From 1830 there is no doubt that literacy was set for a steady rise for the rest of the century, though inevitably with regional variation in pace. Literacy rates were published by the Registrar General for each census year in percentages.
This was paralleled by growth in the average number of years of schooling for boys: 2.3 years in 1805 to 5 years in 1846-51 to 6.6 years by 1867-71. Various factors lay behind this, but first it is important to consider the motives both of educators and of educated that made this possible.
- The Churches were concerned with the salvation of souls and the winning back of the irreligious working class urban population to Christianity. The Church of England felt itself under attack from a revival of Nonconformity and Catholicism in the 1830s. By 1870 there were 8.798 voluntary assisted schools of which 6,724 were National Society Schools. At a more secular level the long period of radical unrest from the 1790s to the 1840s created deep anxiety about order and social control. Richard Johnson put it well when he says: ‘The early Victorian obsession with the education of the poor is best understood as a concern about authority, about power, about the assertion (or the reasserting) of control.’
- In Spitalfields much education was aimed at controlling the population in the interests of social and economic stability. In the north eastern coalfields coal owners created schools attached to collieries in the 1850s as a means of social control following damaging strikes in 1844.
- The social control argument was an old one dating back to the Sunday Schools, the SPCK Charity schools and beyond. These suggested that schooling and literacy would make the poor unfit for the performance of menial tasks because it would raise their expectations. Even worse, the acquisition of literate skills would make the working classes receptive to radical and subversive literature. This was the essential dilemma: whether to deny education to the poor and so avoid trouble, or whether to provide ample education in the hope that it would serve as an agent of social control. By the late 1830s the latter ideology dominated the minds of policy makers: education was seen as a means of reducing crime and the rising cost of punishment and also as a way of keeping the child or the child when adult out of the workhouse.
In the 1860s these views were joined by two other that presaged the 1870 Act. The victories of Prussia and the northern States of America suggested that good levels of education contributed to military efficiency. At home the Reform Act 1867 prompted concern to ensure the education of those who would soon wield political power through an extended franchise: ‘we must now education our masters’ spoke Robert Lowe, a leading Conservative politician.
Education may have been of limited value for actual job performance, but it had important wider bearings on the creation of an industrial society. It made it possible for people to be in touch with a basic network of information dispersal and could make labourers aware of the possibilities open to them or the products of consumers. For such reasons a positive belief in the value of education on the part of the authorities replaced earlier assumptions that teaching the poor to read would merely lead to the diffusion of subversive literature and the wholesale flight of the newly educated from menial tasks.
The literacy rate was driven up by the injection of public money into the building and maintenance of elementary schools. This rose from £193,000 in 1850, £723,000 in 1860 to £895,000 by 1870. The money was channelled largely into two religious societies: the Anglican National Society, founded in 1811, and the British and Foreign School Society, a Nonconformist body created three years later. These bodies raised money to build schools usually run on monitorial lines. However, by the early 1830s it was obvious that they were unable to counter the defects in school provision, especially in the north. State funding began in 1833 with investment of about one per cent of national income [a situation that compared favourably with that of the 1920s]. From the 1840s, under the guidance of the Privy Council for Education [established in 1839] and its Secretary James Kay Shuttleworth, expenditure soared as grants were extended from limited capital grants for buildings to equipment , teacher training  and capitation grants for the actual running of schools . Closer control over these grants was instituted in 1862 with the system of payment by results and by a reduction of teacher training to try and control sharply rising expenditure.
Important though the role of the state and religious societies was in developing literacy levels, some historians have pointed to the large sector of cheap private education where the working classes bought education for their children outside the church and state system. It has been suggested that at least a quarter of working class children were educated in this way. Why did the working class spurn the new National and British schools and choose slightly more expensive, small dame and common day schools? There is no doubt, however, that the expansion of this type of education did result in the creation of a remarkably literate working class.
- A major factor in rising literacy was the creation of a teaching profession in elementary schools. The religious societies had their own training colleges before the 1830s and from 1839 many Anglican dioceses established colleges to serve diocesan National Schools. The system received its most important stimulus from the Minutes of 1846 that established the training and career structure for teachers. The 1850s thus saw the rapid rise of a schoolteacher class: there were 681 certificated teachers in 1849 but 6,878 ten years later.
- A further important factor was the role of Her Majesty’s Inspectors [HMI] first appointed in 1839 to ensure that the state grant was spent properly. Their duties expanded into more educational roles, examining pupil teachers and the training colleges, calculating the capitation grants of the 1850s and then examining children in the subjects on which the grant was based in the 1860s. They encouraged the replacement of the monitorial system with class teaching. By 1870 their number has risen from 2 to 73.
Mass elementary education was grounded in the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. Religion and bible study was equally central to the religious societies. Attempts to extend the curriculum were stopped when the Revised Code limited grants to the 3Rs and away from the broader cultural subjects. From 1867 history, geography and geometry were made grant-earning subjects but languages and a range of science subjects had to wait until the 1870s. What was learned was important and the development of a body of reading material accessible to the masses was a characteristic feature of the years after 1830. At the school level the SPCK, acting as the publishing arm of the National Society, set up its Committee of General Literature and Education in 1832 to produce schoolbooks. The National Society gradually took over from the SPCK and in 1845 established its own book collection for National schools. The British Society similarly published secular books for schools after 1839.
At an adult level there was a concern among the governing classes to provide edifying books that would divert the minds of the potentially dangerous working classes away from the propaganda of radicalism. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, established in 1826, issued a library of short books on popular science, history and all types of secular subjects. They were trying to combat the strong tradition of radical literature aimed at the same clientele. Into the market came commercial amusements: Dickens, Gothic and romantic novels and the railway reading of W.H. Smith. The work of the Churches and especially the National Society provided much of the education that pushed up the literacy rate over the mid-century. All this was achieved before the advent of state secular schools or free or compulsory education. Yet it was not enough. Some 39 per cent of children between 3 and 12 were not at school, some one and a half million children. There were one million children for whom there were no school places even had they chosen to attend. The 1870 Act filled in the gaps in areas where voluntary provision was insufficient to absorb the potential children. School Boards were established to build non-sectarian schools and the work of the 2,000 new School Boards and the general compulsory education from 180 finally achieved virtual mass literacy by 1900.
Literacy is an extension of the powers of speech and thought and has, in effect, enabled people to ‘speak’ and ‘think’ in new ways. Nevertheless the spread of literacy has been a two-edged process. For some people, it has been a source of social emancipation yet, for others, it has seemed more of an agency of social control. Those who aspire to retain the status quo sought to harness, if not control, literacy through censorship, licensing of approved printers and the taxation of publications. But this was rarely sufficient. People who had been taught through authorised texts acquired tools that gave them access to politically contentious works