“Anyone who will look before him must see the growing political importance of the mass of the population. They will have power. In a very short time they will be paramount. I wish them to be enlightened, in order that they may use that power which they will inevitably obtain.”1
Until 1833 the two church societies, The National Society (C of E) and the British School Society (Non-Conformists), stood the entire costs of establishing and maintaining elementary schools for the general public. Not that there was anything grand about such schools; “A barn furnishes no bad model; and a good one may easily be converted into a school”2, it was noted in 1818. But the fact remains that, for the first third of the nineteenth century government had no involvement in education and left it entirely to charity. by 1833, when Dr. Arnold was busy excluding local boys from Rugby in favour of fee-paying boarders, these two voluntary charities had opened some four thousand elementary schools which were by then educating nearly half of all the nation’s children below the age of eleven. Attendance, however, was perfunctory (when they could be spared from the farm), often for only two or three years. However, Arthur Roebuck’s argument, as quoted in the above thesis, won the grudging support of the Commons who voted a grant of thirty thousand pounds to expand this work3 (four years later the commons were to vote with enthusiasm more than twice that sum just to rebuild the Queen’s stables at Windsor). It was with this grant in 1833 that England took its first step towards a national system of education.
It was ordinary working people, not the aristocracy, who first funded mass elementary schooling. A survey of a hundred and sixty-eight parishes in the southwest of England showed that the clergy donated an average of ten pounds fifty each towards the cost of opening new schools, farmers an average of ninety-five pence, and householders one pound seventy-seven pence. Fewer than half the landowners gave anything, and those that did averaged five pounds each4. the dislocation created by the Industrial Revolution replaced the seventeenth century Puritan concept of a ‘commonwealth’ of all people, with the beginnings of a ‘them and us’ mentality. Between 1780 and 1830 (no more than within a single life span) most English working people ‘came to feel an identity of interest between themselves, and against their rulers and employers’, so that, by 1820, a Baptist Minister, John Foster, could write, “But the two classes (the educated and the uneducated) might they not seem to belong to different nations?”5
In 1861 a Parliamentary commission6 set out to enquire into what would be needed “for the extension of sound and cheap elementary education”. It found that 1.7 million pupils were being educated in 24,500 voluntary schools. Two-thirds of these were so small, and so ineffectively managed, that they couldn’t even qualify for a government grant. class size averaged nearly sixty. To administer the annual grant an Office of Education was established with sixty inspectors who were each responsible for some 500 schools7. It was a totally impossible task. Almost from the start, the relationship between government officials and individual schools was bad. Management, it was said, was ‘conducted by officials who, by all accounts, knew little and cared less, about the education of the poorer classes and who, on the admission of one of their numbers, treated elementary teachers with contempt’8.
“We do not profess to give these children an education that will raise them above their station and business in life”, the Secretary of the Office of Education tried to reassure the Commons in 18629. For this a kind of teacher was required ‘whose education and duties should be limited to the teaching of the basic necessities for working class life”10. Every year every child in each school receiving a grant was to be quizzed by an inspector on each of four subjects; for every subject that a child did not reply adequately the grant for that pupil was cut by a quarter ─ a villainous scheme that lasted for forty years . “I cannot promise the House that this scheme will be an economical one, and I can’t promise that it will be an efficient one, but I can promise that it shall be one, or the other. If it is not cheap, it shall be efficient. If it’s not efficient, it shall be cheap”11. The cleverness of the comment was greeted with a round of applause. Parliamentarians didn’t like school teachers: Lord Macaulay even described them as “the refuse of all callings, to whom no gentleman would entrust the keys of his (wine) cellar”12.
Years later, Matthew Arnold13, son of the famous Doctor who had been Headmaster of Rugby, appointed Inspector of Schools in 1851, wrote sadly, “In a country where everyone is prone to rely too much on mechanical process and too little on intelligence, a change in the education department regulations… inevitably gives a mechanical twist to school teaching, a mechanical turn to inspection, and must be most trying to the intellectual life of the school”14.
Thesis 43: 24th August 2006