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Home Winsham School Elementary Education in the 19th Century

Elementary Education in the 19th Century

Orginally published Jan 2012
Last updated May 2021

The extracts from the School logs reproduced start in 1863, although the existing school building dates from 1850, as evidenced from the date stone over the old main door in Pooles Lane. To gain some understanding of school life and the circumstances of the children, parents and teachers during a period, in England, of unrivalled economic and social development, it is helpful to understand how the system of education developed in the context of social, political and church pressures that prevailed at the time. Compulsory education for children between ages 5 to 10 years of age was not introduced until the Elementary Education Act of 1880. Even then it was not entirely free, depending on circumstances.

Prejudice against "book learning"

A better-educated working and middle class was recognised by some as essential to the country's continuing development and prosperity. It appears however that the country was not united behind what we regard now as being self-evident fact.

There was deep prejudice and indifference towards universal education based largely on the major investment that would be needed, and the length of time that would elapse before the country would enjoy an economic return. Many employers, especially at a time of the 'Chartists' and the growth of the Trade Union movement, believed that an educated working class would bring about even more labour problems. Additionally, schools and colleges were not well regraded, as they were not producing very good results. People were sceptical about the benefits of 'book learning', especially if it was going to cost them money!

Boys and artisans learned their trades through apprenticeships and learning on the job. This may well have been appropriate before he industrial revolution, but as steam power led to the development of many more machines in the workplace, there was a growing need for technical education and knowledge. The starting point for gaining this knowledge was a basic standard of literacy and numeracy for all. Higher education, perceived to be necessary for people wanting to enter the Law, Medicine and the Church was also very poor, but this was not directly a problem for the majority of the people who lived in Winsham, although they must have suffered for it in the absence of trained support in these fields.

England was falling behind Europe in educating the masses

As the century wore on, it began to become clear that the shortage of men with a sound training in technical matters was a severe handicap, and England was falling behind countries such as Germany in technical education and many other European countries in basic education.

Like many things in life, the root of the problem was financial. In 1815 the most common method of education in England and many European countries was a plan described as a 'new mechanical system for the use of schools'. The plan was simple: the older children taught the younger ones. The shortcomings of such an idea would seem obvious, but it was not without a major benefit - it was cheap! It is estimated that the cost of educating a poor child by this method was seven shillings a year and it did at least give a very rudimentary level of learning. To put this expenditure in context, around that time a family could rent a small rural cottage for perhaps a shilling a week, giving the owner of the cottage an economic return of investment of about 5% pa.

The system also introduced discipline, responsibility, mutal aid and corporate life into the schools of the poor. I talso formed a bridge between teachers and pupils, but indirectly led to the problem of a shortage of proper teachers when the shortcomings of the system were eventually recognised. It was towards the middle of the 19th century before anything was done to correct this.

Differences between religious denominations

The philosophy that education should be “universal, compulsory, gratuitous and secular” did not sit well with any of the political parties. The idea that it should be secular was not accepted by the religious denominations, who were already responsible for most of the education of the poor that took place, often acting through religious teaching societies charged with providing a faith-based system of rudimentary education.

The Churches, principally because of the rivalry between the Church of England and the non-conformists, were to create serious delays in the establishment of a national educational system.

Despite this, the number of children going to schools was growing rapidly, and the pressure for more schools and teachers was growing to the point that by 1838 a parliamentary committee reported that the only practicable way to attain this was to increase the grants to the church based teaching societies. The Government of the time was less satisfied with the voluntary system. There followed a debacle between Commons, Lords and the Churches that lasted for some years. It resulted in a Privy Council committee being set up, and in the face of great difficulties, it was able to send Inspectors to Schools receiving State help. These Insepctors reported depressing news about the working of the monitorial system and the inefficiency of the schools. Arising directly from this, in 1846 a new system of training was introduced which would eliminate monitors and apprentice 'pupil teachers'. Frequent references to 'pupil teachers' will be found in the Winsham school logs.

As a direct result, the parliamentary grant to schools was raised to £100,000 and public opinion began to swing towards the idea that state aid and supervision was necessary, although it was still against a state educational system.

Religious educational societies protested that state control meant stagnation and that religion was not a 'subject', which could be separated from secular instruction. At the same time these Societies were finding difficultly in raising sufficient money for their needs from voluntary subscription. The solution could be found in a local rate, but many ratepayers objected towards paying for schools of religion other than their own.

Progress as last!

In 1853 the Government introduced a Bill giving towns of more than 5,000 inhabitants the power to levy an education rate, but was defeated. However using the Privy Council device it was able to give a capitation grant to rural areas, conditional on a certain sum being raised locally. Three years later this grant was extended to towns. These measures brought further increases in the parliamentary grant. In 1858, in response to the rising cost of education a commission was appointed. It was asked to "inquire into the present state of popular education in England, and to consider and report what measures, if any, are required for the extension of sound and cheap elementary instructions to all classes of the people".

The report estimated that only 4.5% of the children of school age were not attending school, most children leaving school at age eleven. The report was not optimistic about the amount of value of the education given in the schools. The commissioners had no means of judging the performance of private schools. They were believed to be less good than state-aided schools because they were not subject to government inspections.

The cost of education in inspected schools was 28s to 30s per pupil, with teacher training and administration adding a further 4s 6p. Of this sum parents paid less than a third, and the state contributed more than one half; the remainder came from endowments and subscriptions.

The report did not recommend compulsory education or the raising of the school leaving age. Public opinion was not ready to compel parents to send their children to school, nor did it yet accept a state obligation to educate children. It also proposed the establishment of boards of education in counties and in boroughs of more than 40,000 inhabitants. These boards would have power to levy rates and to examine children in reading, writing and arithmetic, and pay grants on the basis of results. They could not appoint teachers or interfere in the management of the schools. In this way the commissioners hoped to avoid religious difficultly.

The government was unwilling to risk another storm of denominational jealousy so did not set up local boards, but they did adopt the principle of payment by results, and applied it in a narrow inflexible way. This achieved better standards in the worst schools, and incentivised mediocre teachers. The downside was that lessons were drearily mechanical and concentrated too much attention on elementary work. This system lasted for some twenty years, and there is frequent reference to it in the Winsham School Logs.

A change in public mood

Perhaps paradoxically, it was the two terrible wars in the 1860's - the American Civil War and the Prussian-Austrian War that brought about a significant change in public opinion. It was generally known that English education was not as good as in many European countries and the two wars seemed to show that educated states could provide better soldiers than a less educated rival. In 1870 a Liberal government passed a Bill that raised the school leaving age to thirteen. It did not provide free education, but the poorest parents were excused fees. It also secured local expenditure on education. These 'board schools' had more resources than voluntary schools and the first steps were taken towards compulsory education. Religious differences still caused problems but henceforth there were no areas in England without school, and no children grew up without elementary education because their parents were poor.

Contributors Note:

The above draws heavily from Sir Llewellyn Woodward's book 'The Age of Reform 1815-1870' published by Oxford University Press.

John Sullivan 2012