Beyond the 3Rs in New Lanark;The Pioneers;The 19th Century;Millennium Edition

31st December 1999 at 00:00
Social reformer Robert Owen advocated a broad curriculum and even nursery schools, writes Ian Donnachie

New Lanark, the former cotton-spinning community on the River Clyde established in 1785 by David Dale, was the test-bed for Robert Owen's social and educational reforms.

In what Owen called the Institute for the Formation of Character (1816) and the later school (c1817) a remarkably innovative curriculum, mixing Pestalozzi's and Lancaster's ideas, embraced far more than the 3Rs, then the norm in Scottish schools.

History, geography, environmental studies, civics and music featured strongly, while dancing and military drill seem to have been compulsory. Visual aids included enormous tableaux of exotic beasts, maps of the world and a gigantic globe on which scholars pointed out countries, cities and natural features.

Between 1816 and 1825 Owen's propaganda made the schools at New Lanark internationally famous, and thousands came to see his experiment. The greatest attraction was the pioneering infant school - what John Griscom, the American Quaker reformer, called the "baby school", a useful device to help mothers return to work in the mills after weaning.

Owen's motives, as in much else, were not entirely altruistic, for philanthropy was clearly attractive if it produced better profits and an educated (if docile) workforce. Large numbers of women visited the schools, causing another prominent American, William Maclure, to observe that this proved women were more interested in education than men. True or false, Owen's ideas were highly innovative, and were only beginning to be implemented more generally a century later.

Ian Donnachie teaches at the Open University in Scotland and is author of a new biography of Owen to be published by the Tuckwell Press

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