Friday, 23 May 2008

Elementary Education: the state intervenes

Everyone was agreed that any education worth the name had a moral and therefore a religious core. But if religious, whose denomination? Anglicans, as members of the established church, argued that any school named in law and supported by government funds should be theirs. Nonconformists and Roman Catholics hotly disputed this. It was for this reason that there were two voluntary day school societies, joined by a third, the Catholic Poor School Committee, in 1849. This was the sectarian divide that dominated developments in elementary education up to 1870 and arguably 1902.

  1. The Whig government in 1833 attempted to side step the issue by making a grant available to any voluntary school, of any or no denomination, that satisfied certain conditions of efficiency.
  2. This was the beginning of a system of ‘giving to them that hath’. Government initiatives and funding were most needed in areas of ‘educational destitution’ where there were no middle class enthusiasts to start schools.
  3. In 1839, therefore, the Whigs attempted to grasp the nettle of the ‘religious problem’ with a scheme that included grants to districts according to need and government training schools for teachers organised on a non-denominational basis. The Tories mobilised against it in both Commons and Lords and the opposition of almost the entire bench of bishops brought most of the scheme down to defeat.
  4. In 1843 the Tories attempted to take the initiative in the education clauses of Graham’s Factory Bill creating Anglican-run factory schools. They faced a comparable storm from nonconformists and Catholics and likewise retreated.  Thereafter there was a stalemate with neither side strong enough to break through to a new system. The amount of grant continued to rise but still the money when only to localities already making an effort. This was only broken by the Education Act of 1870.

Public provision for elementary education began with a grant of £20,000 in 1833 in aid of school buildings. This was channelled inevitably through the two religious societies because these alone could show any degree of efficiency. 1833 also saw the Factory Act that banned children under eight from textile factories altogether and limited the hours of children between eight and thirteen to eight daily. This was continued in the Mines Act 1842 and Factory Act 1844. The idea behind this legislation was that if there were no work for children to do lawfully, they would go to school instead. Middle class enthusiasts broadly agreed that working class children should be in school, not at work. On the question of which school they should attend and whether government aid could be deployed to ensure that there were schools within the reach of all working class children, major divisions arose because of religion.  The debacle of 1839, where non-sectarian developments were effectively vetoed by the churches, did result in the creation of the Committee of the Privy Council on Education. Opposition continued from the Church of England resulting in the celebrated Concordat’ of 1840 under which the church authorities secured control of the appointment of the inspectors of state-aided schools and the right to frame the instructions for religious education, though not over non-Anglican schools. The most positive result of the Concordat was the appointment as secretary to the new Committee of Education of James Kay Shuttleworth.[1]

Resistance to state elementary education and the sectarian conflict made it impossible to start a national system according to the Chadwickian technique of a Royal Commission followed by a governing statute. A step-by-step approach was adopted, from the small grant of 1833 to the Privy Council Minutes of 1846 that governed the mid-century expansion. However, in the 1830s and 1840s there were two other roots from which a national system of primary education might have grown: the new Poor Law and the Factory Acts.

Poor law education. Chadwick always had education on his agenda as a depauperizing influence sharing the assumption that universal education would in some unexplained way cure unemployment and render poor relief largely unnecessary. His enthusiasm was shared by several of the Poor Law Assistant Commissioners, who believed that pauperism as well as crime could be eradicated by early training.  The architect of poor law education was James Phillips Kay (Kay-Shuttleworth as he called himself after his marriage). Son of a Rochdale cotton manufacturer, trained as a physician in Edinburgh, founder-member of the Manchester Statistical Society and a writer on social questions, he was recruited as Assistant Commissioner for Norfolk and Suffolk in 1835. He found little or not education for pauper children: some were sent to local schools, but always the cheapest and worst and there was no industrial training.

Kay began by persuading the more intelligent guardians to employ young trainee teachers. He claimed in his autobiography, that this improved the workhouse schools up to a point where the Guardians would be persuaded to take more interest in pauper education, and perhaps consent to the creation of school districts.  When Kay was appointed Secretary to the new Committee of Council on Education in 1839 he selected he selected an establishment in Norwood for his experiment in pauper education. In three years he turned it into a model for the district school movement and a nursery of pupil teachers for elementary schools. After 1842, however, Peel’s government slowed down the plans for district schools as it was not prepared to coerce the Unions: the movement never achieved more than three Metropolitan School Districts and six small rural ones.

The failure of the district-school movement was partly compensated by the growth of separate schools in the more enlightened Unions. By 1857, 57 of these were listed. Some smaller workhouses had detached schools on the workhouse site. School standards greatly improved after 1846 with the beginnings of poor law school inspection and the decline in the use of untrained pauper teachers.  Poor Law education never aspired to becoming a basis or a model for state elementary education. It was on too small a scale even to fulfil its own task. It was intended for workhouse children but there were, in 1855, some 277,000 children in families on outdoor relief not provided with any education except in refuges or mission or ‘ragged’ schools. Poor Law schools were the top grade in a hierarchy catering for the very lowest levels of society.

Factory schools. The factory school was not new in 1833. It can be traced back to the 1780s and was pioneered by enlightened manufacturers like Henry Ashton at Turton Mill, the Peel family and Robert Owen. The factory master was traditionally responsible for the education of his apprentices.  The Factory Act 1833 made millowners responsible for the education of children who were not their apprentices but lived with their own parents and this annoyed them. The Act did not require employers to provide education themselves, but only to obtain a certificate of school attendance for the previous week. Many progressive millowners were alienated by the education clauses: W.R.Greg, an enthusiastic organiser of factory schools, became a leading opponent of the Act.

After 1833 much of the enthusiasm for the voluntary provision of factory schooling was lost. Millowners unable or unwilling to provide their own schools tried to obey the law by sending their children to the local day schools. These arrangements were often unsuccessful. The section of factory education in the Newcastle Commission Report was largely an indictment of their inadequacies.  Factory education might have improved, at least in small mills, if the millowners had co-operated in setting up shared schools. Factory education became embroiled in the sectarian debate over Graham’s Factory Bill of 1843 and the act eventually passed in 1844 was shorn of its education clauses.  The failures of factory education, especially its involvement in sectarian disputes, certainly delayed the spread of elementary education. Disgusted Nonconformists turned to the voluntarist movement and Anglicans too patently preferred the perpetuation of ignorance to giving up their own control of education. Faced with such attitudes, the government contribution to the development of education in the mid-century had to be made largely by stealth.


[1] R.J.W. Selleck James Kay-Shuttleworth. Journey of an Outsider, Woburn Press, 1994 is now the standard biography of this seminal figure.

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