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When teachers and taught were sworn enemies

Analysis: By 1910, teaching had been liberated from the constraints of the Victorian era and the profession was undergoing enormous change. But commentators fretted, as historian Jacob Middleton explains

Analysis: By 1910, teaching had been liberated from the constraints of the Victorian era and the profession was undergoing enormous change. But commentators fretted, as historian Jacob Middleton explains

In 1908, educational commentator W.R. Lawson wrote a lament to the power of teachers in contemporary Britain. He complained that "no one seems to have yet realised what an immense power is gradually passing into the hands of this scholastic army". Lawson feared that this group, "far exceeding in number our army of soldiers", was now exerting an untoward influence.

Lawson's claim may seem surprising, but it was not without foundation. In the decades since the Education Act of 1870, the British government had been increasingly involved in the provision of education. From the standpoint of Edwardian society, considerable progress had been made: "As we look back from the standpoint of today, the state of educational darkness which prevailed in England during the first half of the reign of Queen Victoria seems almost incredible," said a writer of the time.

This transformation had been achieved through a growing class of professional teachers who, by the beginning of the 20th century, had increasing control over what went on in the classroom.

The growing freedom of teachers was the product of two significant changes. For the second half of the 19th century, the activities of teachers had been shaped by the Code of Education, in which exam results determined a portion of school incomes. The code was widely disliked, blamed for rote learning, and an unwillingness on the part of teachers to spend time on subjects which were not financially rewarded. The abolition of the code in 1897 gave teachers new freedoms over what they could spend time on in the classroom. At around the same time, the restrictive Victorian rules which had governed use of corporal punishment were being relaxed. As a result, by 1900 teachers had more control over what they could teach and how to enforce discipline in the classroom.

Some teachers used these freedoms to expand the horizons of their pupils. Educationalist A.S. Neill, then a schoolmaster in rural Scotland, claimed to have read to his elementary class excerpts from the plays of Ibsen. The local farmers accused him of being a radical, but as a teacher he was reasonably secure in his post.

It was difficult to dismiss teachers, a fact that some exploited. One individual recalled that one of his teachers would normally return to the classroom after lunch showing the effects of drink. In the event this had little effect on the teacher's long-term career, which was instead cut short by his refusal to cane a number of his pupils at the insistence of his headmaster.

"The teacher who thinks he can teach without a cane is a fool", warned one head, "but any teacher who lets a visitor see a cane is a bigger fool."

Corporal punishment was deeply unpopular among parents, yet it was seen by teachers as a necessity. Moreover, the freedoms they had gained in relation to its use by the early years of the 20th century meant that they could punish the children in their classes with relatively little restraint.

The rights of teachers to cane children stemmed largely from a fear that Britain, secure in its wealth and empire, was becoming indulgent and failing to keep children sufficiently disciplined. This was a cause of concern in a period in which rival European empires threatened war, and there were widespread suggestions that some form of firmer discipline was required.

"Are we taking the wrong way with our children", asked the Daily Telegraph in 1910, "and replacing the harsh repression of former period by a pernicious indulgence, as cruel in result as kind in intention?"

Not all teachers punished with what might be considered an appropriate level of caution, and it was easy for the bad teacher to strike out at his pupils without adequate justification.

Moreover, while such punishments were unpopular, it was hard to prevent them, and harder still to hold teachers to account after the event. The result was a situation described by the historian and TES editor H.C. Dent, who was schooled in the Edwardian era, in which "teachers and taught were sworn enemies".

Despite the security of their work, teachers had many complaints about the conditions they faced, not least finding employment in the first place. In 1910 the "supply of teachers" scandal erupted, where a number of teachers complained that the government had mismanaged the number of new teachers being trained and recruited. Students, claimed union representatives, were being "lured into the teaching profession" by "bursaries, scholarships, and Press Advertisements".

Once trained, "NQTs" were finding that there were insufficient posts and they were struggling to find suitable posts in schools. As a result, many teachers faced unemployment and, after spending several years in training colleges, were forced to join other professions. To add insult to injury, many existing schools still employed untrained staff, who had been recruited as teachers decades before, during the Victorian era.

This and other problems, such as the perennial issue of low pay, meant that many teachers resorted to collective action in an attempt to improve their conditions. Professional bodies, such as the NUT, enjoyed considerable support and were widely regarded as a means of pressurising the government to alter working conditions.

With the growing legal protection afforded to unions, it was feared by conservative politicians and commentators that they might start to exert a malign influence. And this was not only in terms of educational policy: the profession, it was feared, was a nursery for radicalism, secularism and socialism, three of the most feared political philosophies of the era. When mobilised, the teaching unions might prove to be a dangerous force.

Of course, some of the radicalism of teachers may seem unthreatening from a modern viewpoint. Women's suffrage was, at the time, one of the most divisive of political issues. Given that a large proportion of teachers were women, their unions broadly supported reforms that would allow women to vote. But many of the older, male, union leaders remaining unconvinced about the need for women to vote.

Matters came to a head at the 1914 NUT conference with an attempt to block a motion expressing support for the suffrage movement and one woman speaker threatened the union's leadership with the reminder that "the power of tyranny was tempered by assassination".

Violent words, perhaps. But they were spoken at a time when society was becoming increasingly militarised - and schools with it.

Beneath the veneer of freedom, education in the Edwardian era was a coercive and regimented practice, driven by a desire for conformity. Pupils were encouraged to virtue by prizes, outings for Empire Day, and the prospect of a commemorative plaque in their old school if they knew their duty and joined the armed forces. The schooling of Britain was thereby symptomatic of a society which was slowly and surely drifting towards war. A footnoted version of this article is available at


While the teachers of the Edwardian era enjoyed an unprecedented degree of professional autonomy, critics of the education system complained that schools were failing to produce anything more than a superficial veneer of knowledge.

The Education Department, for instance, admitted that "employers who agree in nothing else, say that though boys can read and write and do sums well enough to have passed with credit from their schools, their general intelligence is so little developed that they can seldom perform any of these operations satisfactorily in circumstances with which they are not familiar".

Moreover, at the beginning of the 20th century, not everyone believed in the necessity of education. "It is no use teaching a person anything that he is likely to make a bad use of," argued one writer, "and experience tells us that many people are ruined by learning to read."


The beginning of the 20th century saw the rise of physical education in schools. This was largely a response to problems uncovered by the Boer War of 1899-1902. Many of the volunteers who presented themselves at recruiting offices were too unfit to join the Army and, in response, PE was introduced to the curriculum in an attempt to improve the health of the nation.

Yet some felt that PE alone was insufficient to ensure the future defence of the nation, and from 1905 there were increasingly strident demands that rifle training should become a standard subject within the school. While cadet corps already promoted this at some elite schools, the new movement promoted the idea that everyone should have the opportunity to learn military skills. As one correspondent to The Times stated, any "universal system of military training in schools must be elastic enough to catch the (children of) the East-end as well as the boy at Eton".

Such training was seen as necessary for ensuring that Britain could defend itself in the future. "Every English boy ought to be so trained as to be able, should occasion arise, to help to repel a foreign invader," claimed one writer. Although it is hard to imagine now, in 1905 the magazine-fed cartridge rifle was seen as the super-weapon of military conflicts. "I do not suppose that in the matter of the future there will be any other arms than rifles," said one educationalist.

Moreover, the benefits of rifle training were not confined to civil defence. It was commonly thought that military drill would instil in children a sense of responsibility. Knowing what was required to defend a country, they would, it was hoped, grow up to be good moral citizens.

Some local authorities took up the challenge, and children in schools from the West Riding of Yorkshire to the London suburb of Croydon were trained to shoot. But rifle drill never reached the educational mainstream.

Despite the militarism of the time, its appearance in schools attracted some criticism, mostly from Christian non-conformists, who believed that the introduction of shooting into schools was part of a broad trend towards militaristic propaganda in education. There were also safety issues, and the status of rifle shooting cannot have been helped by occasional accidents, such as when a pupil, John Rudd, was shot dead by his teacher in 1906.

Most damning of all, however, was the cost. At a time when educational budgets were tight, few local authorities were willing to pay for the expensive equipment and rifle ranges, which would be necessary for such training to take place.

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