Thursday, 22 May 2008

Elementary Education: Social control and sectarianism

No socially conscious person of influence could leave education to chance. As a result it became enmeshed in conflicting social and political aims. When economic conflict gave rise to class consciousness, people of one class saw a means of controlling other classes by offering them education on their own terms. When there was religious and sectarian conflict, education became involved there as well[1].

Religion and social control: a rationale for education

English elementary education grew in the face of constant fear and opposition from sections of the upper and middle classes. Education, it was believed, would teach the working classes to despise their lot in life, enable them to read seditious literature and make them less deferential to their social superiors. This attitude persisted, especially among rural farmers and gentry, throughout the nineteenth century. In 1847 the Rev. John Allen, Inspector for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire wrote the following that he maintained reflected rural opinion: ‘We cannot help having a school, but we think it advisable that as little as possible be taught therein.’

Overt hostility to any education may have retreated into the backwoods of rural England but it was followed more slowly by those who wished to give the working classes just enough education so that they could read the Bible, learn their duty to God and Man, and the place in life to which Providence had been pleased to assign them.William Lovett, the Chartist leader, denounced these educationalists as[2]favourable to the securing of their prey, another portion, with more cunning, were for admitting a sufficient amount of mental glimmer to cause the multitude to walk quietly and contentedly in the paths they in their wisdom had prescribed for them.’

In time this attitude also weakened, partly through the actions of Lord Ashley who, though an enemy of secular state schools, was an enthusiastic champion of working class education. Its successor was the ‘Morals before Intellect’ line of those who demanded that working class education should be primarily religious, because its primary purpose was to inculcate good morals and obedience. This was often found among High Churchmen who believed that[3] ‘no secular knowledge really desirable for the bulk of the population could be fitly taught apart from a constant reference to religion.’  Among conservative landed gentry[4] ‘I consider those schools to be the most promising where The Commandments and the Duty of God and Man are regularly taught, because without moral and practical religious training there can be no real education.’ Secular educationalists were, until the 1860s, a small, noisy group advocating moral without religious training.

Modern historians often maintain that the purpose of early Victorian educationalists was the social control of one class by another or as Harold Silver puts it ‘Rescuing the poor for religion and a concomitant stable society’. But the concept of social control, though incontestably valid in any examination of education, is oversimplified:

  1. As a label ‘social control’ is a crude one. It covered a multitude of stances from the crudely manipulative and instrumental attitude of a man like Lord Londonderry building schools in his mining villages after the Chartist disturbances to the wholly sincere attempt to remake the working class child in the middle class image. Among middle and upper class philanthropists it was an argument for enlightened self-preservation; to Ashley and Kay Shuttleworth education would rescue the working classes from crime and sedition.
  2. The means varied. Churchmen sought to inculcate religion and morals to buttress duty and obedience while liberals attacked sedition and socialism by developing popularised versions of classical political economy.
  3. Rescue meant conversion to the moral and social imperatives of the rescuers, who represented the spectrum of attitudes and motives in contemporary society.
  4. Motives and means might have varied but there was a good deal of common ground among all educationalists. Lovett and Owen no less than Ashley and Kay Shuttleworth looked to education to rescue the working classes from vice and crime accepting the relationship between ignorance and criminality. Education as a means of ‘improvement’, embodied in the idea of the ‘march of mind’ with its roots in a very old liberal tradition, provided a counter-force to the Law and High Church preoccupation with faith, duty and obedience. The interesting question is not whether a given educational scheme was designed as social control but what sort of society it was intended to produce?

One reason why education in the 1830s appeared to be an instrument of class control was the decline of the parallel conception of education as a means of social mobility. It had declined as the professional and industrial middle classes turned to defensive measures against the working classes forming below them. Education, as a result, became involved in the class struggle. Education became politicised. By the 1830s there were Church schools teaching the Anglican catechism, Nonconformist schools teaching private morality from the Bible and public morality from readers of classical economics and Owenite schools propagating socialism. It was the dominance of the rescue motif, as interpreted by middle class enthusiasts, prevented education from permanently dividing into forms of propaganda serving conflicting social and political aims.

A sectarian divide: the emergence of the elementary day school

From the 1780s working class enthusiasts and middle class reformers alike were much concerned with what might be done to extend working class children’s encounters with schooling. Among the most successful enterprises was Sunday schools. They originated in the eighteenth century[5] and by the early 1830s it has been estimated that over a million children and adolescents were attending them. Sunday schools fitted into the interstices of working class struggles for economic survival very well:

  • Sunday was the one day when schooling did not compete with work
  • Chapel or church could be used as schoolroom; and teachers gave their services free, so that if fees were charged at all, they were very low
  • All Sunday schools taught reading and a minority writing and even arithmetic. From 1807 controversies ranged, especially among Methodists, as to the appropriateness of activities other than reading on a Sunday and the teaching of writing was usually a good guide to those schools under local and lay control rather than under religious domination

Sunday schools differed from most day schools. Regular weekday school required some sort of building and paid teachers, that in turn required an initial capital outlay, either from endowment or charitable subscription or both, as well as a reasonably regular and sizeable fee income. The promotion of day schools resulted, in the early nineteenth century, is the formation of two Religious Societies. They were designed to co-ordinate effort and spread best practice nationally. The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales was formed in 1811 and three years later the British and Foreign School Society [it replaced the Lancastrian Society formed in 1808]. The sectarian divide had been established: the Anglican National Society and the broadly Nonconformist British and Foreign School Society. The attractiveness of these voluntary schools was not enhanced wither by their teaching methods:

  1. Both favoured the monitorial or mutual system of teaching, by which a teacher taught the older children [or monitors] who then passed on what they had learnt to groups of younger children[6]
  2. It was designed to enable a single teacher to cope with very large groups of children
  3. It was mechanical in its approach relying on rote learning and memorisation but it was economical and this appealed to many contemporary adult observers. The reaction of the children who endured this approach was far less positive[7]
  4. At the same time, many monitorial schools were more ambitious trying to teach reading, writing and arithmetic as an integrated package

These voluntary religious day schools offered an experience significantly different from the pattern of schooling familiar to the working class and one that many of them chose to avoid. The number and persistence of what middle class contemporaries disparagingly called dame or private adventure schools is striking. Their flexibility and informality, willingness to accept attendance on an intermittent basis, parents paying when they could, fetching their child out to do an errand or job, were part of their attraction. It is difficult to generalise about them but:

  • They were small in size, seldom more than thirty children and often as few as ten.
  • They met often in the teacher’s home, in a back kitchen, basement or living room.
  • They might simply be reading schools, taught indeed by an elderly woman or dame; but writing and arithmetic could be tackled for an additional fee.
  • They did not have the resources of the monitorial schools but they lacked the noise, numbers and barrack-room discipline. They functioned often as an extension of the child’s familiar domestic environment rather than places separated from and often alien to it.

In competing for the custom of working class parents and their children, the voluntary societies and the schools affiliated to them had one resource that the working class private day schools lacked: access to central government and thus the possibility of mobilising its power and resources in their support.

In 1833 Lord Kerry’s Returns on elementary education concluded that about 1.2 million or about a third of all children in England and Wales aged 4 to 14 were attending day schools; 1.549 million or under half were attending Sunday schools, of whom a third went to day school as well. Day schools could not copy the mushroom growth of Sunday schools. They were more expensive to run, an expense reflected in fees ranging typically from twopence to five pence per week. They also competed directly with work and work almost always won. This competition made it difficult to get a child into a day school at all and even more so to keep him or her there.


[1] The most straight-forward study of education between 1830 and 1914 is the relevant chapters of John Lawson and Harold Silver A Social History of Education in England, Methuen, 1973. The focus of much study has been on the education of the working population.  Central to the period 1830-70 are the contrasting views of E.G.West Education and the State, Institute of Economic Affairs, 1965 and Education and the Industrial Revolution, Batsford, 1975 and J.S.Hurt Education in Evolution 1800-1870, London, 1971.  The work of Harold Silver is also important especially his The Concept of Popular Education, Methuen, 1965, republished with editorial introduction in 1985 and his collection of essays Education as History, Methuen,  1983.  B.Simon The Two Nations and the Educational Structure 1780-1870, Lawrence and Wishart, 1974 and G.Sutherland Elementary Education in the Nineteenth Century, The Historical Association, 1971 are essential reading.

J. Clarke, C. Critcher and R. Johnson (eds) Working Class Culture: Studies in history and theory, Hutchinson, 1979 is valuable for the two essays by Richard Johnson especially 'Really useful knowledge: radical education and working class culture 1790-1848'.  J. Burns 'From Polite Learning to Useful Knowledge 1750-1850', History Today, April 1986 and B.Harrison 'Kindness and  Reason:  William Lovett and Education', History Today, March 1987 are interesting.  T.W. Laqueur Religion  and Respectability:  Sunday  Schools and Working Class Culture  1780-1850, Yale, 1976 is the seminal work on a major educational movement. D.G. Paz The Politics of Working Class Education 1830-1850, Manchester, 1980 is the best new analysis of state  intervention.

[2] William Lovett Life and Struggles of William Lovett, 1876, 1967 edition, page 111. This autobiography is an excellent source on the nature of working class education and the need for its reform.

[3] Rev. Alexander Watson, curate of St John's, Cheltenham in 1846.

[4] Sir Charles Anderson of Lea, near Gainsborough, Lincolnshire in evidence to the Newcastle Commission in June 1859.

[5] Robert Raikes of Gloucester has traditionally featured as pioneering Sunday schools in the 1780s but in fact teaching Bible reading and basic skills on a Sunday was already an established activity in some nonconformist and evangelical congregations.

[6] It was sometimes known as the 'Madras system' as that was where the Anglican clergyman Andrew Bell first developed it or the 'Lancastrian system' after the nonconformist Joseph Lancaster who independently developed the same system in England.

[7] Charles Dickens Hard Times, published in 1854, contains the best satirical account of the monitorial system in action under the teacher Mr McChoakumchild while in Nicholas Nickleby he caricatures the 'practical' nature of education at Mr Squeer's Dotheboys Academy.

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