In a country lacking any sense of internal social cohesion, the introduction of new national education policies, designed to promote efficiency and to settle many old scores, may well create as many new problems for future generations as the old problems it sought to legislate out of existence.
As Queen Victoria lay dying it seems that ministers just didn’t realise that Morant was the mole who had plunged them into such confusion. All they knew was that Morant was extremely efficient, worked prodigiously hard and was completely dedicated to traditional forms of education. At a time of indecisive parliamentary leadership, surely Morant was the man to sort all this out? So, seven years after being appointed a very junior assistant, Morant, at the prime minister’s personal request, was appointed Permanent Secretary1. Such promotion was unprecedented. It was already July, and children would soon be sitting in desks, and teachers had to be employed. Morant bought time. He persuaded the cabinet (he actually sat in on its discussions) to approve temporary legislation to pay these costs for a single year on condition that all parties came to an agreement on how schools would be administered in the future.
The bare bones of the 1902 Act amount to this; the three separate agencies of Education, Art, and Science and the Charity Commissioners, were combined into a single Department of Education and Science2. This involved no loss of status by the Charity Commissioners who already worked closely with the schools, but the merger of the Department of Art and Science, which had previously been controlled by the Board of Trade, pressaged still more difficult times ahead for the teaching of science and technology. The Act limited elementary education to pupils below the age of fourteen. It abolished the school boards, and passed all their assets and responsibilities — including the levying of rates — to the newly created county councils and borough councils (350 of them in total). In future education would be funded from a general rate that would also be used to support the cost of roads, sewers, libraries, cemeteries and public amenities. To the fury of those who objected to any form of church involvement, government would now contribute to the cost of these church schools, just as they did to the former board schools. “Religion on the rates” became their rallying call.
The passing of the Act involved some of the most heated and vehement debates ever heard in the House of Commons: issues of religion mixed themselves with economic theory; nationalism vied with the rights of the individual, and unresolved conflicts of more than a century came to the surface. Of the contentious religious settlement Lloyd George3, the Welshman who had a verbal image for every occasion, cast himself in the role of an Old Testament prophet warning that “the clergyman would come down to the school like a roaring lion, seeking out what little non-conformist he could devour at the expense of the rate payer”. Herbert Asquith4, himself shortly to be prime minister, argued long and hard for the retention of the board schools warning, “You will put an end to the existence of the best, the most fruitful and the most beneficial educational agencies that ever existed in this country”. Many never forgave Morant. Of the hundreds of people who could have studied those old files, it was only he who had seen the loopholes that led to the destruction of the school boards. They were left in little doubt that this was Morant’s own personal vendetta. More than forty years later Winston Churchill ‘shuddered’ as he remembered the bitterness of those debates in which he himself had been the youngest member.
Morant had then to formulate a policy for secondary education; back-stairs influence again took over. The public school headmasters had been strong enough, Morant determined enough, and the Prime Minister politically astute enough, to keep the public schools totally out of any formal national structure for secondary education. As all the former board schools had been defined as being elementary, and the public schools deemed not to be any part of the equation, Morant was left with a tiny rump of some 400 mainly small grammar schools across the entire country, out of which to create a national system5. Within six years 245 new ‘provided’ grammar schools would be built and the number of secondary school places (which now included significant numbers of girls) would almost double by 1910 to 150,000, which was a far smaller proportion than had been accommodated in the upper forms of the recently abolished board schools.
They were to have a strictly classical curriculum — more time had to be allocated to learning languages than to study science; even less for technology6. Latin had also to be taught, uniforms had to be worn and rugby was given precedence over football. Pupils were taught to think and act as if they were associate members, but always inferior, of a great public school. The culture should reflect Winchester and Eton, not Manchester, Newcastle or Birmingham. The whole system elevated the role of the secondary school at the expense of the elementary, an attitude which has affected every single inhabitant of this country ever since. A hundred years on, and the dust has still not settled on the events of 1902. Did Morant consciously suffocate what could have become an English version of what we now understand as the Finnish7 all-through school, or was he the long awaited genius that eventually gave England a national education system? Was it dirty work at the cross-roads, or the action of a brilliant administrator?
Thesis 56: 24th August 06