In the twenty-five years between the Endowed Schools Act 1869 and the appointment of the Bryce Commission to look at secondary education four main developments had taken place:
- The endowments and management of the grammar schools had been widely reformed.
- The curriculum of grammar schools had become subject to greater scrutiny and change.
- The middle class character of the schools had been further reinforced though a narrow ladder had begun to be erected for the recruitment of a small number of working class children to the secondary system.
- Secondary education for middle class girls had made considerable advances.
In spite of the reforms, however, many schools remained insecure. The Bryce Commission found in the 1890s many of them, mainly smaller schools, were prone to fluctuating numbers and decline. It was the question of access to secondary schools that was on the point of becoming a major issue. The Education Act 1902 was central to the process of change for grammar schools.
The Endowed Schools Commissioners had power to make provision for girls and was widely used by them. By the time of their demise in 1874 they had made schemes creating 27 schools for girls; schemes for another twenty were in the pipeline. The Charity Commissioners proceeded at a much slower pace but as further 45 girls’ schools had been added by 1903. Parallel to these developments went the creation of proprietary schools for girls. In 1892 a Girls’ Public Day School Company was formed and by 1880 it had opened eleven schools in London and eleven elsewhere. A handful of new girls’ schools, such as Cheltenham, Wycombe Abbey and Roedean, were boarding, modelling themselves more or less on boys’ public schools; but the vast majority were day schools.
The elementary and endowed and private school systems remained broadly defined by the criteria of social class. It is not surprising that the public schools managed to maintain their social identity though criticisms continued to be levelled against their traditions and preoccupation with games and athleticism. The public schools perpetuated an aristocratic element in English education and the proprietary and endowed schools continued to uphold it as an educational ideal. The sons of the expanding commercial and industrial middle classes were trained in the older traditions and codes of gentlemen, an education that left them ill prepared for their role in an increasingly competitive world. Modern subjects were often left optional and between 1860 and 1880 games became compulsory, organised and eulogised at all the leading public schools. There was no overall change in their structure, objectives or curriculum until after 1918.
Higher education after 1870
The vast growth in and attempt to systematise secondary education was paralleled by a significant, though relatively small, growth and innovation in the university sector. Higher education was still only accessible to a tiny minority. There were changes in the composition of the university population, in the structure of university government and in the curriculum.
- The 1870s saw the arrival at Oxford and Cambridge both of Nonconformists and of women. The 1871 legislation abolishing university tests untied both undergraduate places and fellowships and in the process allowed fellows to marry. The growing regiment of dons’ wives was augmented by a small file of women students. Girton and Newnham at Cambridge in the early 1870s were joined by Somerville, Lady Margaret Hall and St Anne’s at Oxford in 1879 followed by St Hugh’s and St Hilda’s in 1886 and 1892 respectively. But numbers were small: in 1900-1 296 women students at Cambridge and 239 at Oxford compared to 2,880 and 2,537 male students respectively. Women did not become full members of the university in Oxford until 1919 and in Cambridge until 1948 whereas they were admitted to all the University of London degrees in 1878.
- The Royal and Statutory Commissions of the 1850s had begun the process of overhauling college statutes and strengthening the central organs of university government. This was continued in the 1870s but the more ambitious plans were spoiled by the fall in colleges’ income brought about by the agricultural depression. At the same time, a reassertion of control over teaching and pastoral responsibilities by many colleges counter-balanced such trends towards centralisation very powerfully.
- The breaches in the dominance of Classics and Mathematics towards the end of the 1840s continued and in the early 1870s separate courses in History and Law emerged and the 1890s saw the arrival of courses in English and Modern Languages. Parallel to this was the emergence of research as a systematic postgraduate activity.
Changes in Oxbridge, however, were only a pale reflection of the changes outside it. By 1900 there were more students, women as well as men, in higher education in Great Britain outside than within Oxford and Cambridge. The sequence of foundations was as follows: Newcastle 1871; University College of Wales, Aberystwyth 1872; Leeds 1874; Mason College, Birmingham 1874; Bristol 1876; Firth College, Sheffield 1879; Liverpool 1881; Nottingham 1881; Cardiff 1883; Bangor 1883; Reading 1892; Southampton 1902. Many of these institutions began by taking external London degree examinations before seeking Royal Charters to enable them to grant their own degrees.
Other institutions, often also exploiting the external London examining umbrella, grew in London itself: medical schools attached to the teaching hospitals; in South Kensington the Royal School of Mines, the Royal College of Science and the Central Technical College formed the great Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1907; the London School of Economics and Political Science in 1895; and the women’s colleges, Bedford , Westfield  and Royal Holloway . But the University of London only acquired a teaching as well as an examining role in 1899, following the University of London Act 1898 that brought all these and other institutions together in a complex and uneasy federation. By 1900-1 full-time students outside Oxford and Cambridge totalled almost 8,000 in England and a further 1,250 in Wales.
Funding the civil university movement proved problematic and most universities were operating on a shoe-string compared to the endowments of Oxbridge. In individual cases, university colleges benefited from the generosity of local business: in Birmingham, for example, the Chamberlains played a central role. But this was not enough. From 1839 the University of London had a small recurrent grants in recognition of the imperial and colonial as well as the domestic function of its examining role. In 1883-4 the Welsh parliamentary lobby succeeded in securing short-term grant aid for the three Welsh colleges; and in 1880 the Treasury finally conceded the principle of grant aid to the English institutions outside Oxbridge. By 1906 direct Treasury grants to universities amounted to £100,000.
The full-time student population in all English and Welsh universities in 1914 only accounted for one per cent of the age group. Universities still catered for an elite. The advance of the new professional middle classes gradually reduced the dominance of the landed gentry and clergy. And outside Oxbridge, by 1914, the children of the lower middle classes and skilled artisans were beginning to appear.
The development of education between 1830 and 1914 was largely a reflection of the class basis of English society. The working classes, if they were schooled at all before 1870, went to elementary schools. The middle classes filled the grammar schools while the public schools remained the preserve of the upper classes. There were links between these three stages, a situation made more obvious after 1902 and the ‘free-place’ system, but movement from elementary school to grammar school was the exception rather than the rule. Children of all classes and of both sexes were better educated in 1914 than in 1830 but this did not have any real impact on the class bias of that education. Education mirrored the pyramidal nature of society rising to the one per cent who received a university education by 1914.
The growing intervention by the state, first with grants to voluntary schools and then with its school boards and local education authorities, marked a recognition that education for all was increasingly seen as a social service not something that ought to be provided by religious and voluntary organisations. The policy-making initiative moved from localities to central government. Acceptable standards were imposed from the centre and administered locally. Education was finally perceived as being too important to be left to chance.