The Elementary Education Act 1870 created school boards for those parts of England and Wales in that there were insufficient school places for working class children. These boards possessed power to enforce the attendance of their pupils. Ten years later this power became a duty that devolved also on the school attendance committee, a body created under an act of 1876 in the non school-board areas. The idea of compulsory education was not new. Certain groups of children had been forced, under a variety of legislation that included the Factory Acts, the Reformatory and Industrial Schools Acts and the Poor Law Acts, to attend school before 1870 but the numbers involved were comparatively small. What was new about the legislation of the 1870s was the extent of its operation. For the first time the nation’s children had to attend school on a full-time basis for a minimum of five years, a period that extended to nine for many by 1914.
The new laws had an important effect on the working class way of life. No longer could parents take for granted the services of their children in the home and their contributions to the family budget. Traditional working class patterns of behaviour continued in defiance of the law. The state had interfered with the pattern of family life by coming between parent and child, reducing family income and imposing new patterns of behaviour on both parent and child.
Background to reform
The 1870 Act is best treated as a culmination of thirty years’ struggle. Two elements of this struggle were the religious problem and the system of payment by results. The main elements of the religious problem were as follows:
The root of the religious problem was the firm belief that any education ought to have a moral and therefore a religious base. This raised the question—which religion? There had been rivalry between Anglicans and Nonconformists since the 1810s and with the creation of the Roman Catholic Poor School Committee in 1847, this had become a three-way contest. As long as the provision of schools was considered a voluntary, charitable activity, the societies could co-exist. But any attempt to establish education as the responsibility of the state, and thus spend public money on it, created acute tensions. Anglicans, as members of the Established Church, claimed that any national system must be Anglican-based, a claim fiercely resisted by Nonconformists and Catholics. As the events of the 1830s and 1840s show, each side was able to mobilise enough support to prevent successive governments from taking any large-scale action.
Some of the conflict and bitterness was due to the social and political divisions that underlay and reinforced sectarian and theological disputes. By the 1840s the Anglican Church had become a monopoly bitterly resented by its rivals: a national institution identified with a class. Many Anglican clergymen regarded education crudely as a means of social control. In this they were at one with the bulk of a Tory party that had frustrated Whig efforts in 1839-40 to establish a national non-denominational system and that fought hard for the interests of the Church during the long debates in 1870. Paradoxically, the provisions of the 1870 Act had the effect of allying the Catholics and the Anglicans and thus, up to a point, to the Tories. Voluntary schools were to be in competition with the new board schools and Catholics were implacably opposed to this.
Nonconformists naturally ranged themselves behind the Whigs and then the Liberals. However, at no point did they constitute a majority of Whig or Liberal supported. They were never more than a vigorous pressure group within the party that, after 1867, was led by William Gladstone who in 1838 had been ‘desirous of placing the education of the people under the efficient control of the clergy’. By 1870 he was prepared to accept the need for some government action on a non-denominational basis but refused, as did the majority of the Liberal party, to act against the voluntary schools. It was impossible to devise a bill that would have satisfied both sides.
The system known as payment by results was a mid-Victorian attempt to introduce the principle of the free market into elementary education. Grants were extended during the 1840s and 1850s and schools were inspected to see that they were not abused. By 1861 they had reached £813,441 and had become a source of anxiety in some quarters. Any attempt to devise a national system of schools, and not comply aid the existing voluntary schools raised the question of whether the existing way of helping schools were not too grandiose and expensive to extend to the whole country. The Newcastle Commission recommended the creation of local boards of education in areas where the voluntary principle was weak. This proposal that would founder on the rock of the religious problem. It also recommended the power to award grants on the basis of examination performance leading to the Revised Code of 1862 and payment by results.
Reform: a central perspective
Whatever its justification, the voluntary principle did not prove a success in promoting schools. Even many of the extreme Nonconformists were coming round to the view that voluntarism had been given a fair trial and had failed. The Congregationalist Education Union, that had originated in the 1840s to oppose state education, was wound up in 1867 and the symbolic acceptance of defeated was registered when the great voluntaryist Edward Baines accepted the practical case for state education. The Newcastle Commission and the controversies over the Revised Code are important because they reinforced the public interest in the subject that had been growing since the 1850s but that was not embodied in legislation until 1870. Religion was one reason for the late growth of a national system of education but there were others:
- There was a lack of a real parliamentary and administrative will to address the problems that did exist.
- There was an absence of a structure of local government that would provide the indispensable local agencies. Municipal corporations had been reformed in 1835 but their powers were limited and their influence small. In the counties elected councils were not established until 1888.
There were serious administrative problems in involving the state in popular education:
- But local rate support would certainly bring demands for local control that was bound to raise the denominational issue
- There was the growing problem of expense that the Revised Code was supposed to have resolved.
- This was combined with the tension that, since education was a local service, it ought to be financed from the local rate. This proposal was a central feature of the National Public School Association founded in 1850.
The final problem was one of timing. The education issue took up a good deal of parliamentary time in the mid-fifties. In 1855, for example, there were three bills before Parliament. All were withdrawn. It was not a period when the state was likely to move into a major new area of social policy because the government was tending to restrict its activities in central planning. The 1850s was the decade of administrative reform with reformers planning to achieve economies rather than extend the range of government activity.
Elementary education was an area where national policies were greatly influenced by local initiatives, beginning first in Manchester and later in Birmingham. The National Public School Association formed in 1850 had the support of Richard Cobden and, among others, a young Bradford manufacturer named W.E.Forster who later carried the 1870 Act through the Commons. It campaigned for public, rate-supported, non-denominational education during the 1850s but ran out of steam after a 1857 bill failed to become law.
During the 1860s opinion in cities became increasingly concerned about the large numbers of children who were not in school. The Social Science Association argued, as a result of an extensive survey, that in every 100 children living with parents and not at work, 40 were at school and 60 were not. Their conclusion was that only compulsory education could deal with the apathy of parents and the inadequacy of the voluntary system. Education bills were introduced in 1867 and 1868. The 1868 bill was withdrawn when it was clear that a general election was imminent. When Gladstone formed his new government, Forster became Vice-President of the Committee of Council for Education, the man who spoke for education in the Commons.
Evidence of the defective educational provision was beginning to accumulate. The first and second reports of the Royal Commission on children’s employment in agriculture brought out the poor state of education in the countryside. It was clear that the half-time system could not be introduced into agricultural work. Manchester was not the only major city to reveal its deficiencies. Very similar conclusions were reached by the Birmingham Education Society, founded in 1867, and the House of Commons return on the state of education in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool in 1869 showed that many children were attending no school at all and that the private schools were very inefficient.
- The Reform Act 1867 enfranchised the urban working class. Both Disraeli and Gladstone accepted that self-improvement and rising levels of literacy were, in part, a justification for this development. There is, however, some debate on the degree to which reform in 1867 led to educational reform in 1870. Robert Lowe’s statement that ‘we must now educate our masters’ has to be seen as partly rhetoric but it raise the issue of parental non-consumers and the degree to which they should be coerced into sending their children to school. It has been argued that the extension of education in 1870 was a matter of social policy not one of political necessity.
- The leadership that had long rested with Manchester now passed to Birmingham. Education was one of the major interests of the Birmingham municipal reformers and in 1869 they created the National Education League with George Dixon as President and Joseph Chamberlain as Chairman of the committee. The League was a national movement that carried on the ideas of the National Public School Association and represented the non-sectarian and Nonconformist view of the way ahead. In November 1869 the National Education Union was founded in Manchester with the protection of the interests of denominational schools as its primary objective.
Forster introduced the bill in February 1870 and it became law on 9 August. It did not design a new national system. It left the existing voluntary schools untouched with the same committees of managers.
- Where the existing school provision was inadequate or where a majority of ratepayers demanded it, school boards should be set up for boroughs and parishes with a single board for the whole of London, with the duty of building the schools that were necessary.
- These boards were to be elected triennially in the boroughs by the burgesses and in parishes by ratepayers, and were given the power to issue a precept on the rating authority to be paid out of the local rate.
- The religious question was resolved by allowing schools provided by the boards to be non-sectarian [the so-called Cowper-Temple clause] but giving parents the right to withdraw their children from any religious observance or instruction.
- Elementary education was not made free and school boards might make it compulsory for children to attend school. This was not extended to the voluntary schools. The Act essentially filled in the gaps.
The main feature of the debate was the major division of opinion not between Conservatives and Liberals but within the Liberal majority itself. The Conservatives on the whole supported the bill, though they disagreed over some issues. The original proposals were considerably modified by the Radical Nonconformist wing of the Liberal party, many of them recently elected MPs, who wanted to go further in a number of directions that the government had planned:
- Some Radicals were strong Nonconformists who advocated the disestablishment of the Church of England. Prominent in this group was Edward Miall, a former Independent minister who had founded The Nonconformist in 1841 and who was a leading figure in the Society for the Liberation of the Church from State Patronage and Control [or Liberation Society for short]. A Welsh MP with similar views was Henry Richard who pointed out the particular difficulties raised by the religious situation in Wales and the dislike of the Welsh people for Anglican teaching in schools. They argued that school instruction should be entirely secular so that religious agencies would be left to do their work outside schools.
- The pressures were not all from the religious side. Compulsory education was strongly advocated by the Cambridge economist Henry Fawcett and by Sir Charles Dilke, whose main contribution to the final act was to propose that the ratepayers should elect the school boards. Free education, part of the programme of the National Education League, was little discussed and an amendment in favour of it soundly defeated.
Board schools with rates as well as government grants to drawn on had the resources to grow. Voluntary schools had no source of local income comparable to rates. There was no way in which they could keep pace. In this sense the settlement of 1870 carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. By the 1890s it was clear that provision for elementary education was uneven and annually growing more so. Nor was the structure one on to which any provision for secondary education could be grafted. The Education Act 1902 put the Church on the rates. School Boards were abolished and, in return for rate aid, voluntary schools’ committees of management came within the control of the new Local Education Authorities, county and county borough councils, some 140 of them.
 After 1832 a series of acts shored up, but did not radically modify, the voluntary school system. The Industrial Schools Acts of 1857, 1861 and 1866; the Reformatory Schools Acts of 1854, 1857 and 1866 and the Education of Pauper Children Act of 1862 all helped local authorities to tackle the problem of the education of the 'residuum', the class the voluntary schools had neglected. When these efforts of pre-1867 parliaments had failed and the voluntary system had lost credence as the means of educating the children of the nation, then and only then, did the 1870 Act belatedly and reluctantly 'fill the gaps'.