Sunday, 13 February 2011

Educating girls 1870-1914: revised version

The effect of the 1870 Education Act was to widen the gap between the educations of different classes. It marked the increasing involvement of the state in the financing and control of elementary education.[1] The age of compulsory schooling was raised from ten, to eleven and then fourteen in 1800, 1893 and 1899 respectively. However, exceptions were made for part-time working under local byelaws.[2] From 1870 to 1914 the state also increased the number of grants for certain subjects taught in elementary schools and supported scholarship schemes for entry to secondary education. Both these measures sharpened further existing sexual divisions between working-class boys and girls. The Education Department influenced the elementary curriculum through the provision of grants and for working-class girls the influence was in the expansion of domestic subjects. [3] The Education Department Code of 1878 provided for compulsory domestic education for girls in the state sector. In 1882, grants were made for the teaching of cookery and in 1890 for laundry work.[4] The textbooks used in schools made it quite clear that the ‘new’ subjects should involve the learning of useful, practical skills and character building. Such habits were, of course, to prepare working-class schoolgirls to become good women, capable of being efficient wives and mothers.[5]

Writers such as Anna Davin and Carol Dyhouse link the expansion of domestic subjects with fears about the future of the British race and the decline of the British Empire. The Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration (1904) contained many statements by the middle-class about the low standards of living among the poor in congested urban areas and particularly the inadequacies of the working-class wife. Since children were seen as a national asset, it was believed critical to educate working-class elementary schoolgirls for wifehood and motherhood. The results were, however, not always as anticipated by government officials. Working-class women interviewed by Elizabeth Roberts about their lives in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century stated that school domestic science was ‘never any help’. It would appear that for many working-class girls, it was their mothers’ training at home that was valued more than the unreal situations created in schools.

The increased emphasis on the sexual division between boys and girls between 1870 and 1914 was evident also in the scholarship system whereby poor elementary pupils could be offered a free place in a fee-paying secondary school. The number of scholarships was severely limited. More were, however, offered to boys than girls and this was especially so after the Technical Instruction Act 1889 enabled counties and county boroughs to make grants to secondary schools for scholarship purposes. In addition to this handicap, working-class girls might also find themselves discriminated against both by their parents and teachers when they had scholastic ambitions for secondary schooling. In essence, working-class girls were being trained in domestic skills while a proportion of middle-class girls were offered at least a route out of that sphere.

Feminist philosophies were applied in the many new fee-paying schools rather than in the new state schools. How can we explain the development of mass education and how does it provide insights into girls’ education? First, Britain needed an educated electorate after the extension of the vote to working men in 1867. Secondly, Britain needed an educated workforce that would be able to produce goods in the competitive international market as well as for home consumption A third explanation, grounded in a Marxist analysis, argues that education was seen by the middle-classes as a means of reforming, civilising and controlling a decadent working-class. None of these explanations take into account gender divisions. While the first two explanations may be relevant to the schooling of working-class boys, they hold no relevance for working-class girls, since women did not have the right to vote and neither could they enter the range of skilled jobs which, it was believed, would bring economic prosperity. A fourth explanation does, however, consider gender differences. Feminist historians, such as Anna Davin and Carol Dyhouse, argue that mass schooling was an attempt to impose upon the working-class children a middle-class family form of a male breadwinner and an economically dependent wife and mother. Such family forms would benefit all family members and the wider society. Such a stable unit would provide a secure environment for the rearing of healthy children, the future workforce and for the care and comfort of the male wage earner.

Feminist philosophies were applied in the many new fee-paying schools rather than in the new state schools. There was some minor activity in feminist educational provision for working-class women and girls. A Working Women’s College was established in London in 1864. The only means by which women were able to influence government and working-class schooling was through membership of School Boards. In the 1870s, many women took local government office, a new avenue of political participation opened to them in 1869. Women became eligible for election to Poor Law Guardianship positions and in 1870 to School Boards.[6] Between 1892 and 1895, 128 women were elected on to English and Welsh School Boards. However, they were not dealing primarily with girls’ schooling but with the schooling of all working-class children and were often allotted to suitably ‘feminine’ committees such as the Needlework Sub-Committee.


[1] Gomersall, Meg, ‘Ideals and realities: the education of working-class girls, 1800-1870’, History of Education, Vol. 17, (1988), pp. 37-53, Horn, Pamela, ‘The education and employment of working-class girls, 1870-1914’, History of Education, Vol. 17, (1988), pp. 71-82. Ibid, Roach, John, Secondary education in England, 1870-1902: public activity and private enterprise, pp. 201-242 examines middle-class girls’ education in secondary schools.

[2] This half-time system was ended in the 1918 Education Act and fourteen became the national compulsory school leaving age.

[3] Williams, Susan, ‘Domestic science: the education of girls at home’, in Aldrich, Richard, (ed.), Public or private education?: lessons from history (Woburn), 2004, pp. 116-126, Manthorpe, Catherine, ‘Science or domestic science?: The struggle to define an appropriate science education for girls in early twentieth century England’, History of Education, Vol. 15, (1986), pp. 195-213.

[4] Turnball, A., ‘An isolated missionary: the domestic subjects teacher in England, 1870-1914’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 3, (1), (1994), pp. 81-100.

[5] For a detailed case studies, see, McDermid, Jane, The schooling of working class girls in Victorian Scotland: gender, education and identity, (Routledge), 2005, Allsopp, Anne, The education and employment of girls in Luton, 1874-1924: widening opportunities and lost freedoms, (Bedfordshire Historical Record Society), 2005. See also, Turnbull, Annmarie, ‘An isolated missionary: the domestic subjects teacher in England, 1870-1914’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 3, (1994), 81-100.

[6] Martin, Jane, ‘Entering the public arena: the female members of the London School Board, 1870-1914’, History of Education, Vol. 22, (3), (1993), pp. 225-240.

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