Elementary Education in the 19th Century
The extracts from the School
logs reproduced start in1863, although the existing school building
dates from 1850,as evidenced from the date stone over the old main door
in Pooles Lane. To gain some understanding of school life and the
circumstances of the children
, parents and teachers during a
period, in England, of unrivalled economic and social development, it is
helpful to understand how the system of education developed in the
context of the social, political and church pressures that prevailed at
the time. Compulsory education for
children between ages of 5 to 10 years of age was not introduced until
the Elementary Education Act of 1880. Even then it was not entirely free,
depending on circumstances.
Prejudice against "book learning".
A better-educated working and middle class was recognised by some as
essential to the country’s continuing development and prosperity. It
appears however that the country was not united behind what we regard
now as being self-evident fact.
There was deep prejudice and indifference towards universal education
based largely on the major investment that would be needed, and the
length of time that would elapse before the country would enjoy an
economic return. Many employers, especially at a time of the ‘Chartists’
and the growth of the Trade Union movement, believed that an educated
working class would bring about even more labour problems. Additionally,
schools and colleges were not well regarded, as they were not producing
very good results. People were sceptical about the benefits of 'book
learning', especially if it was going to cost them money!
Boys and artisans learned their trades through apprenticeships and
learning on the job. This may well have been appropriate before the
industrial revolution, but as steam power led to the development of many
more machines in the workplace, there was a growing need for technical
education and knowledge. The starting point for gaining this knowledge
was a basic standard of literacy and numeracy for all. Higher
education, perceived to be necessary for people wanting to enter the
Law, Medicine and the Church was also very poor, but this was not
directly a problem for the majority of the people who lived in Winsham,
although they must have suffered for it in the absence of trained
support in these fields.
England was falling behind Europe in educating the
As the century wore on, it began to become clear that the shortage of
men with a sound training in technical matters was a severe handicap,
and England was falling behind countries such as Germany in technical
education and many other European countries in basic education.
Like many things in life, the root of the problem was financial. In1815
the most common method of education in England and many European
countries was a plan described as a ‘new mechanical system for the use
of schools’. The plan was simple: the older children taught the
younger ones. The shortcomings of such an idea would seem obvious, but
it was not without a major benefit-it was cheap! It is estimated that
the cost of educating a poor child by this method was seven shillings a
year and it did at least give a very rudimentary level of learning. To
put this expenditure in context, around that time a family could rent a
small rural cottage for perhaps a shilling a week, giving the owner of
the cottage an economic return on investment of about 5% pa.
The system also introduced discipline, responsibility, mutual aid and
corporate life into the schools of the poor. It also formed a bridge
between teachers and pupils, but indirectly led to the problem of a
shortage of proper teachers when the shortcomings of the system were
eventually recognised. It was towards the middle of the 19th century
before anything was done to correct this.
If a shortage of teachers was a serious problem for those reformers who
wanted the development of a national education system, it was nothing
like as serious problem as the ‘in-fighting’ between the political
and religious interests, which were to cause serious delays.
Differences between religious denominations.
The philosophy that education should
be “universal, compulsory, gratuitous and secular” did not sit well
with any of the political parties. The idea that it should be secular
was not accepted by the religious denominations, who were already
responsible for most of the education of the poor that took place, often
acting through religious teaching societies charged with providing a
faith-based system of rudimentary
The Churches, principally because of
the rivalry between the Church of England and the non- conformists, were
to create serious delays in the establishment of a national educational
Despite this, the number of children
going to schools was growing rapidly, and the pressure for more schools
and teachers was growing to the point that by 1838 a parliamentary
committee reported that the only practicable way to attain this was to
increase the grants to the church based teaching societies. The
Government of the time was less satisfied with the voluntary system.
There followed a debacle between Commons, Lords and the Churches that
lasted for some years. It resulted in a Privy Council committee being
set up, and in the face of great difficulties, it was able to send
Inspectors to Schools receiving State help. These Inspectors reported
depressing news about the working of the monitorial system and the
inefficiency of the schools. Arising directly from this, in 1846 a new
system of training was introduced which would eliminate monitors and
apprentice ‘pupil teachers’. Frequent references to 'pupil teachers'
will be found in the Winsham school logs
As a direct result, the
parliamentary grant to schools was raised to £100,000 and public
opinion began to swing towards the idea that state aid and supervision
was necessary, although it was still against a state educational system.
Religious educational societies
protested that state control meant stagnation and that religion was not
a ‘subject’, which could be separated from secular instruction. At
the same time these Societies were finding difficulty in raising
sufficient money for their needs from voluntary subscription. The
solution could be found in a local rate, but many ratepayers objected
towards paying for schools of religion other than their own.
Progress at last!
In 1853 the Government introduced a
Bill giving towns of more than 5,000 inhabitants the power to levy an
education rate, but was defeated. However using the Privy Council device
it was able to give a capitation grant to rural areas, conditional on a
certain sum being raised locally. Three years later this grant was
extended to towns. These measures brought further increases in the
parliamentary grant. In 1858,in response to the rising cost of education
a commission was appointed. It was asked to “inquire into the present
state of popular education in England, and to consider and report what
measures, if any, are required for the extension of sound and cheap
elementary instructions to all classes of the people”.
The report estimated that only 4.5
% of the children of school age were not attending school, most children
leaving school at age eleven. The report was not optimistic about the
amount or value of the education given in the schools. The commissioners
had no means of judging the performance of private schools. They were
believed to be less good than state-aided schools because they were not
subject to government inspections.
The cost of education in inspected
schools was 28s to 30s pa per pupil, with teacher training and
administration adding a further 4s 6p.
Of this sum parents paid less
than a third, and the state contributed more than one half; the
remainder came from endowments and subscriptions.
The report did not recommend
compulsory education or the raising of the school leaving age. Public
opinion was not ready to compel parents to send their children to
school, nor did it yet accept a state obligation to educate children. It also proposed the
establishment of boards of education in counties and in boroughs of more
than 40,000 inhabitants.
These boards would have power to levy rates and
to examine children in reading, writing and arithmetic, and pay grants
on the basis of results.They
could not appoint teachers or interfere in the management of the
schools.In this way the commissioners hoped to avoid religious
The government was unwilling to risk
another storm of denominational jealously so did not set up local
boards, but they did adopt the principle of payment by results, and
applied it in a narrow inflexible way.
This achieved better standards in
the worst schools, and incentivised mediocre teachers.
The downside was
that lessons were drearily mechanical and concentrated to much attention
on elementary work. This system lasted for some twenty years, and there
is frequent reference to it in the Winsham School Logs.
A change in public mood
Perhaps paradoxically, it was the two terrible
wars in the 1860’s-the American Civil War and the Prussian -
Austrian War that brought about a significant change in public opinion.
It was generally known that English education was not as good as in many
European countries and the two wars seemed to show that educated states
could provide better soldiers than a less educated rival. In 1870 a
Liberal government passed a Bill passed that raised the school leaving
age to thirteen. It did not provide free education, but the poorest
parents were excused fees. It also secured local expenditure on
education. These ‘board schools’ had more resources than voluntary
schools and the first steps were taken towards compulsory education.
Religious differences still caused problems but henceforth
there were no
areas in England without school, and no children grew up without
elementary education because their parents were poor.
The above draws heavily from Sir
Llewellyn Woodward’s book “The Age of Reform 1815-1870” published
by Oxford University Press.