To educate is an act of social commitment both to children as individuals, and to the future society of which they will be part. It is also a personal transaction between teacher and child that has to be based on trust and integrity. So, who has the primary responsibility ─ the parent, the community, local or national government — and from which of these does a teacher hold delegated responsibility?
Late nineteenth century England was fascinated by innovations. Increasing numbers of horse drawn vehicles might have been in danger of sinking London beneath growing piles of horse manure, but some three quarters of a million people a year were taking evasive action and buying bicycles, and electric trains had just started to run on the underground. A more literate public bought a million copies of the Daily Mail every day, and in the years before the invention of the gramophone some four million homes made music around their own pianos. The English were already buying their suits from Burton’s, their tea from Lipton’s and their aspirins from Boot’s1.
It was amongst the growing industrial cities that enthusiasm for the board schools was at its highest. Here were people wanting more out of education than elementary schools had earlier provided. Because school boards were frequently small, sometimes with fewer than five schools, rate payers could see what they were getting for their money. Education was increasingly catching ordinary people’s imagination. Twelve and thirteen-year-olds could now study extra subjects; English literature and elementary science, and later algebra, history, mechanics, bookkeeping and some even took up Latin. More children than ever stayed on beyond the age of fourteen2. Legislation introduced in 1889 empowered school boards to levy a tax of a penny on alcohol (the Whiskey Tax) so making the pubs fund the further introduction of courses in art, science and technology3. Then evening classes were provided for older members of the community to study subjects that had not been available to them when they were young.
For the board schools the 1890s were almost too good to be true; here were the Academies dreamt of by Milton two hundred and fifty years earlier4. But their very success was to be their undoing. While the public schools looked with disdain at this proliferation of technical and scientific education, the grammar schools started to fear the loss of bright pupils who no longer wanted to go into their own overtly traditional curricula. Equally dismayed were those mechanics institutions5 that had specialised in industrial training for many years and now looked with horror at what they saw as the dilution of standards if technical skills were to be taught by elementary teachers. Administrative chaos loomed, for no one seemed in charge.
Just occasionally history really is shaped by an individual. It happened in 1898 when the Office of Education appointed a new junior clerk, one Robert Morant6, a former pupil of Winchester who had earlier spent several ‘gap years’ tutoring the sons of the King of Siam. Morant was the ultimate authoritarian. He believed that the schooling he had received at Winchester was the best available anywhere in the world; he had a hierarchal view of society; was largely dismissive of ordinary people, and thoroughly disapproved of the board schools as a threat to the class assumptions he believed should shape educational policy. He also feared that the technocrats from the Department of Art and Science would dilute the classical curriculum that was the responsibility of the Education Office.
None of this would have mattered to us now, had not this most junior of civil servants responsible for collecting statistics also been a workaholic with little to do. So, Morant started to sift through the endless files in the archives relating to earlier legislation, and discovered that there never had been any formal parliamentary approval for School Boards to raise taxes for any form of schooling which went either beyond the three ‘Rs’, or beyond the age of fourteen. Incredible as it might seem to us, various pieces of ambiguous legislation had simply been heaped one on top of another. Then the full significance of this hit him: individual school board members, in setting taxes that could now be shown to be illegal could, unwittingly, have made themselves personally responsible for repaying such monies to government. Morant knew that this was political dynamite. Systematically he carefully slipped parts of this information to the rival departments7. The government’s official auditor judged that the school boards had, indeed, acted illegally, and confirmed that these elected school board members (of whom there must have been some 25,000 across the country) would have to pay back large sums of money.
Many influential and powerful local people, who thought that they had been acting in the public interest, saw themselves facing imminent bankruptcy. They lost all stomach for any further advocacy of the school boards. Worse still, their sense of commitment to the common good and their willingness to work with government, was devastated, and in the decades to come such people steadily withdrew from public life8. Shortly Morant would re-enter this drama in a role even more extraordinary.
Thesis 55: 24th August 2006