Thursday, 27 January 2011

Emerging day schools and religion

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 schooling through the voluntary principle. Among the most successful enterprises were Sunday schools. They originated in the eighteenth century and by the early 1830s it has been estimated that over a million children and adolescents were attending them. [1] 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. [2]

Sunday schools differed from most day schools because of their low running costs 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 income from fees. The promotion of day schools led to the formation of two voluntary Religious Societies, 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).[3] The sectarian divide had been established: the Anglican National Society and the broadly Nonconformist British and Foreign School Society.

Education 1

Sunday school c1830

The attractiveness of these voluntary schools was not enhanced by their teaching methods. 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.[4] It was designed to enable a single teacher to cope with very large groups of children. 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.[5] 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.[6] 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 and in some contemporary reports they are viewed positively. However, their inadequacies were illustrated by a study conducted in 1838 by the Statistical Society of London that found nearly half of all pupils surveyed were only taught spelling, with a negligible number being taught mathematics and grammar.[7] 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.[8]

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. 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 two pence 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. Despite these problems and pressures, in the decades between 1810 and 1860, the number of childrenn attending day schools increased. 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. He concluded that the proportion of children attending day schools was 1:11 of the population, an increase from the 1:17 in Lord Brougham’s Returns in 1818.[9]


[1] 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.

[2] Orchard, Stephen and Briggs, John H.Y., (eds.), The Sunday school movement: studies in the growth and decline of Sunday schools, (Paternoster), 2007, Laqueur, T.W., Religion and Respectability, Sunday Schools and Working Class Culture 1780-1850, (Yale University Press), 1976.

[3] Binns, H.B., A century of education: being the centenary history of the British and Foreign School Society, 1808-1908, (T.C. & E.C. Jack), 1908.

[4] It was sometimes known as the Madras system’ 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. See, Tschurenev, Jana, ‘Diffusing useful knowledge: the monitorial system of education in Madras, London and Bengal, 1789-1840’, Paedagogica Historica, Vol. 44, (2008), pp. 245-264.

[5] Dickens, Charles, Hard Times: a novel, (Harper & Brothers), 1854, pp. 18-19, 33, 35, 58, 65-66, 99 contains the best satirical account of the monitorial system in action under the teacher Mr McChoakumchild while in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, (Chapman and Hall), 1839, pp. 58-73 he caricatures the ‘practical’ nature of education at Mr Squeer’s Dotheboys Academy.

[6] Allen, J.E., ‘Voluntaryism: a “laissez-faire” movement in mid nineteenth century elementary education’, History of Education, Vol. 10, (1981), pp. 111-124.

[7] Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 1, (1839), pp. 451-452.

[8] Higginson, J.H., ‘Dame schools’, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 22, (1974), pp. 166-181 and Grigg, G.R., ‘“Nurseries of ignorance”? Private adventure and dame schools for the working classes in nineteenth-century Wales’, History of Education, Vol. 34, (2005), pp. 243-262.

[9] This reduction continued: in 1851 the proportion was 1:8 and by 1858, 1:7: Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 24, (1861), p. 209.

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