Isaacs also helped popularise the works and Klein as the theories of Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud. She was initially enthusiastic for Jean Piaget's theories on the intellectual development of young children, though she later criticised his schemas for stages of cognitive development, which were not based on the observation of the child in their natural environment, unlike her own observations at Malting House School.

Between 1924 and 1927 she was Head of Malting House School, Cambridge, an experimental school founded by Geoffrey Pyke, which fostered the individual development of children. Children were given greater freedom and were supported rather than punished. The teachers were seen as observers of the children who were seen as research workers. Her work had a great influence on early education and made play a central part of a child’s education.

Between 1929 and 1940 she was an 'agony aunt' under the pseudonym of 'Ursula Wise', replying to readers' problems in several child care journals, notably The Nursery World and Home and School.

In 1933 she became the first Head of the Child Development Department at the Institute of Education, University of London, where she established an advanced course in child development for teachers of young children. Her department had a great influence on the teaching profession and encouraged the profession to consider psychodynamic theory with developmental psychology.

Isaacs developed cancer in 1935 and struggled with ill health for the rest of her life. In 1937 she toured Australia and New Zealand, and after moving to Cambridge in 1939 she conducted the ‘Cambridge Evacuation Survey’ which studied the affect of evacuation on children. She was also awarded the CBE in 1948. She died from cancer on 12 October 1948.


  • Introduction to Psychology, Methuen Press, (London, 1921)
  • Nursery Years, Routledge, (London, 1929).
  • The biological interests of young children, (1929)
  • The Intellectual Growth of Young Children, Routledge and Kegan Paul, (London, 1930)
  • Behaviour of Young Children, Routledge & Sons (London, 1930)
  • The psychological aspects of child development, Evans with the University of London, Institute of Education, (London [1930]) (First published as Section II of the 1935 volume of the Year Book of Education).
  • The children we teach: seven to eleven years, University of London, Institute of Education, (London, 1932)
  • The Social Development of Young Children: A Study of Beginnings, Routledge and Kegan Paul, (London, 1933).
  • Child Guidance. Suggestions for a clinic playroom, Child Guidance Council (London, 1936)
  • The Cambridge Evacuation Survey. A wartime study in social welfare and education. Edited by Susan Isaacs with the co-operation of Sibyl Clement Brown & Robert H. Thouless. Written by Georgina Bathurst, Sibyl Clement Brown [and others], etc, Methuen Press (London, 1941).
  • Childhood & After. Some essays and clinical studies, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London, 1948).
  • Troubles of children and parents, Methuen Press, (London, 1948)

Personal papers

Collections of Susan Isaacs personal papers can be found in the Archives of the Institute of Education, University of London, (Ref: DC/SI) (online catalogue); the Archives of the British Psychoanalytical Society (Ref PE/ISA) , (online catalogue); and the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS) Archive Centre



General references

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External links

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