Saturday, 19 February 2011

Grammar and public schools, 1870-1914: revised version

Between the Endowed Schools Act 1869 and the appointment of the Bryce Commission in 1895, four main developments had taken place in secondary education. First, the endowments and management of the grammar schools had been widely reformed. Secondly, their curriculum had become subject to greater scrutiny and change. Thirdly, the middle-class character of the schools had been further reinforced though opportunities for the recruitment of a small number of working-class children to the secondary system and, finally secondary education for middle-class girls had made considerable advances.

In spite of the reforms, many schools remained insecure. The Bryce Commission found in the 1890s many of them, mainly smaller schools, were prone to fluctuating numbers and decline.[1] Its report led to the establishment of the Board of Education and, after the Cockerton Judgement, to the 1902 Act. It recommended that for every 1,000 of the population, secondary education should be made available to just ten children, of whom eight would be in the third grade. This meant that, out of 4,000,000 children, 64,000 would be educated in the first and second grade schools and 256,000 in the third grade. ‘It is obvious’, the Commission commented, ‘that these distinctions correspond roughly, but by no means exactly, to the gradations of society’. [2] It was the question of access to secondary schools that was on the point of becoming a major issue. The Education Act 1902 was central to the process of change for grammar schools.

The Endowed Schools Commissioners had power to make provision for girls and was widely used by them. By the time of their demise in 1874, they had created 27 schools for girls and schemes for another twenty were in the pipeline. The Charity Commissioners proceeded at a much slower pace but as further 45 girls’ schools had been added by 1903. Parallel to these developments went the creation of proprietary schools for girls. In 1892, a Girls’ Public Day School Company was formed and by 1880, it had opened eleven schools in London and eleven elsewhere. A handful of new girls’ schools, such as Cheltenham, Wycombe Abbey and Roedean, were boarding, modelling themselves more or less on boys’ public schools; but the vast majority were day schools.[3]

The elementary and endowed and private school systems remained broadly defined by the criteria of social class. It is not surprising that the public schools managed to maintain their social identity though criticisms continued to be levelled against their traditions and preoccupation with games and athleticism. The public schools perpetuated an aristocratic element in English education and the proprietary and endowed schools continued to uphold it as an educational ideal. The sons of the expanding commercial and industrial middle-classes were trained in the older traditions and codes of gentlemen, an education that left them ill prepared for their role in an increasingly competitive world.[4] Modern subjects were often left optional and between 1860 and 1880 games became compulsory, organised and eulogised at all the leading public schools. There was no overall change in their structure, objectives or curriculum until after 1918.


[1] Rankin, James R., The Bryce Commission: an historical study of its contributions to the development of English secondary education, (Department of Education, University of Chicago), 1963.

[2] Roach, John, Secondary education in England, 1870-1902: public activity and private enterprise, (Routledge), 1991, pp. 3-86, 119-156.

[3] Avery, Gillian, The best type of girl: a history of girls’ independent schools, (Deutsch), 1991.

[4] Berghoff, Hartmut, ‘Public schools and the decline of the British economy, 1870-1914’, Past & Present, Vol. 129, (1990), pp. 148-167.

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