Sunday, 6 February 2011

Technical education 1820-1900

In the 1820s, there was an attempt to create a scientific culture and technical education for the working-classes.[1] George Birkbeck, a Glasgow doctor who had settled in London, was instrumental with Benthamite radicals in establishing the London Mechanics’ Institute in 1823. His aim was to provide tuition in physics and chemistry for artisans and mechanics of various kinds and this became the model for a provincial movement. By 1826, there were 100 mechanics’ institutes, by 1841 over 300 and had more than doubled to 700 by 1851. [2] In some cities, initially at least, they tried to serve a serious educative and scientific purpose. In Leeds, for example, local businessmen were strongly in favour of scientific education.[3] Things, however, began to go wrong. Birkbeck had doubted that literacy levels in England were high enough to support further education of some rigour. His doubts were well founded and, as a result, many of the institutes took different paths in response to various other social pressures. Many concentrated on basic education in reading and writing while others became social clubs foreshadowing the working men’s club movement of the 1860s and some centres of radical political activity.[4]

Most institutes forgot their origins and were taken over by the middle-classes either as cultural centres for themselves or as institutions in which an attempt could be made to persuade the working-classes of the virtues of temperance or classical political economy; in Sheffield, 88% of members were business or professional men. [5] Two things are clear about this movement. The institutes were not an entire failure. They fulfilled a variety of useful roles relevant to their time and locality and whatever path away from their original intention was taken as a result of local circumstances. [6] Whatever Birkbeck had hoped, the mechanics’ institutes did not prove to be a mass movement giving working men that scientific culture that the middle-classes had enjoyed since the mid-eighteenth century. [7]

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In the mid-century, the state became involved in the promotion of technical education in national institutions focused in London. In 1845, the Royal College of Chemistry was established and the Government School of Mines followed this in 1851. Both these institutions benefited from the Great Exhibition of 1851 whose profits of £186,000 together with a Government grant purchased the site in South Kensington where it was intended to gather various scientific institutions. In 1853, the School of Mines incorporated the nationalised College of Chemistry, the latter transferring to South Kensington in 1872 and the former joining it piecemeal thereafter.[8] In 1853, government created the Department of Science and Arts that controlled the School and the College. It also tried to create science schools in the provinces but with limited success. More importantly, in 1859 the new Department began a series of science examinations for schools and paid grants to such schools for successful pupils on a payment by results system. In 1860, nine schools with 500 pupils participated but by 1870, there were 799 schools with over 34,000 pupils. This represented a considerable effort to introduce science teaching into schools, its standards secured by the financial control of inspectors.

So how successful was the development of technical education? Britain had won most of the prizes at the Great Exhibition of 1851 but performance sixteen years later in Paris was poor. Despite government involvement in technical education, there was a strong feeling that we had fallen behind France and Prussia.[9] National unease generated the civic university movement of the 1870s and 1880s but found immediate expression in the 1868 Parliamentary Select Committee on scientific education chaired by the ironmaster Bernhard Samuelson.[10] This began twenty years of various parliamentary inquiries into science, industry and education that led to improvements in technical education especially after 1890.[11]

Two major points emerge from this. The industrial revolution seemed to have struck an economically efficient balance in its provision of education whatever its social deficiencies.[12] Little serious effort was made before 1830 to maintain the elementary education of the mass of the population and this did not have any real adverse effects on economic growth since most of the new occupations created did not require literate labour. After 1840, Britain was sufficiently rich to finance expensive projects like its railway building and the considerable expansion of investment in education. Expenditure on education was postponed but so too was a problem. While scientific and technical information circulated in middle-class institutions, for working men the attempt to create a technical education was a failure. Apart from the central institutions in South Kensington and the introduction of technical examinations into schools in the 1860s, there was a dangerous deficit in the provision of technical education. The roots of a great deal of anxiety about the level of education vis-à-vis Germany in the 1870s and 1880s lay in the lack of development in the 1850s and 1860s. [13] Industrial success bred a lack of urgency to make rising literacy the basis for a higher level of working-class scientific training. Britain’s economic challenges from the 1870s was, in part, a result of this.[14]


[1] Cronin, Bernard P., Technology, industrial conflict, and the development of technical education in 19th century England, (Ashgate), 2001, Summerfield, Penny and Evans, E.J., (eds.), Technical education and the state since 1850: historical and contemporary perspectives, (Manchester University Press), 1990 and Roderick, G.W., and Stephens, M.D., (eds.), Scientific and technical education in 19th century England: a symposium, (David & Charles), 1972.

[2] Hudson, J.W., The History of Adult Education, (Longman, Brown, Green & Longmans), 1851, pp. 222-236 and Cliffe-Leslie, T.E., An Inquiry into the Progress and Present Conditions of Mechanics’ Institutes, (Hodges and Smith), 1852 provide details of numbers and location of Institutes. For a useful case-study see, Tylecote, M.P., The Mechanics’ Institutes of Lancashire and Yorkshire before 1851, (Manchester University Press), 1957.

[3] Garner, A.D. and Jenkins, E.W., ‘The English Mechanics’ Institutes: The case of Leeds 1824-42’, History of Education, Vol. 12, (1), pp. 139-152.

[4] Munford, W.A., ‘George Birkbeck and Mechanics’ Institutes’, in English libraries, 1800-50 (University College London: School of Librarianship & Archives), 1958, pp. 33-58 and Kelly, Thomas, George Birkbeck: pioneer of adult education, (Liverpool University Press), 1957. See also, Royle, Edward, ‘Mechanics’ Institutes and the Working Classes 1840-1860’, Historical Journal, Vol. 14, (2), (1971), pp. 305-321.

[5] See Inkster, I., ‘Science and the Machanics’ Institutes, 1820-1850: The Case of Sheffield, Annals of Science, Vol. 32, (5), pp. 451-474.

[6] Mechanics’ Institutes, largely inspired by British models emerged in the United States and throughout the British Empire. Although American Institutes were soon involved in large-scale technical research projects that were seen as ‘useful’ by American manufacturers and politicians, in Britain they appeared more concerned with remedying social disorder and no contemporary Institute sought to translate its utilitarian rhetoric of applied research into reality.

[7] Tylecote, M.P., The mechanics’ institutes of Lancashire and Yorkshire before 1851, (Manchester University Press), 1957 provides a good regional study.

[8] Rodereick, G.W. and Stephens, M.D., ‘Mining Education in England and Wales in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century’, Irish Journal of Education, Vol. 6, (2), (1972), pp. 105-120.

[9] Floud, Roderick, ‘Technical education and economic performance: Britain, 1850-1914’, Albion, Vol. 14, (1982), pp. 153-168.

[10] Samuelson chaired the Royal Commission on Technical Instruction in thre early 1880s, see Argles, M., ‘The Royal Commission on Technical Instruction, 1881-4: Its inception and composition’, Journal of Education & Training, Vol. 11, (1959), pp. 97-104.

[11] See, Stephens, M.D. and Roderick, G.W., ‘The later Victorians and scientific and technical education’, Annals of Science, Vol. 28, (1972), pp. 385-400, Bailey, Bill, ‘The Technical Education Movement: A Late Nineteenth Century Educational ‘Lobby’’, Journal of Further and higher Education, Vol. 7, (3), (1983), pp. 55-68 and Betts. Robin, ‘Persistent but misguided?: the technical educationists 1867-89’, History of Education, Vol. 27, (3), (1998), pp. 267-277

[12] Roderick, G.W. and Stephens, M.D., (eds.), Where did we go wrong?: industrial performance, education, and the economy in Victorian Britain, (Falmar Press), 1981.

[13] Haines, George, ‘German Influence upon Scientific Instruction in England, 1867-1887’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 1, (3), (1958), pp. 215-244.

[14] Sanderson, Michael, Education and economic decline in Britain, 1870 to the 1990s, (Cambridge University Press), 1999, pp. 3-54 summarises the contrary arguments.

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