The Victorians - Towards the Modern World

'We must educate our masters'

Ignorance was the last social ill to receive proper attention from government in the 19th Century. Once again the reason for this was a mix of opposition from vested interests (the Church of England and the Non-conformist societies who ran the existing British and National Schools) and a fear of the costs involved in setting up a national system of education. Yet not even the most convinced supporter of laissez-faire could regard a literacy rate of 30% as satisfactory, especially when it became clear that British industry was falling behind that of countries like Germany due to the lack of skilled labour. There were also political reasons for expanding educational opportunities: with the extension of the franchise in 1868 power was devolving downwards. ?We must educate our masters,? said the liberal JS Mill.

The 1870 Education Act aimed to provide sufficient places for every child to attend school up to the age of twelve. Where there were sufficient places already, no action was required. Where - as in many towns - there was a shortage of places, school 'boards' were to be established.

What kind of education should these new 'state' schools provide? In the great public schools like Eton and Harrow classics still remained the core of the curriculum, although sport was seen as an essential for character-building (Tom Brown's Schooldays etc). The curriculum in the newly established board schools was much more utilitarian in nature. With the three 'Rs' as a priority it concentrated on instilling a respect for authority and a sense of duty. In time practical subjects were added but the teaching of history and geography remained very limited. Inspectors visited the schools annually to test the children on their English and arithmetic and fix the school's grant according to the results. Unlike OFSTED Victorian inspectors were frequently pioneers and missionaries, single-handedly bringing a credible school system into existence in parts of the country where education had made little impact before (e.g. North Devon).

?Anyone who can compare the demeanour of our young people at the present day with what it was five and twenty years ago must notice how roughness of manner has been smoothed away, how readily and intelligently they can answer a question, how the half-hostile suspicion with which they regarded a stranger had disappeared; how, in fact, they have become civilised.? (Report of HMI, 1895)

This, of course, was the view of a provider. For those who had been on the receiving end the experience might be remembered rather differently:

?I started school at five years of age. The event was preceded by days, if not weeks, of apprehension. Being sent to school was a threat for naughty children. The day of starting was a day of reckoning. The huge, empty hall, the strange, pale headmistress... I learned to hate school and retained that hate until I left...? (Harry Dorrell, unpublished autobiography, 1903)

By 1900 teachers had risen in standing in the community and there was a general feeling that the schools were doing well - too well for the survival of the boards. Despite being amongst the most democratic institutions in the land (women rate-payers had the vote, long before women were allowed to vote in parliamentary elections), they were seen to be exceeding their authority. In 1902 they were abolished and control of the schools passed to the county and borough councils. Meanwhile, HMI ceased to make their annual visits and the curriculum became the responsibility of those who knew the needs of children best. As Sir William Bryce put it in his report of 1896: ?all a good teacher needs is command of means and a free hand.?