“All the ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon“.
Voltaire, in Jeannot et Colin
Recently, I discovered Philip Gardner’s The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England. It is a book which presents an alternative account of elementary education before state elementary education became widespread at the end of the nineteenth century. It was published in 1984, so it is hardly new, though the critique Gardner offers is not a loud voice in the history of education.
There is an accepted version of the emergence of state education in England and Wales. Following tentative state intervention, The Elementary Education Act of 1870 introduced school boards with the powers to enforce attendance, and, gradually, over the following decades, attendance (at least up until aged 10) was made compulsory. Gradually the school leaving age has increased, and we now face an education leaving age of 18.
State elementary education did not, of course, drop out of the sky. A rationale can be briefly summarised as follows. Britain, as an industrial nation needed a skilled workforce, and this imperative for a state education system was expressed in the 1870 Forster Act. Further, so concerned was the state for the moral welfare of the poor, that mass schooling was deemed necessary to ensure potential delinquents grew up to be sober, law abiding citizens. Additionally, it was no longer feasible to leave the Church with the burden of educating the poor. This account presents the emergence of state elementary education as necessary and desirable, with the state presented as a kindly benefactor. How kind of the state to provide an education for us plebs.
Of course, there is a critique to this. Britain became an industrial nation long before state education began to be formed at the end of the nineteenth century, so presumably an educated workforce wasn’t entirely necessary for economic prosperity.
An argument can be made that state education emerged as a form of social control. Indeed, Roebuck, a nineteenth century politician expressed such a view in 1833:
“…as mere matter of police, the education of the people ought to be considered as a part of the duties of the Government…”
While not suggesting that state education does not serve a function of social control, at times, on behalf of government, this rationale is not an entirely convincing one for the passing of the 1870 Act. Was the threat of a revolting population greater in 1870 than in previous decades? There had been revolts across Europe in 1848, and in England, the Chartist petition. These did not prompt a mid century Elementary Education Act. The recently passed 1867 Reform Act which extended male suffrage may have strengthened the argument for the introduction of state education, though perhaps not to quell revolution.
The apparent unsatisfactory state of elementary education uncovered by the Newcastle Commission justified state intervention. Attendance was poor, teaching was poor. There were, apparently ‘nurseries of ignorance’ throughout the land. While the Church did their bit, something to be done about the state of elementary education.
These descriptions of inferior schools which were merely babysitting establishments may sound plausible. However this attack on working class private schooling raises a number of issues. They present the working class in need of, a wealthy, educated saviour. That saviour apparently came in the form of the 1870 Act.
Is it not possible that, over the centuries, the working classes have been organising and providing education for themselves and their children? It is plausible, afterall, we know other social classes have organised and provided an education system for themselves, and continue to do so. We have the great public schools of England to remind us of this heritage.
Tangible evidence of a working class educational heritage is a little more tricky. What we do have, from nineteenth century inspections and statistical returns on elementary schooling suggests the working class were not very good at educating their children.
It is this evidence that Philip Gardner tackles in The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England. The critique focuses on possible bias recording through a middle class lens of working class schooling. It is the kind of critique which should be familiar to any social scientist familiar with the limitations of statistical evidence. Gardner does suggest that far from being nurseries of ignorance working class elementary schools were well established, and valued by working class parents, offering an alternative to church and charity schools.
He takes apart the Newcastle Commission, the 1851 Education Census as well as historic census returns. With the relatively accessibility of census records for family history it is possible for anyone keen on tracing their roots to look up the educational history of their family. According to census returns going back to 1851 schooling was a common experience for my working class ancestors, teenage girls as well as boys.
Unfortunately Gardner doesn’t provide a definite answer, no irrefutable evidence of an underground network of established, scholarly working class private schools which far excelled the standards of church and charity schools. Unsurprisingly, working class elementary schools didn’t keep the kind of records you will now find in local records offices. But, there is enough to suggest that the established view of the emergence of state education in England and Wales is a fable that is agreed upon.
1. For more on this, read up about changing working practices, and the removal of children from the workforce