Thursday, 29 May 2008

Education and the state 1870-1914

Forster’s Education Act did not provide universal, free or compulsory education, but it did allow for the glaring deficiencies in English education to be removed[1]. Before 1870 the system was characterised as one of state subsidy of voluntary education, the period after by state supplementation of voluntary education. Board schools and voluntary schools existed side by side, in theory complementary, in practice in competition. The 1870 Act was a compromise that tried to make use of and not destroy existing educational resources. It did not solve the problem of elementary schooling overnight and it took a further thirty years to make a national system of elementary schools fully a reality.

Extending Forster

Religious squabbling continued in the elections for School Boards and in the attempts, particularly by Anglicans in county areas, to forestall the imposition of the School Boards. Initially the advantage lay with the existing voluntary schools and even by 1880 only one sixth of children were in board schools but the potential for growth lay with School Boards and by 1900 54 per cent of the elementary school population were in their schools.

  1. Many of the larger boroughs imposed bye-laws making education compulsory, that in turn increased revenue, since grants were still related to attendance, and it was partly as a means of helping the rural voluntary schools that Disraeli’s ministry turned its attention to compulsion. For these schools, Lord Sandon the Vice-President, told the Cabinet in 1875 it was a matter of ‘life or death’. The result, in 1876, was Sandon’s Education Act that set up School Attendance Committees and placed the responsibility for ensuring attendance firmly on parents. It also gave voluntary schools the right to make attendance compulsory.
  2. Various loopholes were removed by the incoming Liberal ministry that by Mundella’s Education Act 1880 made attendance compulsory for children between five and ten.
  3. This inevitably sharpened the debate about fees, that averaged about 3d per week per child and many School Boards waived the fee for needy children. The Fee Grant Act 1891 virtually established free elementary education and by 1895 only about one-sixth of the five million needy elementary children were paying fees.
  4. The availability of free education through School Boards made it easier to integrate pauper children into the general education system. An Act of 1873 had made school attendance a condition of outdoor relief for children, an option that had been open to guardians since Denison’s Act of 1855 had empowered guardians to pay school fees. By 1900 the vast majority of Unions sent children to their local board school and so the distinctive badge of pauperism was gradually removed.
  5. The pernicious effects of payment by results were removed. The system had been severely criticised by the Cross Commission that reported in 1888 and in the 1890 Code grants for examinable attainments in the 3Rs were abolished.

It is important to recognise the achievements that resulted from the 1870 Act:

  • The figures for the final decades of the century show the almost complete elimination of illiteracy as measured from parish registers. The gains were greater for women than men. Had it not been for the 1870 Act progress in literacy would have slowed down simply because illiteracy was concentrated in those classes and regions that were hardest to provide for under the voluntary system. The 1870 Act was responsible for the mopping-up operation by providing more school places and improvements in attendance and length of school life.
  • There were certainly improvements in attendance but by 1897 it was still only just over eighty per cent. Legislation helped but machinery of enforcement was necessary. The main pressure was that of the attendance officer [commonly called the ‘board man’] and ultimately a summons. This did not always prove effective and authorities were often unwilling to prosecute or convict parents especially in rural areas where cheap child labour was essential for farmers and parents. The Agricultural Children Act 1873 was intended to improve attendance, but fines were so low if imposed at all.
  • The quality of literacy was governed by things other than directly educational ones. The factory legislation of the late 1860s and 1870s encompassed children in industries not covered before. From the 1870s future patterns of leisure and holidays began to take rudimentary form. New skilled and semi-skilled occupations were being created and white-collar occupations were expanding. Literacy was essential in all of these areas.

The 1870 Act itself made access to higher-than-elementary education inevitably a more prominent issue. Apart from evening and adult education, such access became available mainly in two ways: the evolution of a higher stage within the elementary system, and the scholarship ladder from the elementary school to the grammar school.

The Education Act 1902 and after

By 1900 important factors were altering attitudes towards the pattern of education as it had evolved since 1870:

  • The elementary system had produced what seemed to many people to be pseudo-secondary features in its higher-grade schools and evening classes. The still insecure basis of very many grammar schools was in many cases being eroded by these developments.
  • The board schools were outpacing the voluntary schools. Many were in serious financial difficulties in a period of declining church attendance. The voluntary agencies were divided on the desirability of further state aid and intervention.
  • State intervention was in society generally being more actively advocated and tolerated. The 1895 Bryce Commission recommended the creation of a central authority for education and a Board of Education was created in 1899.
  • Local councils also entered the education field mainly under the Technical Instruction Acts as competitors of the school boards.

Such changes threatened the uneasy 1870 settlement. School boards came under fire before the end of the century, particularly for their higher-grade schools and what the church party considered excessive expenditure of ratepayers’ money. Leading Conservatives, especially Sir John Gorst, attacked the boards and attempted to reduce their powers or transfer their powers to the county and county borough councils. The boards themselves, nonconformist and labour bodies expressed hostility to such moves and defended their record.

Sir Robert Morant, who became Gorst’s private secretary in 1899 and permanent secretary of the Board of Education from 1903, was able to engineer a test case in which London school board expenditure on high elementary classes was disallowed by the district auditor, Cockerton, in 1899. The Cockerton judgement allowed Morant and Gorst to achieve a dual objective: the prevention of further post-elementary developments in board schools and the possibility of using the councils as all embracing educational authorities. In drafting the new education bill Morant was able to bring elementary and secondary education under one authority and at the same time bring relief to the voluntary schools.

The debate on the education bill, steered by the Prime Minister A.J.Balfour through Parliament, saw a stalwart defence of the board schools. However, the separate administration of board schools, grammar schools, Science and Art Department grants, technical instruction committees and the independent management of voluntary elementary schools were chaotic. The creation of new council education authorities would overcome this. It was, however, the notion of ‘Church schools on the rates’ that provoked the most fierce and lasting resistance especially from Nonconformists[2].

The most far-reaching effect of the 1902 Act was its influence on the structure of elementary and secondary education. It did not make it mandatory for local authorities to provide secondary education but it did require them to perform the functions previously performed by the school boards and the technical instruction committees. The result of this was a massive expansion in the physical provision of secondary schooling in the years up to 1914. The government did not neglect the question of access for elementary school pupils to the new fee-charging secondary schools. The Free Place Regulations of 1907 made available enhanced government grants to all secondary schools prepared to offer a quarter of their places without fees to ex-elementary school pupils. Would-be ‘free placers’ were expected to sit a simple qualifying examination. Pressure of numbers soon made this as ferociously competitive as any of the existing scholarship tests. By 1912 49,120 children, 32 per cent of the total population of maintained secondary schools, were ‘free placers’.

The Boer War [1899-1902] revealed the extent of ‘physical deterioration’ when a government committee investigated the causes of the poor physical condition of potential recruits. The need for developments in child health, orchestrated by Morant and Margaret McMillan, was legislation in 1906 and 1907 and in setting up a medical department of the Board of Education. Free school meals and medical inspections were a further attack on the existing poor law system as well as a major advance in the role of the state in education.


[1] B. Simon Education and the Labour Movement 1870-1920, Lawrence and Wishart, 1979 is perhaps the broadest account of developments after 1870. J.S. Hurt Schooling and the Working Class 1860-1918, Routledge, 1979 is excellent on the 1870 Education Act and after and Gillian Sutherland Policy-Making in Elementary Education 1870-1895, Oxford University Press, 1973 is fundamental on the changing nature of policy and priorities.

[2] This influenced the landslide return to power of the reforming Liberal government at the end of 1905.

3 comments:

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