Working-class hall of fame reopens

4th September 1998 at 01:00
In 1798 Joseph Lancaster opened his pioneering British school - 200 years later his work is being celebrated. Julie Read reports

Classes of more than 30 are regarded with horror by parents and teachers alike these days. But this autumn school parties can try out the authentic 1810 experience: a class of 300.

Imagine a classroom the size of a large church hall, whose floor is divided into semi-circles and lined with pillars. This was the monitorial teaching system: Joseph Lancaster's answer to providing affordable mass education.

To celebrate the bicentenary of the educational pioneer's first school, his sole surviving hall is to reopen in the market town of Hitchin, Hertfordshire.

Lancaster was shocked by the prevailing mass illiteracy and made it his life's mission to educate the working classes of the 17th-century. Born into poverty in Southwark, Lancaster became a school assistant, going on to found his first school two hundred years ago.

The Hitchin hall, purpose-built for one headteacher, 10 monitors and 300 children, still has the painted semi-circles which designated the reading stations.

Towering above the street next to the hall stands a rare gallery classroom for 110 pupils, together with the 1857 girls' and infant school, a block of Edwardian classrooms and the exercise yard of the original 1810 school. The complex forms a national museum of education and social history.

Lancaster could not afford an assistant so he taught the brightest pupils and made them monitors. They in turn taught the other children. Standing in the semi-circles, or reading stations, the monitors hung the printed reading boards on the walls and children learned by rote.

Lancaster justified this method of teaching as "mutually for the advantage of the lads who teach, and those who are taught".

The monitors were paid roughly a penny a week, meaning that 1,000 boys cost just Pounds 300 a year.

He also tried to revolutionise teaching staff. He believed in teacher training and realised that to attract the best people he would have to raise their status in society.

With financial support from Quaker friends, the Friendly Society agreed to provide teachers' sick pay and pensions. Any school which used the system - at its peak there were 400 - was called a British school. It differed from the Church of England schools in being non-denominational and open to anyone.

The Lancasterian system spread to Mexico, taken by Lancaster's daughter Elizabeth and her husband Richard Jones. Today one Lancasterian schoolroom is being restored in the Palace of the Inquisition in Mexico City.

The monitorial method had fallen out of favour by the middle of the 19th-century. As Brian Limbrick, vice-chairman of the Hitchin British Schools Trust, developing the museum, said: "Creative thought was impossible and it was seen as very narrow and confining."

Children can now visit the gallery classroom each week, and spend the day being drilled in Victorian style. But the school needs Pounds 2.7 million to finish refurbishing the buildings and set up the exhibition.

Yvonne Limbrick, the project director, said: "We have had tremendous support from the locals, and while it is enough for us to run the schools, it is not enough to restore them."

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