Saturday, 20 November 2010

The Education Act 1870: revised version

The first two-thirds of the nineteenth century in England were years of extraordinary growth in popular education and literacy, reflecting the combined influence of increased private demand for basic instruction and the government-subsidised efforts of voluntary religious societies to construct schools for the working-classes. By 1858, the Newcastle Commission was able to report that there remained ‘very few cases indeed in which children have been at no school whatsoever.’[1] Although most working-class children had at least some experience of formal schooling, the general pattern of irregular attendance and early withdrawal was clearly detrimental to educational progress.[2] The existing educational free market of voluntary schools and state subsidies did not deliver an effective educational market for all and the development of a system of state-provided and controlled elementary education was an attempt by the state to address fundamental deficiencies in the rapidly expanding market for popular education.

Whatever the benefits of elementary education to the working-classes, the fees that were charged, however small, posed a problem. The Newcastle Commission reported

It is not to be denied that, in every division of my district, some parents are too poor to pay even the trifling sum charged by schools supported by the Committee of Council on Education.’[3]

More significant than the monetary cost of school attendance was the loss of the child’s contribution to the family economy. For many working-class families, sending their children to school would have entailed the loss of their financial independence. As a government inspector of schools concluded in 1854,

The earnings of the adult operative are insufficient to support himself and children up to fourteen years of age, hence the removal of them from school in order to meet the wants of his household. Compel them to go to school, and you drive the family to the workhouse.[4]

For families living at or near the level of subsistence, times of financial hardship frequently meant withdrawing children from school. The alternative for Victorian workers was to borrow money at reasonable rates but there were major difficulties with this that made this alternative unrealistic. Three basic forms of credit were available to members of the working-classes in the late-nineteenth century: ‘not-paying’, pawning, and borrowing.[5] Each of these options was unsuited to the modest but protracted expenses associated with investments in schooling and the complete lack of discussion by contemporary observers of the possibility of taking out temporary loans confirms its impracticality. In short, for those Victorian parents incapable of paying school fees or of subsisting even temporarily without the financial contributions of their children, existing capital markets were of little help.[6]

The economic incentives to acquire a basic education offered by the Victorian job market increased significantly after 1840 as a result of structural changes in the British economy. As technology developed and the potential uses of literacy increased, the skills taught in elementary schools came to be valued by employers in a far wider range of industries. As James Fraser reported to the Newcastle Commission in 1858, ‘prejudice against an educated labourer was rapidly passing away’ even in agricultural districts due to the development of ‘more scientific methods of cultivation’ for which ‘more intelligence is required in those who actually have to apply them.’[7] Literate workers were more likely to work in higher-status occupations than illiterates with the same background. Basic skills taught in elementary schools were increasingly necessary not only for the traditionally middle-class jobs of clerk or solicitor, but also for more modest occupations. Investments in elementary education, therefore, did generally offer an economic return for members of the Victorian working-classes. There was some resistance to this notion in some communities where the local economy was grounded in occupations that needed young labour and where elementary education was less well regarded. In mining communities, for example, parents were notorious for not sending their children to school despite relatively high earnings.[8] The Newcastle Commissioners acknowledged that the miners’ choice to send their children to work in the pits rather than to school was not necessarily selfish or near-sighted. Rather, it represented a rational economic decision to equip their children with the experience and skills that would benefit them as miners, a career that offered high earnings relative even to the small number of jobs in the region requiring literacy and into which most of them would go.

It was not a lack of ideas that prevented the government from becoming involved in education early in the nineteenth century as Parliament was well aware of the state-mandated systems of education emerging on the continent in Prussia and France. Bills to establish rate aid for schools were presented in Parliament and defeated in 1807, 1820 and in 1833, when John Roebuck presented a bill that would also have made elementary education compulsory. The British government’s earliest interventions in the market for popular education represented attempts to increase the supply of suitable education available to the working-classes at a price they could afford. As Henry Brougham informed his fellow members of the ‘upper classes’ in an 1825 pamphlet

‘...the question no longer is whether or not the people shall be instructed—for that has been determined long ago, and the decision was irreversible—but whether they shall be well or ill taught.’[9]

Forced to take a more active role after 1833, the government began an extended effort to improve the standard of education in the voluntary sector. The eventual substitution of statutory elementary schools financed by local taxation for voluntary and for-profit types of schooling represented an attempt to address the imperfections of the private educational market.

Towards state provision

The Elementary Education Act 1870 created school boards for those parts of England and Wales in that there were insufficient school places for working-class children. These boards possessed power to enforce the attendance of their pupils. Ten years later this power became a duty that devolved also on the school attendance committee, a body created under an act of 1876 in the non school-board areas. The idea of compulsory education was not new. Certain groups of children had been forced, under a variety of legislation that included the Factory Acts, the Reformatory and Industrial Schools Acts and the Poor Law Acts, to attend school before 1870 but the numbers involved were comparatively small.[10] What was new about the legislation of the 1870s was the extent of its operation. For the first time, the nation’s children had to attend school on a full-time basis for a minimum of five years, a period that extended to nine for many by 1914. The new laws had an important effect on the working-class way of life. No longer could parents take for granted the services of their children in the home and their contributions to the family budget. Traditional working-class patterns of behaviour continued in defiance of the law. The state had interfered with the pattern of family life by coming between parent and child, reducing family income and imposing new patterns of behaviour on both parent and child.

The 1870 Act was the culmination of a thirty year struggle to establish an effective and nationwide elementary schooling system. There was general agreement that this was necessary, but the sectarian interests of Anglicans, Nonconformists and Roman Catholics made this difficult. As long as the provision of schools was a voluntary, charitable activity, the three religious societies could co-exist. But any attempt to establish education as the responsibility of the state and spend public money, created acute tensions. Anglicans, as members of the Established Church, claimed that any national system must be Anglican-based, a claim fiercely resisted by Nonconformists and Catholics. As the events of the 1830s and 1840s show, each side was able to mobilise enough support to prevent successive governments from taking any large-scale action. Whatever its justification, the voluntary principle did not prove a success in promoting schools. Even many of the extreme Nonconformists were coming round to the view that voluntarism had been given a fair trial and had failed. The Congregationalist Education Union that had originated in the 1840s to oppose state education was wound up in 1867 and the symbolic acceptance of defeat was registered when the great voluntaryist Edward Baines accepted the practical case for state education. The Newcastle Commission and the controversies over the Revised Code were important because they reinforced the public interest in the subject that had been growing since the 1850s. Religion was one reason for the late growth of a national system of education but there were others.

Some of the conflict and bitterness was due to the social and political divisions that underlay and reinforced sectarian and theological disputes. By the 1840s, the Anglican Church was bitterly resented by its rivals: a national institution identified with a class and the Tory Party. Many Anglican clergymen regarded education as a means of crude social control. In this they were in agreement with the bulk of the Conservative Party that had frustrated Whig efforts in 1839-1840 to establish a national non-denominational system and that fought hard for the interests of the Church during the long debates in 1870. Paradoxically, the provisions of the 1870 Act had the effect of allying Catholics and Anglicans. Voluntary schools were to be in competition with the new board schools and Catholics were implacably opposed to this. Nonconformists naturally ranged themselves behind the Whigs and then the Liberals. However, at no point did they were never more than a vigorous pressure group within the party that, after 1867, was led by William Gladstone who in 1838 had been ‘desirous of placing the education of the people under the efficient control of the clergy’.[11] By 1870, he was prepared to accept the need for some government action on a non-denominational basis but refused, as did the majority of the Liberal Party, to act against the voluntary schools. It was impossible to devise a bill that would have satisfied both sides.

There was also a lack of parliamentary and administrative will to address the problems that did exist and an absence of local government structures that would provide the necessary local agencies. Municipal corporations had been reformed in 1835 but their powers were limited and their influence small. In the counties, elected councils were not established until 1888. There were serious administrative problems in involving the state in popular education. Local rate support would certainly bring demands for local control that was bound to raise the denominational issue. There was the growing problem of expense of government grants that the Revised Code was supposed to have resolved and this was combined with the tension that, since education was a local service, it ought to be financed from local taxation, a proposal that was a central proposal of the National Public School Association founded in 1850. The final problem was one of timing. Education took up a good deal of parliamentary time in the mid-fifties. In 1855, for example, there were three bills before Parliament though all were withdrawn. It was not a period when the state was likely to move into a major new area of social policy because the government was tending to restrict its activities in central planning. The 1850s was the decade of administrative reform and retrenchment with reformers planning to achieve economies rather than extend the range of government activity. As a result, much of the pressure for a national system of elementary education came from outside parliament.

Elementary education was an area where national policies were greatly influenced by local initiatives, beginning first in Manchester[12] and later in Birmingham.[13] The National Public School Association had the support of Richard Cobden and, among others, a young Bradford manufacturer named W.E. Forster who later carried the 1870 Act through the Commons.[14] It campaigned for public, rate-supported, non-denominational education during the 1850s but ran out of steam after an 1857 bill failed to become law. During the 1860s, opinion in cities became increasingly concerned about the large numbers of children who were not in school.[15] Evidence of poor educational provision was beginning to accumulate. In 1861-1862, the first and second reports of the Royal Commission on Children’s Employment in agriculture brought out the poor state of education in the countryside. It was clear that the half-time system could not be introduced into agricultural work. Manchester was not the only major city to reveal its deficiencies. Very similar conclusions were reached by the Birmingham Education Society, founded in 1867, and the House of Commons return on the state of education in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool in 1869 showed that many children were attending no school at all and that existing private schools were very inefficient.[16] The Social Science Association argued, as a result of an extensive survey, that in every 100 children living with parents and not at work, 40 were at school and 60 were not. [17] Their conclusion was that only compulsory education could deal with the apathy of parents and the inadequacy of the voluntary system. Education bills were introduced in 1867 and 1868 but the latter was withdrawn when it was clear that a general election was imminent. When Gladstone formed his new Liberal government, Forster became Vice-President of the Committee of Council for Education, the man who spoke for education in the Commons.[18]


The Reform Act 1867 enfranchised the urban working-class. Both Disraeli and Gladstone accepted that self-improvement and rising levels of literacy were, in part, a justification for this development. There is, however, some debate on the degree to which reform in 1867 led to educational reform in 1870. Robert Lowe‘s statement that ‘we must now educate our masters’ has to be seen as partly rhetoric but it raise the issue of parental non-consumers and the degree to which they should be coerced into sending their children to school. It has been argued that the extension of education in 1870 was a matter of social policy not one of political necessity. The leadership that had long rested with Manchester now passed to Birmingham. Education was one of the major interests of the Birmingham municipal reformers and in 1869 they created the National Education League with George Dixon as President and Joseph Chamberlain as Chairman of the committee.[19] The League was a national movement that carried on the ideas of the National Public School Association and represented the non-sectarian and Nonconformist view of the way ahead. In November 1869, the National Education Union was founded in Manchester with the protection of the interests of denominational schools as its primary objective.[20]

Forster introduced the bill in February 1870 and it became law on 9 August.[21] It did not design a new national system. It left the existing voluntary schools untouched with the same committees of managers. Where the existing school provision was inadequate or where a majority of ratepayers demanded it, school boards should be set up for boroughs and parishes with a single board for the whole of London, with the duty of building the schools that were necessary. These boards were to be elected triennially in the boroughs by the burgesses and in parishes by ratepayers, and were given the power to issue a precept on the rating authority to be paid out of the local rate. The religious question was resolved by allowing schools provided by the boards to be non-sectarian (the so-called Cowper-Temple clause) but giving parents the right to withdraw their children from any religious observance or instruction. Elementary education was not made free and school boards might make it compulsory for children to attend school. This was not extended to the voluntary schools. The Act essentially filled in the gaps creating a dual system of state schools and voluntary schools.[22]

The main feature of the debate was the major division of opinion not between Conservatives and Liberals but within the Liberal majority itself. The Conservatives on the whole supported the bill, though they disagreed over some issues. The original proposals were considerably modified by the Radical Nonconformist wing of the Liberal party, many of them recently elected MPs, who wanted to go further in a number of directions that the government had planned. Some Radicals were strong Nonconformists who advocated the disestablishment of the Church of England. Prominent in this group was Edward Miall, a former Independent minister who had founded The Nonconformist in 1841 and who was a leading figure in the Society for the Liberation of the Church from State Patronage and Control (or Liberation Society for short). Henry Richard, Welsh MP with similar views pointed out the particular difficulties raised by the religious situation in Wales and the dislike of the Welsh people for Anglican teaching in schools. They argued that school instruction should be entirely secular so that religious agencies would be left to do their work outside schools. The pressures were not all from the religious side. Compulsory education was strongly advocated by the Cambridge economist Henry Fawcett and by Sir Charles Dilke, whose main contribution to the final act was to propose that the ratepayers should elect the school boards. Free education, part of the programme of the National Education League, was little discussed and an amendment in favour of it soundly defeated.

Board schools with rates as well as government grants to draw on had the resources to grow. Voluntary schools had no source of local income comparable to rates and there was no way in which they could keep pace. In this sense the settlement of 1870 carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. By the 1890s, it was clear that provision for elementary education was uneven and annually growing more so. Nor was the structure one on to which provision for secondary education could be grafted. The Education Act 1902 put the Church on the rates. School Boards were abolished and, in return for rate aid, voluntary schools’ committees of management came within the control of the new Local Education Authorities, county and county borough councils, some 140 of them.[23]

[1] Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the State of Popular Education in England, Parliamentary Papers, 1861, Vol. 21, pt. I, p. 85.

[2] Ibid, Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the State of Popular Education in England, pt. I, p. 178.

[3] Ibid, Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the State of Popular Education in England, pt. III, pp. 236-237.

[4] Minutes of the Committee of Council on Education, Parliamentary Papers, 1854-5, pp. 79-80.

[5] Johnson, Paul, Saving and Spending: the working-class economy in Britain, 1870-1939, (Oxford University Press), 1985, pp. 144-192.

[6] Ellis, A.C.O., ‘Influences on School Attendance in Victorian England’, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 21, (3), (1973), pp. 313-326.

[7] Ibid, Report of the Commissioners Appointed to Inquire into the State of Popular Education in England, pt. II, p. 105.

[8] Ibid, Colls, R., ‘“Oh Happy English Children!”: Coal, Class and Education in the North-East’.

[9] Brougham, Henry, Practical Observations upon the Education of the Poor: addressed to the working classes and their employers, (Printed by Richard Taylor ... and sold by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green ... for the benefit of the London Mechanics Institution), 1825, p. 32.

[10] After 1832, a series of acts shored up, but did not radically modify, the voluntary school system. The Industrial Schools Acts of 1857, 1861 and 1866; the Reformatory Schools Acts of 1854, 1857 and 1866 and the Education of Pauper Children Act of 1862 all helped local authorities to tackle the problem of the education of the ‘residuum’, the class the voluntary schools had neglected. When the efforts of pre-1867 parliaments had failed and the voluntary system had lost credence as the means of educating the children of the nation, then and only then, did the 1870 Act belatedly and reluctantly ‘fill the gaps’.

[11] Cit, Morley, John, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, 3 Vols. (Macmillan and Co.), 1903, Vol. 1, p. 109.

[12] See, Maltby, S.E., Manchester and the movement for national elementary education, 1800-1870, (Manchester University Press), 1918.

[13] Marcham, A.J., ‘The Birmingham Education Society and the 1870 Education Act’, Journal of Educational Administration & History, Vol. 8, (1976), pp. 11-16.

[14] Jackson, Patrick, Education Act Forster: a political biography of W.E. Forster (1818-1886), (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press), 1997 and Reid, T. W., Sir, Life of the Right Honourable William Edward Forster, 2 Vols. (Chapman and Hall), 1888.

[15] On the impact of public opinion, see, Rich, E.E., The Education Act 1870: a study of public opinion, (Longman), 1970.

[16] Papers for The Schoolmaster, New Series, Vol. 4, (1868), pp. 163-164, Report of the first general meeting of members of the National Education League: held at Birmingham, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 12 & 13, 1869 ..., (The Journal), 1869, pp. 22-23. See also, Rodrick, Anne B., Self-Help and Civic Culture: Citizenship in Victorian Birmingham, (Ashgate), 2004, pp. 88-109.

[17] Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, (John W. Parker), 1869, pp. 38-74, 391-399, 454-455.

[18] See Roper, Henry, ‘Towards an Elementary Education Act for England and Wales, 1865-1870’, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 23, (2), (1975), pp. 181-208.

[19] Ibid, Report of the first general meeting of members of the National Education League: held at Birmingham, on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 12 & 13, 1869....

[20] Rich, E.E., The Education Act, 1870: a study of public opinion, (Longman), 1970 but see also the comtemporary studies, Adams, Francis, The Elementary Education Act, 1870: with analysis, index and appendix, (Simpkin, Marshall, & Co.), 1870 and Munby, F.J., A popular analysis of the Elementary Education Act, 1870: for the use of ratepayers, school managers, overseers, parents, and others outside the metropolis, (John Heywood), 1870.

[21] Armytage, W.H.G., ‘The 1870 Education Act’, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 18, (1970), pp. 121-133, Baker, Gordon, ‘The romantic and radical nature of the 1870 Education Act’, History of Education, Vol. 30, (2001), pp. 211-232. See also, A Verbatim Report, with indexes, of the debate in Parliament during the progress of the Elementary Education Bill, 1870, (National Education Union), 1870.

[22] Ibid, Jackson, Patrick, Education Act Forster: a political biography of W.E. Forster (1818-1886), pp. 150-180 examines the passage of the legislation.

[23] Murphy, James, The Education act 1870: text and commentary, (David & Charles), 1972 provides the legislation and how it worked.

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