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Poor pickings for all but the rich;The 16th, 17th and 18th centuries;Millennium Edition

Formal education of any depth was haphazard and almost invisible, unless backed by charity, writes Ruth Watts

Formal education, or the lack of it, distinguished the various ranks of the hierarchical English political and social world of the 16th to 18th centuries. The effects of the Renaissance and the Reformation respectively led to a humanistic and eventually Protestant education being approved by those in power.

In practical terms this meant a Latin grammar grind for boys in the growing number of grammar schools - 360 by 1600 - in preparation for a university education. This, in turn, produced clerics for the Anglican Church and offered an appropriate social and "polite" classical education to upper-class boys in their late teens. Their education might end with a grand tour of civilisations old and new, as it did in the case of the model of English gentlemen, the poet, governor and soldier-hero Sir Philip Sidney.

Men of the middle and upper ranks flocked to Oxford and Cambridge universities in the early 17th century as both state and Church job opportunities grew. In return, succeeding governments, anxious to limit religious and political dissent, constantly tried to control the universities.

The resulting Anglican monopoly turned Dissenters to their own academies. The most liberal of these, although few in number, challenged traditional thinking in all aspects of life, not only curriculum and methods. Warrington and Hackney Academies were seen in turn as the glory of English education by their supporters, but as "Babylon" and the "slaughterhouse of Christianity" by their detractors.

Whereas Isaac Newton managed to pursue his scientific studies at Cambridge in the 17th century, Joseph Priestley and John Dalton, scientific geniuses of the 18th century, both tutored in dissenting academies.

The privileged world of Oxford and Cambridge colleges was for men only from the social elite. Even the poorer scholars who worked their way through college as servants to the richer gentlemen were from the middling ranks of society.

Similarly, public schools such as Eton and Winchester catered for the rich. Other endowed grammar schools, where teachers held the grammar book in one hand and a birch rod in the other, provided education for middle-rank boys aged about seven to 14 in the cities and populous market towns.

Increasingly in the 18th century, those who wanted a better or more modern or practical education, more humanely delivered, turned to private teachers, tutors, schools or academies.

New theories of education, especially those stemming from John Locke, emphasised a useful, moral, more experiential, scientific education that showed respect for the child.

By the end of the 18th century, such ideas were translated into educational ventures centred on active learning. Maria Edgeworth, for example, pioneered child studies with her father, Richard. She was also one of the first of a new band of writers for children. Such education, like the growth of self-help books, was particularly important in a period when formal education was often unavailable.

For most boys below the middle ranks of society and nearly all girls, of whatever class, formal education was haphazard and largely non-existent. "Petty" schools, where they existed, offered a rudimentary education to both sexes.

Elementary teaching was a precarious livelihood, usually supplemented by other work or undertaken by those, of either sex, with only a smattering of education.

Towns offered better opportunities for education than the country, both in schooling and apprenticeships. Girls also undertook the latter, though boys were the main entrants, especially into the desirable skilled crafts. Industrial apprenticeships for workhouse children were obtained in the late 18th century, particularly by workhouse guardians anxious to shift the burden of orphans and inculcate social discipline.

Private philanthropy increasingly helped the growth of charity schools in the 18th century. Lady Elizabeth Hastings, for example, founded numerous charity schools for children in the North and the Isle of Man, as well as providing five scholarships at Oxford for poor boys from northern schools.

But charity schooling provided education for only a few. In 1750 half the population were unable to sign their names. Despite rapid commercial expansion, some people feared that teaching the poor to read was, potentially, socially and politically explosive. Even the conservative, evangelical Hannah More, who allowed no writing for the poor, found her industrial schools attacked.

On the other hand, the widespread provision of Sunday schools saved the industrial purse by confining their rudimentary schooling to one day a week and calmed ruffled middle-class nerves by keeping poor children solemnly engaged on their only day off work.

The worlds of work and education were closely allied throughout these centuries, whether it was a child from the working-class poor learning basket-weaving at home or an Etonian declaiming Latin verses in preparation for a future as statesman and orator. The family into which one was born was usually the chief determinant of the opportunities of life.

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