Skip to main content

The march of progress becomes an all-out sprint;The 19th Century;Millennium Edition

Richard Aldrich explains how a mass Sunday school movement paved the way for a state education service

During the 19th century the traditional network of charity, parish, private and grammar schools was overwhelmed by population explosion and urbanisation.

The population of England and Wales doubled from nine to 18 million in the first five decades, and doubled again by 1911. Large families were common and children were highly visible, not least in the crowded courts and alleys of the rapidly growing urban areas.

Whereas in 1800 some two-thirds of people were country dwellers, by 1900 three-quarters lived in towns. Radical solutions were devised to combat this, but there was no co-ordinated plan of campaign. Individuals, school societies, a new central government department and local boards engaged in piecemeal co-operation and competition.

Sunday schools, many teaching secular subjects as well as religious instruction, were the first means of providing mass schooling. Rapid growth was possible because they relied on teachers and premises that were otherwise employed on weekdays.

By 1851, three-quarters of English working-class children aged five to 15 were enrolled in Sunday schools. This was the most widely shared educational experience of the 19th century.

In 1880, the year in which day schooling became compulsory, nearly six million children and adults, some 19 per cent of the total population of Great Britain, were enrolled in Sunday schools.

A second initiative was the monitorial school movement, which heralded a new approach to day schooling (see facing page).

The work of its two founders, Andrew Bell and Joseph Lancaster, was carried on throughout the century by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church, founded in 1811, and the interdenominational British and Foreign School Society of 1814.

These societies began the systematic training of teachers and received government grants from 1833 - initially to build schools in the most populous areas.

In 1839 the formation of a central authority for education, a Committee of the Privy Council, and the subsequent appointment of two HMIs, John Allen and Hugh Tremenheere, one for each of Lancaster and Bell's societies, signalled the growing concern of the state.

Government grants increased in size and scope. From 1846 under the guidance of James Kay-Shuttleworth, the Committee's secretary, pride of place was given to providing a trained teaching force. By the later 1850s government expenditure on education was nudging pound;1 million per year.

The Revised Code of 1862 marked a significant change in policy - the introduction of "payment by results". In future, grants to schools (and therefore teachers' salaries) would be based principally upon pupil performance in an annual examination in the 3Rs - reading, writing and arithmetic.

The annual examination became a battle of wits between the inspector on the one hand and teachers and pupils upon the other.

Both sides resorted to subterfuge. For example, a child who had learned a reading book by heart might continue to "read" in uninterrupted fashion even when the inspector took the book away and returned it upside-down.

A fourth major initiative occurred in 1870 when the Forster Act introduced rate-aided schooling. Locally-elected school boards were established in areas where schooling was demonstrably insufficient.

Rapid progress was made, with the large urban school boards, led by London, in the vanguard. Elementary schooling was made compulsory in 1880 and free in 1891. By the end of the century all children were required to attend school until the age of 12.

Population explosion and urbanisation also affected schools for the children of the wealthier classes. For most of the 19th century girls were educated either at home or in private schools. Following the Endowed Schools Act of 1869 more public day schools were provided so that the Bryce Commission of 1895, which included three female members, could report that "there has probably been more change in the condition of the secondary education of girls than in any other department of education".

At the beginning of the 19th century, grammar schools - founded in medieval and early modern times to teach Latin and Greek to boys seeking to enter the learned professions - faced considerable pressures.

Some closed; others became elementary schools. Some continued to teach the classics but added modern subjects such as science. A few grammar schools, including such wealthy and prestigious foundations as Eton and Winchester, originally founded for poor and needy scholars, were confirmed as "public schools".

New foundations arose to provide for the rapidly-growing numbers of prosperous parents. Many were connected with a particular profession, for example Epsom for the sons of doctors, Marlborough for clergymen and Wellington for the military.

Public schools for boys increased in number and changed in tone. In the early years of the 19th century, John Keate, the diminutive head of Eton, maintained discipline by flogging some 10 boys per day, on average.

In contrast, Thomas Arnold, headmaster of Rugby from 1828-42, promoted the ideal of the truth-telling Christian gentleman. In the second half of the century Christian manliness was transformed into muscular Christianity, or sheer muscularity, by the rise of the games cult.

At the beginning of the 19th century, education was essentially local; by the end it had become national. All children now attended school.

National educational standards were laid down by central government and enforced by Her Majesty's Inspectorate. The ownership of schools and the employment of teachers, however, remained firmly in local hands.

Much had been achieved, but the 19th century also bequeathed an education system which was more profoundly divided on lines of wealth and social class than ever before.

Richard Aldrich is professor of the history of education at the Institute of Education, University of London. He is co-author of the forthcoming "Education and Employment: the DFEE and its Place in History"

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you