Wednesday, 8 February 2017


Maths class at the Cable Street
Board School
Eric J. Evans (The Forging of the Modern State, 3rd edition, p. 290) has written:
‘The spectre of an irreligious, overcrowded, and brutalized working class herded together in monstrously multiplying towns … haunted more than the humanitarian reformers’ and educational reform became an urgent question.'
By the early 1830s about one and a half million pupils were enrolled in schools – and these schools were extremely varied.

Educational provision comprised:
  • a handful of public schools for aristocrats and the upper middle classes,
  • a number of endowed grammar schools in the older towns,
  • private instruction, often run by clergy from their own homes,
  • Sunday schools
  • charity schools.
There were various kinds of charity schools, ranging from the large foundations of the 1690s to small village establishments. 

Some charity schools catered for middle-class children whose parents could not afford anything better. The most notorious is the Clergy Daughters’ School at Cowan Bridge in Lancashire, attended by Charlotte Brontë and her two elder sisters. It was renamed Lowood  and described in vivid and unforgiving detail in Jane Eyre.

Dame schools continued to be popular with working-class parents. They were cheap and the hours were flexible. Judging from working-class autobiographies, the quality varied greatly. Some did little more than child-minding, others gave a thorough grounding in reading and spelling, with sewing and knitting for the girls. 

An idealised depiction of a
dame school
From the BBC

The voluntary schools

The charity schools had largely been subsumed by two bodies:  the (Nonconformist) British and Foreign Schools Society (founded in 1808) and the (Anglican) National Society for Educating the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church (founded in 1811). For more about the Anglican National Schools, see here.  The schools taught according to the monitorial system.

Northchurch St Mary's School, Hertfordshire
A National School constructed in 1864
Creative Commons Attribution
Share-alike license 2.0

However, at least two million children were untouched by the system. As late as 1840 probably a third of all children never attended a day school, and by the middle of the nineteenth century about 30 per cent of men and 45 per cent of women could not sign marriage registers.

State education: the first moves

Politicians became increasingly concerned at the lack of educational provision, but at the same time many of them were wary of state involvement in education, which was seen as a step towards centralisation. In 1833 the Radical MP John Arthur Roebuck tried to establish compulsory education between the ages of 6 and 12 with school fees supplemented by a state grant. This failed but as a derisory compensation, a small parliamentary grant of £20,000 was set aside. However, the money would only go to religious societies that could first raise half the necessary cash for school building themselves and this benefited the Anglican National Society. The proposals were extremely modest but it was the first time that public money had been spent on education  even if the grant was less than the cost of the royal stables! 

Religion was a constant bone of contention. Very few MPs were prepared to argue for a wholly secular education but most Whigs believed that religious education should be non-denominational. In 1839 Lord John Russell, the Leader of the Commons, established an entirely lay Committee of the Privy Council on Education to administer the annual grant to the schools of the two societies: grants were to be awarded only on submitting to state inspection but no stipulation was made as to religious teaching. Its first secretary was Sir James Kay Shuttleworth (1804-77), who became the foremost educational administrator of the 19th century.

The Committee also proposed an increase in the state grant to £30,000 and the establishment of a teacher training college and a model school providing non-sectarian education. But this was fiercely opposed by a pressure group of young High Churchmen, who succeeded in watering down the proposals. The result was that in order to get state inspection accepted, the government had to abandon the college and model school and later to agree that all inspectors of National Society schools should be appointed at the discretion of the Church and operate on its instructions. The two archbishops were to be in overall control. The creation of state schools would have to wait.

In 1839-40 Kay-Shuttleworth was one of the founders of St. John's College, Battersea, which was the first training college for schoolteachers in England. It was run on firmly Anglican lines.

Inspectors and the curriculum

In 1846 the government established the ‘certificated teacher’ system. In schools that received Treasury funding, teachers had to be recognised by the state and schools were to be inspected. A small number of well-educated gentlemen were employed to inspect and report on the schools that received the government grant. In 1851 the poet Matthew Arnold became an inspector for the Nonconformist schools in the Midlands.

In 1859 the Liberal politician Robert Lowe became Vice-President of the Committee of the Council on Education in Lord Palmerston's ministry. His ‘revised code’ of 1862 introduced something like a national curriculum. He insisted on payment by results, and made an examination in 'the three R's' the test for grants of public money. This very narrow, functional view of education had already been satirised in Dickens' Hard Times (1854).

The 1870 Education Act

The Second Reform Act of 1867 that gave the vote a substantial number of working men led to a rethink on education. As Robert Lowe grudgingly put it, 
'We must see to it that our new masters learn their letters.' 
The success of the Prussian army, with its comparatively well-educated private soldiers, in the wars of the 1860s was another argument for extending education.

In February 1870 an Elementary Education Bill was introduced by William Edward Forster, the Vice-President of the Council, which aimed at providing for the first time a national system of primary education.  He proposed to set up new directly elected local authorities called School Boards, which would have the power to direct their own schools, which would be paid for by the local rates. But the bill was designed to supplement voluntary and denominational effort in education not supersede it. The Board Schools would ‘fill in the gaps’ and provide education where there were no church schools. The boards had the power to pass bye-laws for compulsory attendance (so-called ‘permissive compulsion’), assist existing schools, and pay fees for poor parents.

Initially, Forster proposed to give the boards the power to decide religious instruction. But this ran into heavy opposition from Nonconformists, who opposed any use of the rates to support denominational schools. In the end, after much wrangling, the ‘Cowper-Temple’ clause excluded denominational catechisms and formularies from rate-aided schools. This meant that there were now two types of schools: local authority schools funded by the rates, and denominational schools funded by central grants.

For the London School Board, set up in 1871 see here and here.

The offices of the London School Board
on the Victoria Embankment
before demolition in 1929.

The ‘Board Schools’ were a conspicuous feature of late-Victorian and Edwardian education. The majority of schools were still voluntary schools, but it was a steadily declining majority. 


For some years after 1870 a controversy raged round clause 25 in the act which enabled local authorities to pay the fees of needy children at denominational schools. The clause was thought by Nonconformists to give an unfair advantage to church schools in places where board schools did not exist - especially in the rural districts. In 1891 the remaining fees were effectively abolished for pupils at voluntary and board schools alike, making education free for the first time.


Once the school boards were established, particularly in the big towns, many of them took the compulsory powers allowed them by the 1870 Act, so that by 1873 40 per cent and by 1876 50 per cent of the population was under compulsory powers, 84 per cent in boroughs. Even Tory squires and parsons in the rural areas now felt that more general powers to compel attendance were necessary to keep voluntary schools in rural areas in business.  In 1876 the employment of children under ten was forbidden. In 1880 schooling was made compulsory up to the age of 10. In 1893 this was raised to 11 and in 1899 to 12.

'Beacons of the future'

‘Look at those big, isolated clumps of building rising up above the slates, like brick islands in a lead-colored sea." "The board-schools." "Light-houses, my boy! Beacons of the future! Capsules with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wise, better England of the future.’ 'The Adventure of the Naval Treaty', from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1892)

School boards were abolished by the Education Act of 1902, which set up local education authorities (LEAs) responsible for both primary and secondary education. Education for all types of schools was now funded by the rates, much to the anger of many Nonconformists who found themselves helping to pay for Church schools. 


  1. The nineteenth century saw dramatic changes in the provision of education, especially for the poor.
  2. After 1870 the state became a major player, setting up school boards. By 1900 education was free and compulsory for children up to age 12. 
  3. This was part of a Europe-wide trend for mass education.

No comments:

Post a Comment