“You are all of you in this land brothers”, Plato told the Greeks, “but when God formed you he added gold in the composition of those who were qualified to be Rulers; he put silver in the Auxiliaries; and iron and bronze in the farmers and the rest”.1
The mid-Victorians thought differently to ourselves about many things, especially about religion, democracy and social order. Well-read from their grammar school days in the writings of Plato on Democracy, they saw it as perfectly natural that, with less than ten percent of the adult population having the vote (not all women got the vote until 1928), their ‘god-given’ status as the educated elite somehow fore-ordained them to be the rulers. Putting a highly specific Protestant, largely Puritan, theology together with this Greek concept of social order, made the Victorians a highly-paternalistic, order conscious, self-directed and class-structured society.2
By the early 1860’s Victorians knew that they had to take education very seriously for England’s lack-lustre performance in the Crimean War3 was proof enough that a modern state (and its army) had to be made up of fit, healthy and literate men. Laissez-faire attitudes towards social affairs were giving way to a determination to devise a national structure of education that would both keep the masses in their own country under control, and create enough able administrators to lead an ever-expanding empire. They wished to do this with a minimum of costs whilst maintaining the social hierarchies. Top priority, as they saw, had to be the education of the sons of the elite who, as the ancient Greeks had seen it, already had gold in their constitutions4.
A Commission was established5 in 1862 to investigate the on-going misuse of charitable funds in the oldest public schools (it found that the Fellows of Eton had, over the previous twenty years, misappropriated for their own use some hundred and twenty-seven thousand pounds of College funds — a sum equivalent to between seven and eight million pounds in today’s money) then set out to reform their lax and archaic administration. That done, the Commissioners then reiterated that the ten ‘great schools’ as having had historically ‘the largest share in moulding the character of the English gentleman’. What was needed, therefore, was a massive expansion of public schools6. The Commissioners then went on to examine the effectiveness of a further three-and-a-half thousand separately endowed schools scattered across village and market towns, most of whose foundations dated back to the sixteenth century and had been set up, in ways comparable to Harrow, Shrewsbury, Rugby and Uppingham, to provide free education for local boys.
The Commissioners noted that, over the previous fifty years, the two church societies, had built up an extensive system of elementary, if strictly rudimentary, education for the poor. While the majority of their funds came from the churches or government grants, the poor were by now accustomed to paying about a third of the costs (between two and four pennies a week) themselves7. Consequently, the Commissioners rationalised it was surely a waste of endowment funds for education to the poor. To the consternation of local people everywhere, the Commissioners recommended the closure of all charity schools, and the confiscation of their funds8. There was uproar when it was known that in future even the poorest child would have to pay for what previously had been free, or to forego any form of education. “To put a fee on for education where one has not existed before will, when anybody writing about it in three hundred years hence, be quoted as a mark of the barbarities of our day”9, stated an ex-governor of a Birmingham school. The Commissioners were unmoved. They then looked at more favourably placed old grammar schools, like Repton, and transferred to them the funds from what they had decided were the declining schools, so that they could rapidly (here the model was Uppingham) become elite Public schools for boarders10. And that, argued the Commissioners, was what England in the 1860s most needed ─ not charity schools for the poor, but subsidised elite boarding education for the middle classes.
The Endowed Schools Act of 186811 which followed virtually abolished all free elementary education in England, and dramatically changed secondary education. Between 1850 and 1899, for instance, eighty-two percent of the students entering Cambridge University came from the public schools, eleven percent came from private, proprietal schools, and just seven percent from those few remaining grammar schools, which in previous centuries, had been the universal, almost egalitarian, route to university.
While the Commissioners were undoubtedly convinced that what they were doing was best for the country at the time, with hindsight their actions effectively amounted to a rape of the ancient foundations, set up in more socially-generous times to ensure that any boy of ability could receive a good free education12. Their decisions greatly benefited the growing upper-middle classes.
Time has added a further twist to this story that surely could not have been foreseen in the 1860’s. Or could it? Scan today’s independent schools’ Year book and note how many of the most expensive and exclusive public schools claim that they owe their origins to a re-foundation by the endowed Schools’ Act. Then read how each of these now pride themselves on being ‘independent’ (presumably now meaning free from the very state interference that set them up in the first place), and able to offer an education far in excess of what can be provided for the other
ninety-three percent of the student population (including the poorest) of today’s England.13
Thesis 47: 24th August 2006