The education of women and girls had been an issue in England since the 1790s. The foundation of new educational opportunities for women was one of the major areas of feminist activity that emerged at this time. Women saw education as the key to a broad range of other freedoms. It was a means of training for paid employment, a means of alleviating the boredom of everyday idleness and a means of improving their ability to fight for the extension of female opportunities in a host of other areas. Education was, as Philippa Levine puts it, ‘the first step’.
The urgency of education
Certain social pressures gave the claims of writers like Mary Wollstonecraft, that equality of education with boys was a means of securing independence for women, an extra urgency by 1850. Women were still less educated than men. Female literacy rates in 1851 were still only 55 per cent compared to nearly 70 per cent for men. The proportion of women in the population was steadily rising from 1,036 females per 1,000 males in 1821 to 1,054 per 1,000 in 1871. This meant that there was a surplus of women over men and accordingly over a quarter of a million women had little expectation of marriage and the lifetime protection of husband and home. This situation was exacerbated by the rising age of marriage that also left more single women waiting for, and often not achieving, marriage. With more women detached in their expectations from reliance on parents or putative husbands and children, they were forced to think in terms of earning their own living in a career. This brought the education issue to the forefront of feminist thinking.
A class education
The education of women was a class-riven as that of boys. In the context of the rigid social divisions that ordered Victorian society so thoroughly, there was nothing unethical in decisions to cater only for delineated social groups. Indeed to attempt to mix children from different classes was to court disapproval and severely limit growth. Well-to-do girls were educated at home or in small academies in 1830. The academic content was low and, with the transformation of the grammar schools, girls found themselves excluded from establishments they had attended in the eighteenth century. Lower class girls attended the National or British schools along with boys and were destined, if not for the drudgery of a working class marriage, then for factory work or the vast army of domestic service. The education girls received before 1870 was very similar to that followed by boys, with the probable addition of some sewing and knitting. The concern to develop a more distinctive curriculum with a focus on domestic science, cooking, laundry and needlework came after 1870 and especially in the 1880s and 1890s.
The problem in the 1840-70 period was largely a middle class one of finding careers for unmarried middle class ladies and of fashioning an education that would fit them for it. Existing careers were limited in 1850 and becoming a governess was the only means of earning a living for women of gentle birth. In 1851 there were some 25,000 governesses in England but they had no proper training and often an education barely above the accomplishments. Moreover there were uneasy status incongruities: hired to impart ladylike qualities to her charges, the governess by taking paid employment forfeited her own status as a lady.
Education for the working class girl
The effect of the 1870 Education Act was to widen the gap between the education of different classes. It marked the increasing involvement of the state in the financing and control of elementary education. The age of compulsory schooling was raised from ten, to eleven and then fourteen in 1800, 1893 and 1899 respectively. However, exceptions were made for part-time working under local byelaws. From 1870 to 1914 the state also increased the number of grants for certain subjects taught in elementary schools and supported scholarship schemes for entry to secondary education. Both these measures sharpened further the existing sexual divisions between working class boys and girls.
The Education Department influenced the elementary curriculum through the provision of grants and for working class girls the influence was in the expansion of domestic subjects. The Education Department Code of 1878 provided for compulsory domestic education for girls in the state sector. In 1882 grants were made for the teaching of cookery and in 1890 for laundry work. The textbooks used in schools made it quite clear that the ‘new’ subjects should involve the learning of useful, practical skills and character building. Such habits were, of course, to prepare working class schoolgirls to become good women, capable of being efficient wives and mothers.
Writers such as Anna Davin and Carol Dyhouse link the expansion of domestic subjects with fears about the future of the British race and the decline of the British Empire. The Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration  contained many statements by the middle class about the low standards of living among the poor in congested urban areas and particularly the inadequacies of the working class wife. Since children were seen as a national asset, it was believed critical to educate working class elementary schoolgirls for wifehood and motherhood. The results were, however, not always as anticipated by government officials. Working class women interviewed by Elizabeth Roberts about their lives in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century stated that school domestic science was ‘never any help’. It would appear that for many working class girls, it was their mothers’ training at home that was valued more than the unreal situations created in schools.
The increased emphasis on the sexual division between boys and girls between 1870 and 1914 was evident also in the scholarship system whereby poor elementary pupils could be offered a free place in a fee-paying secondary school. The number of scholarships was severely limited. More were, however, offered to boys than girls and this was especially so after the Technical Instruction Act 1889 enabled counties and county boroughs to make grants to secondary schools for scholarship purposes. In addition to this handicap, working class girls might also find themselves discriminated against both by their parents and teachers when they had scholastic ambitions for secondary schooling.
In essence, working class girls were being trained in domestic skills while a proportion of middle class girls were offered at least a route out of that sphere. Feminist philosophies were applied in the many new fee-paying schools rather than in the new state schools. How can we explain the development of mass education and how does it provide insights into girls’ education? Historians have provided three main explanations. First, it is argued that Britain needed an educated electorate after the extension of the vote to working men in 1867. Secondly, it is also stated that Britain needed an educated workforce that would be able to produce goods in the competitive international market as well as for home consumption A third explanation, grounded in a Marxist analysis, argues that education was seen by the middle classes as a means of reforming, civilising and controlling a decadent working class.
None of these explanations take into account gender divisions. While the first two explanations may be relevant to the schooling of working class boys, they hold no relevance for working class girls, since women did not have the right to vote and neither could they enter the range of skilled jobs which, it was believed, would bring economic prosperity. A fourth explanation does, however, consider gender differences. Feminist historians, such as Anna Davin and Carol Dyhouse, argue that mass schooling was an attempt to impose upon the working class children a middle class family form of a male breadwinner and an economically dependent wife and mother. Such family forms would benefit all family members -- and the wider society. Such a stable unit would provide a secure environment for the rearing of healthy children, the future workforce and for the care and comfort of the male wage earner.
There was some minor activity in feminist educational provision for working class women and girls. A Working Women’s College was established in London in 1864. The only means by which women were able to influence government and thus working class schooling was through membership of School Boards. In the 1870s, many women took local government office, a new avenue of political participation opened to them in 1869. Women became eligible for election to Poor Law Guardianship positions and in 1870 to School Boards. Between 1892 and 1895 128 women were elected on to English and Welsh School Boards. However, they were not dealing primarily with girls’ schooling but with the schooling of all working class children and were often allotted to suitably ‘feminine’ committees such as the Needlework Sub-Committee.
 June Purvis A History of Women’s Education in England, Open University Press, 1991 covers the period between 1800 and 1914 and is the best introduction to the subject. . It should be supplemented by the following: Margaret Bryant The Unexpected Revolution: A study of the history of the education of women and girls in the nineteenth century, NFER, 1979, Carol Dyhouse Girls Growing up in Late Victorian and Edwardian England, Routledge, 1981, Deborah Gorman The Victorian Girl and the Feminist Ideal, Croom Helm, 1982, Joan Burstyn Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood, Croom Helm, 1980 and Sheila Fletcher Feminists and Bureaucrats: A study in the development of girls’ education in the nineteenth century, CUP, 1984. Daphne Bennett Emily Davies and the Liberation of Women 1830-1921, André Deutsch, 1990 provides a detailed biography, for a brief study see the relevant section of Barbara Caine Victorian Feminists, OUP, 1992. Felicity Hunt (ed.) Lessons for Life: The Schooling of Girls and Women, Blackwell, 1987 contains some useful papers. Dale Spender (ed.) The education papers: women’s quest for equality in Britain 1850-1912, Routledge, 1987 is a valuable selection of documents on women’s education.
 This half time system was ended in the 1918 Education Act and fourteen became the national compulsory school leaving age.