Thursday, 17 February 2011

Elementary education 1870-1914

Religious squabbling continued in the elections for School Boards and in the attempts[1], particularly by Anglicans in county areas, to forestall the imposition of the School Boards.[2] Initially the advantage lay with the existing voluntary schools and even by 1880 only one sixth of children were in board schools but the potential for growth lay with School Boards and by 1900, 54% of the elementary school population were in their schools. Many of the larger boroughs imposed bye-laws making education compulsory, that in turn increased revenue, since grants were still related to attendance, and it was partly as a means of helping the rural voluntary schools that Disraeli’s ministry turned its attention to compulsion.

For these schools, Lord Sandon the Vice-President, told the Cabinet in 1875 it was a matter of ‘life or death’. The result, in 1876, was Sandon’s Education Act that set up School Attendance Committees and placed the responsibility for ensuring attendance firmly on parents. It also gave voluntary schools the right to make attendance compulsory. Various loopholes were removed by the incoming Liberal ministry when Mundella’s Education Act 1880 made attendance compulsory for children between five and ten.[3] By the early 1890s, attendance within this age group was falling short at 82%. Many children worked outside school hours: in 1901 the figure was put at 300,000 and truancy was a major problem due to the fact that parents could not afford to give up income earned by their children. Compulsory education was also extended to blind and deaf children under the Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act of 1893, which established special schools. Similar provision was made for physically-impaired children in the Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act of 1899. Further legislation in 1893 extended the age of compulsory attendance to 11, and in 1899 to 12.

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Late-nineteenth century photograph showing a primary class. Durham County Record Office, ref D/Ph162/15

This inevitably sharpened the debate about fees, that averaged about 3d per week per child and many School Boards waived the fee for needy children.[4] The Fee Grant Act 1891 virtually established free elementary education and by 1895 only about one-sixth of the five million needy elementary children were paying fees. The availability of free education through School Boards made it easier to integrate pauper children into the general education system. An Act of 1873 had made school attendance a condition of outdoor relief for children, an option that had been open to guardians since Denison’s Act of 1855 had empowered guardians to pay school fees. By 1900, the vast majority of Unions sent children to their local board school and so the distinctive badge of pauperism was gradually removed. The pernicious effects of payment by results were removed. The system had been severely criticised by the Cross Commission that reported in 1888 and in the 1890 Code grants for examinable attainments in the 3Rs were abolished. [5]

It is important to recognise the achievements that resulted from the 1870 Act. The figures for the final decades of the century show the almost complete elimination of illiteracy as measured from parish registers. The gains were greater for women than men. Had it not been for the 1870 Act progress in literacy would have slowed down simply because illiteracy was concentrated in those classes and regions that were hardest to provide for under the voluntary system. The 1870 Act was responsible for the mopping-up operation by providing more school places and improvements in attendance and length of school life. There were certainly improvements in attendance but by 1897 it was still only just over 80%. Legislation helped but machinery of enforcement was necessary. The main pressure was that of the attendance officer (commonly called the ‘board man’) and ultimately a summons. This did not always prove effective and authorities were often unwilling to prosecute or convict parents especially in rural areas where cheap child labour was essential for farmers and parents. The Agricultural Children Act 1873 was intended to improve attendance, but fines were so low if imposed at all.[6] The quality of literacy was governed by things other than directly educational ones. The factory legislation of the late 1860s and 1870s encompassed children in industries not covered before. From the 1870s, future patterns of leisure and holidays began to take rudimentary form. New skilled and semi-skilled occupations were being created and white-collar occupations were expanding. Literacy was essential in all of these areas.

The 1870 Act itself made access to higher-than-elementary education inevitably a more prominent issue. Apart from evening and adult education, such access became available mainly in two ways: the evolution of a higher stage within the elementary system, and the scholarship ladder from the elementary school to the grammar school.

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The historian G.M. Young characterised the absence of any substantial educational provision in England and Wales for much of the nineteenth century as ‘the great Victorian omission’.[7] The 1870 Education Act represented a significant move forward and by the 1890s, over 2,500 new school boards had been created in England and Wales and there were also some 14,000 committees of management for individual voluntary schools. However, this dual system of elementary education was uneven in administrative terms and voluntary schools were often at a financial disadvantage since they were funded not from the local rates but by direct government grants. By 1900, important factors were altering attitudes towards the pattern of education as it had evolved since 1870.[8] The elementary system had produced what for many people seemed to be pseudo-secondary features in its higher-grade schools and evening classes. The still insecure basis of very many grammar schools was in many cases withering under pressure from school board initiatives. The board schools were outpacing the voluntary schools. Many were in serious financial difficulties in a period of declining church attendance. The voluntary agencies were divided on the desirability of further state aid and intervention. State intervention was in society generally being more actively advocated and tolerated. The 1895 Bryce Commission[9] recommended the creation of a central authority for education and a Board of Education was created in 1899.[10] Local councils also entered the education field mainly under the Technical Instruction Acts as competitors of the school boards.

Such changes threatened the uneasy 1870 settlement. School boards came under fire before the end of the century, particularly for their higher-grade schools and what the church party considered excessive expenditure of ratepayers’ money. Leading Conservatives, especially Sir John Gorst, attacked the boards and attempted to reduce their powers or transfer their powers to the county and county borough councils. The boards themselves, nonconformist and labour bodies expressed hostility to such moves and defended their record. Sir Robert Morant[11], who became Gorst’s private secretary in 1899 and permanent secretary of the Board of Education from 1903, was able to engineer a test case. The Local Taxation Act of 1890 led the Government to put a tax on whisky and the so-called ‘whisky money’ was used to fund technical education. However some school boards used the revenue to fund secondary education. In the Cockerton judgement in 1899, London school board expenditure on high elementary classes was disallowed by the district auditor.[12] This allowed Morant and Gorst to achieve a dual objective: the prevention of further post-elementary developments in board schools and the possibility of using the councils as all embracing educational authorities. In drafting the new education bill, Morant was able to bring elementary and secondary education under one authority and at the same time bring relief to the voluntary schools.

The 1902 Education Act was a deeply reactionary piece of legislation that consciously set out to dismantle the popular schooling system developed by the school boards that had been created by the 1870 education act. The purpose of this dismemberment was to buttress the control of education by religious groups and by the grammar schools...[13]

The debate on the education bill, steered by the Prime Minister A.J. Balfour through Parliament, saw a stalwart defence of the board schools.[14] However, the separate administration of board schools, grammar schools, Science and Art Department grants, technical instruction committees and the independent management of voluntary elementary schools was chaotic. The creation of 131 local education authorities based on county and county borough councils and 202 minor authorities replaced 2,568 School Boards and 14,238 School Attendance Committees in elementary education alone. [15] It was, however, the notion of ‘Church schools on the rates’ that provoked fierce and sustained resistance especially from Nonconformists.[16] Opposition was especially intense about state-support for the Catholic Church. Inside and outside Parliament there was outcry against ‘Rome on the rates’. Church of England schools generally heeded the rule that no pupil or teacher should be required to conform to religious belief or ritual. Roman Catholic schools were less enthusiastic and enforced religious observance more strictly. In 1917, the church issued a canon expressly forbidding Catholic parents from sending their children to non-Catholic schools on pain of excommunication.

The Act also empowered LEAs to support teacher training colleges. Most of the existing colleges were church owned, though new non-denominational colleges, for example, Froebel, Edge Hill and Charlotte Mason had opened in the last years of the nineteenth century, as had teacher training departments in the universities, 16 of them by 1900. The expansion of LEA teacher training meant that by 1906 not all places at denominational colleges were being filled. The Board of Education therefore decided that if the church colleges wished to receive grant aid, they must forfeit the right to use denominational criteria in offering places. The Church of England and the Catholic Church protested, the government backed down and the churches were allowed to recruit up to half their students on the basis of their denominational allegiance.[17]

The most far-reaching effect of the 1902 Act was its influence on the structure of elementary and secondary education. It did not make it mandatory for local authorities to provide secondary education but it did require them to perform the functions previously performed by the school boards and the technical instruction committees. The result of this was a massive expansion in the physical provision of secondary schooling in the years up to 1914. [18] In 1904, the Board of Education published its Secondary Regulations, defining a four year subject-based course leading to a certificate in English language and literature, geography, history, a foreign language, mathematics, science, drawing, manual work, physical training, and household crafts for girls. This was followed in 1907 by Elementary Code of 1907 sought to clarify the aims and improve the quality of elementary education.

The government did not neglect the question of access for elementary school pupils to the new fee-charging secondary schools. The Free Place Regulations of 1907 made available enhanced government grants to all secondary schools prepared to offer at least a quarter of their places without fees to pupils who had spent at least two years at public elementary school and received £5 per head for each scholar. Would-be ‘free placers’ were expected to sit a simple qualifying examination. Pressure of numbers soon made this as ferociously competitive as any of the existing scholarship tests. By 1912, 49,120 children, 32% of the total population of maintained secondary schools, were ‘free placers’.

There was much concern both within and outside Parliament that there should be more measures to ensure that children were healthier. The Boer War (1899-1902) revealed the extent of ‘physical deterioration’ when a government committee investigated the causes of the poor physical condition of potential recruits. The need for developments in child health, orchestrated by Morant and Margaret McMillan, was legislation in 1906 and 1907 and in setting up a medical department of the Board of Education.[19] In 1906, needy schoolchildren received further assistance under the Education (Provision of Meals) Act. It allowed local authorities to provide meals free of charge when parents could not afford to pay. This was made compulsory under an Act of 1914. The Education (Administrative Provisions) Act of 1907 required education authorities to see that all schoolchildren under their care received a medical inspection. Free school meals and medical inspections were a further attack on the existing poor law system as well as a major advance in the role of the state in education.


[1] Richards, N.J., ‘Religious Controversy and the School Boards 1870-1902’, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 18, (1970), pp. 180-196.

[2] Ibid, Jackson, Patrick, Education Act Forster: a political biography of W.E. Forster (1818-1886), pp. 181-206 considers the implementation of the legislation through to 1874.

[3] See, Roper, H., Administering the Elementary Education Acts, 1870-1885, (Museum of the History of Education, University of Leeds), 1976.

[4] See for example, Lewis, Jane, ‘Parents, children, schhol fees and the London School Board 1870-1890’, History of Education, Vol. 11, (1982), pp. 291-312.

[5] Moore, Marianne, ‘Social Control or Protection of the Child? The Debates on the Industrial Schools Acts, 1857-1894’, Journal of Family History, Vol. 33, (2008), pp. 359-387.

[6] Horn, P.L.R., ‘The Agricultural Children Act 1873’, History of Edication, Vol. 3, (2), (1974), pp. 27-39.

[7] Young, G.M., Victorian England: Portrait of an Age, (Oxford University Press), 1953, p. 165.

[8] Dalglish, Neil, Education Policy-making in England and Wales: The Crucible Years 1895-1911, (Woburn Press), 1996

[9] Anon. Royal commission on secondary education: report of the commissioners plus Minutes of evidence etc. Parliamentary papers, [C. 7862] H.C. (1895): Vol. XLIII, 1, [C. 7862-I-VIII] H.C. (1895), Vols. XLIV-XLIX.

[10] Gosden, P.H.J.H., ‘The Board of Education Act, 1899’, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 11, (1962), pp. 44-60.

[11] Lowe, Roy, ‘Personalities and policy: Sadler, Morant and the structure of education in England’, in Aldrich, Richard, (ed.), In history and in education: essays presented to Peter Gordon, (Woburn), 1996, pp. 98-115. See also, Allen, B.M., Sir Robert Morant; a great public servant, 1934 and Dugdale, B.E.C., ‘Arthur James Balfour and Robert Morant’, Quarterly Review, Vol. 260, (1933), pp. 152-168.

[12] Taylor, Tony, ‘The Cockerton case revisited: London politics and education, 1898-1901’, British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 30, (1982), pp. 329-348.

[13] Manton, Kevin, ‘The 1902 Education Act’, History Today, Vol. 52, (12), (2002), p. 18.

[14] Simon, Brian, ‘The 1902 Education Act: a wrong turning’, History of Education Society Bulletin, Vol. 70, (2002), pp. 69-75, Reeder, David A., ‘The Education Act of 1902 and local governance: some reflections on Brian Simon’s critique’, History of Education Society Bulletin, 70, (2002), pp. 101-108, Pugh, D.R., ‘The 1902 Education Act: the search for a compromise’. British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 16, (1968), pp. 164-178 and Chambers, B., ‘The 1902 Education Act: The Making of a Part III Authority’, History of education researcher, Vol. 78, (2006), pp. 61-71.

[15] In Scotland the school boards survived until 1918 when they were replaced by elected county authorities, and in 1929 by the county councils

[16] See, Gullifer, N.R., ‘Opposition to the 1902 Education Act’, Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 8, (1), (1982), pp. 83-98 and Pugh, D.R., ‘English Nonconformity, Education and Passive Resistance, 1903-6’, History of Education, Vol.19 , (4), (1990), pp. 355-73 and ‘The Church and Education: Anglican Attitudes, 1902’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Vol. 23, (1972), pp. 219-232.

[17] Gore, Charles, Objections to the Education bill, 1906, in principle and in detail, (Murray), 1906 indicates the extent of opposition. See also, Dalglish, N., ‘Lloyd George’s Education Bill? Planning the 1906 Education Bill’, History of Education, Vol. 23, (1994), pp. 375-384.

[18] Robinson, Wendy, ‘Historiographical Reflections on the 1902 Education Act’, Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 28, (2002), pp. 159-172 offers a valuable overview of a hundred years of historiography of the 1902 Education Act.

[19] Steedman, Carolyn, Childhood, culture and class in Britain: Margaret McMillan, 1860-1931, (Virago), 1990.

2 comments:

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Dan Westcott said...

This was incredibly insightful into the late nineteeth century education 'system'. Very helpful. Thank you.