Sunday, 25 May 2008

A middle class education

Before 1850 no one seriously argued the need for the state to provide schools for middle and upper class children. Here it was thought the free market was functioning admirably. Certainly it seems there was considerable activity and formal schooling appears to have been becoming the norm for boys. This sense of activity had to remain an impressionistic one. Its volume is difficult to quantify[1].

Before 1800 families who aimed to raise their sons as gentlemen and who could afford to do so employed tutors to educate their children at home. Home education was though to be more conducive to virtue than the public schools with their low moral state and harsh corporal discipline. The rising urban population and living standards brought an increase in middle class families able to afford modest fees for private day schooling in their home towns. It was these demands that were to revitalise the grammar schools and subsequently the public boarding schools.

Grammar schools responded strongly to demands for middle class education. Established in the sixteenth century, it was unclear what ‘grammar school’ meant by 1800. Many taught elementary subjects sometimes with classics, took all social classes, included girls and acted simply as the local village or parochial school. The first half of the nineteenth century saw a process of change in three areas:

  1. Grammar schools began to change their curriculums, often including commercial subjects alongside the classics.
  2. The new curriculums enabled the schools to charge fees. There was a decisive shift to a fee-paying middle class clientele and away from the poorer former free pupils. This was helped by Lord Eldon’s judgement in the Leeds Grammar School case of 1805 that decided that grammar schools could not use their endowments to teach non-classical subjects free of charge. The working classes did not want classics and they could no longer benefit from receiving a free elementary education at the grammar school.
  3. Some schools pressed further along the road and turned themselves into boarding schools — Victorian public schools in embryo.

In the mid nineteenth century, three factors revitalised even those grammar schools that had already made the change and those that had not:

  • A new breed of headmaster seemed to appear at this time, of high Victorian moral purpose and strength of personality. Such men often took over ailing or mediocre grammar schools and made them centres of academic excellence: for example, Caldicott at Bristol [1860], Jessop at Norwich [1859], Mitchinson at Canterbury [1859] and Walker at Manchester [1859].
  • The schools were stimulated by the creation of a system of ‘middle class’ examinations from the 1850s. T.D.Acland in Exeter started these as a private venture in 1856 but so great was demand that their administration was taken over by Oxford and Cambridge in 1858 and they became known as the Local examinations. For middle class boys not intending to go to university they were a valuable school-leaving qualification and gave grammar schools something to aim for, and a perception of how they measured up to a common standard. The Higher Locals began at Cambridge in 1868 and at Oxford in 1877. In 1873 the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examining Board was established[2].
  • The third factor was the Taunton Commission that investigated some 800 endowed schools between 1864 and 1867. It addressed the problem of middle class parents who could not afford to send their children to public schools but who wanted a local grammar school offering a curriculum that would provide entry to universities or to the professions for their sons. The Taunton Commission saw the solution in the abolition of free education in grammar schools. This would exclude free boys from the lower middle class, artisan and tradesman classes who had no university or professional ambitions and enable the curriculum to be determined by the market demand of fee-payers. The Endowed Schools Act 1869 established three Commissioners who, by making schemes and regulations for some 3,000 endowments, created throughout the country the middle class fee-paying academic grammar school. Their defect was in failing to provide for the tradesman-artisan class who had to resort to the new Board Schools created after 1870.

Public schools differed from grammar schools because they catered for the upper and upper-middle classes and were boarding establishments. The body of Victorian public schools were made up of various groups:

  • There were the ancient nine schools investigated by the Clarendon Commission in the 1860s [Eton, Winchester, Harrow, Charterhouse, Rugby, Westminster, Merchant Taylors, St. Paul’s and Shrewsbury]
  • To these were added certain grammar schools that had changed their status like Sedburgh and Giggleswick
  • There were also waves of new foundations: nine in the 1840s [including Rossall, Marlborough and Cheltenham] and ten in the 1860s [including Clifton and Malvern]. Most were run as commercial ventures but many had wider purposes: schools at Lancing and Hurstpierpoint promoted high Anglicanism while those at Cranleigh and Framlingham stressed science and agriculture for farmers’ sons

The schools achieved a cohesion informally by inter-school games playing and formally by membership of the Headmasters’ Conference that met first in 1869 initially comprising the non-Clarendon public schools.

Public schools also underwent a process of changing vitality after 1830:

  1. There was a decline in domestic education after 1830. Increasing numbers of middle class children survived infancy and they could no longer conveniently be taught at home. They had to be sent away to school. Improvements in transport facilities, fast road-coaches and then railways, made possible a national market in education. Newly founded schools or old town grammar schools could set out to attract a regional or even national catchment of clients who would reside as boarders.
  2. The growing empire meant that many more families lived abroad but for cultural and climatic reasons they preferred their children to be educated in England in institutions that provided a home environment. Public schools were sought by newly prospering social groups who wished to confirm their status by assimilation with existing landed and professional elites.
  3. Thomas Arnold’s reforms at Rugby and the spread of his masters into other schools raised the whole moral tone of public schools. This made them attractive to those who cared for their children’s nurture and who had shunned the violence and neglect of welfare that characterised many public schools before 1830.

Important changes took place in the content of education in public schools. Science was accepted into the curriculum, especially in the 1860s. Various factors changed this situation:

  • The introduction of science degrees in the 1850s
  • The army reforms of the 1850s that placed an emphasis on competitive examining including two papers in science
  • A new generation of headmasters with particular interests in science: for example, H.M. Butler and F.W. Farrer at Harrow, Frederick Temple at Rugby. Parallel to this was the increase in the numbers of graduate science masters

Almost as important as change in the formal curriculum was a change in the value systems of the public schools. Thomas Arnold raised the tone of the schools from the 1820s with ‘godliness and good learning’ with the aim of producing the Christian Gentleman. From the 1850s these ideals came to be replaced by a more secular and robust emphasis on manliness and character training. ‘Muscular Christianity, as advocated by Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley, equated virile good health with Christian values and in the 1860s was expressed in a concern for organised games, athleticism and militarism[3]. Arnold had effected a change in the ethos of public schools and the changes of the 1860s matched them with secular needs outside.  These changes made the public schools highly attractive to social groups of parents somewhat below the traditional clientele and there was a marked change in the social intake of such schools after 1850:

  1. In the first half of the century the social class of parents at eight leading public schools showed that the gentry provided 38.1 per cent of boys, titled persons 12.2, clergy 12.0 and professional parents 5.2. There was an expected and large predominance of the rural elites of gentry, titled and clerical families.
  2. From the 1850s there is clear evidence of the rise of business families beginning to send their sons to Winchester and as more businessmen’s sons went to these schools so in turn more public school boys went into careers in business and industry. At Winchester this rose from 7.2 per cent of boys born in the 1820s to 17.6 per cent of those born in the 1850s.
  3. These upward trends in businessmen sending their sons to public school and in public schoolboys entering business were to be of great importance. There was a linkage between class, public school, education and business leadership in the larger companies from the 1860s. An extended club of the public school network was to replace the older Nonconformist network that had characterised the early industrial entrepreneurs.

The strong expansion of middle class education both in grammar and public schools after 1830 was a response to the demands for education from parents. The Royal Commission under Lord Clarendon, established in 1859, looked at the nine ‘ancient institutions’ but the problem was the decaying grammar schools and in 1864 the government conceded another Royal Commission, under Lord Taunton, to look at all schools not looked at by either Clarendon or Newcastle. The two Commissions took as a given the stratification of schooling for the middle classes as it had developed in the first half of the century and formalised and systematised it into a hierarchy. At the top were the ‘first grade schools’ modelled on Eton and its eight correspondents, mostly boarding, with a classical education, sending boys to universities. Next came the ‘second grade schools’, mostly day, teaching a Latin but no Greek, whose boys would leave at sixteen. Finally there were ‘third grade schools’, all day, teaching a little Latin, sending boys into employment at fourteen. The three grades were conceived as parallel, separate tracks, only the common study of Latin allowing mobility via scholarships from one track to another for the very bright. The Public Schools Act of 1868 and the Endowed Schools Act the following year greatly helped the process.

The three-grade division proved over elaborate. The differentiation in demand was essentially a bifurcation, an increasingly clear distinction between schools for gentlemen and schools for those who aimed at respectability not gentility. The problem was not the grading but the opportunities open to the educated. Too many public schoolboys were being produced at a time when there were only very slowly growing opportunities in the Church, law and medicine between 1851 and 1871. Young men with middle class aspirations outstripped the availability of careers that would give them fulfillment. The fastest growing occupations lay in lower middle class employment like clerks and shop assistants to which ex-public schoolboys would be unlikely to be attracted. The Empire provided a safety valve as products of these new schools sought in colonial lifestyles and status they would have been denied at home.


[1] For this area of education see T.W. Bamford The Rise of the Public Schools, London 1967, still the best overall treatment, and David Allsobrook Schools for the shire. The reform of middle-class education in mid-Victorian England, Manchester University Press, 1986.

[2] All these were the origins of the present examination system.

[3] Many schools began cadet corps in the 1860s, notably Eton, Winchester, Harrow and Rugby.

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