1880 Education Act

1880 Education Act

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The 1870 Education Act enabled School Boards to examine the provision of elementary education in their district, provided then by Voluntary Societies. If the School Board came to the conclusion that there were not enough school places, they had permission build and maintain schools out of the rates. It was not until ten years later that the government decided there were enough schools to make attendance compulsory for children up to the age of 10.

This document was written by Stephen Tonge. I am most grateful to have his kind permission to include it on the web site.

Key Point:

World’s most powerful empire saw a period of reform that gradually increased political democracy and improved economic and social conditions for all.

Queen Victoria 1837-1901
King Edward VII 1900-1910
King George V 1910-1936
Main Political Leaders: Party Period as PM
W.E. Gladstone Liberal 1868-74, 1880-1886, 1892-94
Benjamin Disraeli Conservative 1874-1880
Lord Salisbury Conservative 1885, 1886-1892, 1895-1902
Herbert Asquith Liberal 1908-1916

These notes examine the major reforms introduced into the UK during the period 1870 to 1914.


The strength of the British system of Government has been its ability to stifle any danger of revolution through reform. During the 19th century Britain’s government was the model most Liberals throughout Europe sought to copy.

It was a constitutional monarchy where the power of the Monarch was greatly restricted by Parliament (the House of Lords and the House of Commons). As the 19th century progressed, this system developed into one of the most democratic in Europe. The politics of the country was dominated by two parties the Conservatives (Tories) and the Liberals (Whigs).

By 1870 it was the most industrialised and the most powerful country in the world. It possessed the world’s largest Empire protected by a very formidable navy. Imperialism was popular and during this period Britain added to her colonial possessions. They included India (the jewel in the crown), South Africa, Canada, Australia, Malaya (now Malaysia), Egypt, Nigeria, and Rhodesia and covered one-sixth of the Earth’s land surface.

However the Industrial revolution had created severe social problems, as Britain became the world’s most urbanised country. Over half of her population lived in cities. The social problems were to be found especially in the area of housing, education and health care.

The major measures of reform can be grouped into four categories:

Parliamentary Reforms

A series of acts had gradually extended the franchise in England during this period. These were passed by both parties and helped to strengthen support for the political system in Britain.

  • The 1832 Reform Act had given the vote to the middle classes.
  • The 1867 Reform Act gave the vote to every male adult householder living in the towns. Male lodgers paying £10 were also granted the vote. The Act gave the vote to about 1,500,000 men. In effect the Act had given the vote to the working classes in the towns. Several industrial towns that were previously unrepresented were given MPs. A Conservative government led by Benjamin Disraeli had introduced this measure with the support of the Liberals.
  • The 1872 Secret Ballot Act made voting secret and greatly reduced the power of Landlords in determining the outcome of elections.
  • The 1884 Reform Act gave the vote to the poor farmers and labourers in the countryside and greatly reorganised electoral areas to reflect the move in population from the countryside to the larger towns. This act tripled the electorate and established the principle of “one man, one vote” (males over 25).
  • Another major item of parliamentary reform was the Parliament Act of 1911. It ended the veto of the House of Lords and only allowed it to delay bills for two years. MPs were also paid for the first time under this Act.

The Suffragettes

The major issue left untouched was that of votes for women. In 1903 the Women’s Social and Political Union was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters to demand the vote for women.

Until 1914, when the First World War broke out, they campaigned energetically, and sometimes violently, to achieve this aim. In 1906 the Daily Mail first referred to members of the WSPU as 'suffragettes'. This name became widely used by both supporters and opponents of the campaign.

Suffragettes were responsible for breaking the windows of 10 Downing Street, burning buildings and damaging paintings in public galleries. They were often prepared to go to prison for their cause or even put their own lives in danger.

While in prison they went on hunger strike. The government often force fed the women prisoners. The so-called Cat and Mouse Act was passed by the government in an attempt to prevent suffragettes from obtaining public sympathy - it provided for releasing those whose condition got too serious then re-imprisoning them when they had recovered.

In 1913 the suffragette Emily Davison tried to stop the Derby horserace by running onto the track just as the horses came round Tattenham Corner. In many texts, you will read that she 'threw herself under King George V's horse' — which is simply not true. She died from her injuries.

When World War One broke out many women took jobs normally undertaken by men. The huge numbers of men needed to fight the war resulted in women being employed as gas workers, coal heavers, transport workers and ambulance drivers.

When the war ended, the tremendous war effort of these female workers was rewarded by the introduction of a bill that allowed women over 30 years to vote in parliamentary elections.

Worker’s Rights

Trade Unions for skilled workers had grown in strength throughout the 19th century and were made legal in 1871 and given the right to strike. In 1875 they were permitted to peacefully picket their place of work when on strike (Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act).

Unions for unskilled workers were slow to develop. Throughout the 1880s there were a series of strikes by unskilled workers in an attempt to improve their conditions. The most famous of these were the match-girls strike of 1888 and the dockers' strike of 1889.Both of which were successful.

However the trade union movement suffered a severe setback with Taff Vale Case in 1901. A union was found to be financially liable for the losses that the Taff Vale Railway Company suffered during a strike. The conservative government took no action.

The Liberal government (1906) brought in the Trade Disputes Act (1906) which declared that unions could not be sued for damages incurred during a strike. This reversed the Taff Vale judgement. Trade unions began to sponsor candidates for parliament. In 1900 the Labour Representation Committee was formed. In 1906 it changed its name to the Labour Party and was led by Keir Hardie. 29 MPs were elected in the election of that year. The Labour party continued to grow and in the 1920s replaced the Liberals as one of the two big parties in England.


The provision of education in England was improved greatly by a series of laws that made a basic education available to all children.

The 1870 Education Act (commonly named after its author W.E. Forster) set up school districts. Local ratepayers were asked to build a primary school in an area where one did not already exist. The local board had the right to compel children to attend these schools and to charge a nominal fee.

By 1874 over 5,000 new schools had been founded. In 1880 education became compulsory up to the age of 10 (raised to 12 in 1899) and in 1891 it was made free.

However the absence of real reform in the secondary sector meant that education in 1900 was generally only up to primary level. Britain lagged seriously behind Germany and France.

In 1902 the Education Act (Balfour Act) greatly improved this situation. It provided for the funding of secondary schools out of local rates with helps of grants from central government. In 1907 a scholarship scheme made it possible for the clever children from poor backgrounds to attend secondary school. By 1914 Britain had a well-organised system of education.

Early Social Welfare Reforms

The Industrial Revolution and the growth of the towns had created a number of serious social and health problems. A number of measures were brought in to alleviate the conditions of ordinary people:

The Public Health Act of 1872 set up Health Authorities throughout England. However the operation of the Act was seriously hampered by a lack of money. A further Act in 1875 increased funding and greatly improved the situation. It also brought together a range of acts covering sewerage and drains, water supply, housing and disease.

Other legislation in this period included the Artisans’ Dwelling Act (1875) which allowed for a large clearance of slums in England. In 1888 local government was introduced to England and this was further improved upon in 1894.

Throughout the nineteenth century a series of Factory Acts had regulated conditions for workers in factories. By the 1870s workers in Britain had a half day on Saturday and this led to the growth of organised sports especially soccer.

The Social Reforms of the Liberal Governments 1906-1914

The long period of conservative government between 1895 and 1905 had meant a slowing of reform. In 1900 it was estimated that 30% of the population lived on the edge of starvation. There were also great inequalities of income and wealth. A working class family lived on about 18 shillings a week while a middle class family spent £10.

During the Boer War the medical condition of the working-class recruits was a cause of grave concern and more attempts were made to improve the nation’s health.

In 1906 a Liberal government was elected with a massive majority. It introduced a large number of social reforms. These included:

  • Medical tests for pupils at schools and free treatment provided (1907).
  • Workers were compensated for injuries at work (1906).
  • In 1908 a pension of five shillings was introduced for those over 70. This reform was of great significance as it freed the pensioners from fear of the workhouse.
  • In 1911 the government introduced the National Insurance Act that provided insurance for workers in time of sickness (reform was twenty years behind Germany). Workers paid a four penny weekly premium.
  • Unemployment benefit was introduced into certain industries (e.g. Shipbuilding).

A basic social welfare service had been created which greatly improved the conditions for poorer people in British society. To pay for this social reform the Liberals increased the taxes on the rich.

These reforms were resisted by the Conservative dominated House of Lords. The crisis caused by their rejection of the 1909 budget led to the Parliament Act that ended the veto of the House of Lords.

The Economy

Although still a powerful economic power, Britain had gone into relative decline against the new economies of Germany and the US. (Table 1)

The economy was growing very slowly although she continued to be the banking capital of the world. British shipbuilding boomed during the period especially on the Clyde and in Belfast.

Much of British industry had failed to modernise and many factories were slow to use electricity. For example by 1910 German steel production was double that of Britain and US output of coal had overtaken and was greater than Britain.

Traditionally the basis of British economic power had been based on Free Trade. As most of her competitors erected tariff barriers, Britain found her industries shut out from many markets.

By the early twentieth century the demand for tariffs increased in Britain. This demand was led by Joseph Chamberlain who felt that Protectionism would protect British industry and help to unite the empire. His demand was opposed by many in his own party and helped to split the once invincible Conservatives. This division paved the way for the Liberal victory in 1906.

Table 1: Percentage Distribution of the World's Manufacturing Production 1870 and 1913
(% of world total)
1870 1913
USA 23.3 35.8
Germany 13.2 15.7
U.K 31.8 14.0
France 10.3 6.4
Russia 3.7 5.5


“England was widely regarded as a society in which political differences could be solved by compromise” James Joll

“Large sections of the industrial population were still at the end of the 19th century living in appalling conditions” James Joll

“The “Mother of Parliaments” at Westminster had shown herself able to keep pace with fast-moving change” David Thomson

British Foreign Policy 1870 - 1914: A Summary

  1. 1. To maintain the balance of power in Europe and to prevent one country or group of countries becoming too powerful. Traditionally France was seen as the main threat in this regard e.g. Napoleon.
  2. To protect its naval superiority over any other European country. The British army was small and her power rested on the strength of her navy that was the largest in the world. It was this determination that led to a serious breakdown of relations with Germany as she built up her navy to rival the British one.
  3. To protect and expand her colonial Empire. France was traditionally her rival.
  4. To defend the sea routes to India (Suez canal and South Africa) and to prevent landward encroachment towards the subcontinent by Russia.
  5. To prevent Turkey from collapsing and Russia expanding her influence in the Balkans at Turkey’s expense.

During the 1880s and 1890s Britain had pursued a policy of avoiding alliances that involved any sort of military commitments. This policy was known as “Splendid Isolation” and it was most associated with the figure of Lord Salisbury, prime-minister for most of this period.

However the Boer War (1899-1902) had exposed Britain’s lack of a reliable ally and proved she had very few friends. This allied to the growing might of Germany, caused Britain to abandon her policy of isolation.

In 1902 she formed an alliance with Japan mainly directed against Russia. In 1904 she settled her colonial differences with France and the Entente Cordiale was formed.

Partly as a result of French encouragement she did the same with Russia in 1907. This alliance between the three nations became known as the Triple Entente but as Joll notes “relations between Russia and Britain never became close”.

In 1912 the Entente between France and Britain was strengthened when an agreement on naval co-operation, in the event of war, was reached between the two.


Outline the main political, social and economic reforms enacted in Britain during the period 1870-1914.

Treat social, economic and political reforms as separate.

  • Political Reform
  • Suffragettes
  • Worker’s Rights
  • Social reforms especially Education
  • The Liberal Reforms after 1906
  • Economic policies

Trace the progress of political and social reforms in Britain during the period, 1870-1914

Same essay as the one above (minus economic).

Identify the major social and economic changes that took place in Great Britain during the period 1870-1914.

Difficult essay that involves examining social and economic change only. Political reform is not required.

These materials may be freely used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with applicable statutory allowances and distribution to students.
Re-publication in any form is subject to written permission.


By Andrew and India

Talking about his educational experiences, one man told us: "We were caned for many things such as having messy hair".

In the 20th Century, corporal punishment was still widely used.

Now we have different methods and rights that prevent these kinds of punishments being used.

A short history of education in England

While writing the Broad Curriculum set of articles I became pre-occupied by two questions. The first was “What is the point of education?” which I address here. If we know what the point of education is everything else should fall into place the curriculum, the structures, the sponsorship, and so on. But it seems we don’t. Which led to the second question “Why is education such a mess?” Nothing in the media makes me feel positive about our education system. I hear plenty of sneering, claims and counter claims, and reports of system failure and disenchantment. I don’t see long term consensus, strategy or momentum. So, I started to read some history of education books to understand, at least at a superficial level, how we got here. Because history has a habit of repeating itself.

What follows below is the briefest summary of Acts of Parliament or periods of history that have shaped the education landscape. It seems to me that the history of education in England is a 1,500 year evolutionary quest to answer five major questions

  • What is school for?
  • Who is school for?
  • What should the curriculum be?
  • Who should control and manage schools?
  • Who pays for schools?

The history of education for priests started in 597

St Augustine gets the credit for starting the history of education in England. In 597 he founded King’s School, Canterbury and 604 King’s School, Rochester. He established two types of school grammar schools for teaching Latin to priests and song schools for training “sons of gentlefolk” to sing in cathedral choirs. The curriculum of grammar (Latin), with occasional rhetoric and logic was to last for at least 1000 years. The model was rolled out to all cathedrals and large churches by 1100.

Education was limited to male nobles and gentry who wanted to enter the priesthood. The age range was typically 11-14. For nobles who didn’t want to be priests there was home tuition followed by placement at a noble house for chivalric training.

As well as the language of the Bible and religious service, Latin was also the language of law, diplomacy and trade. As towns prospered through trade so the demand for grammar schools increased. But trade also led to more secular requirements such as philosophy, medicine, law which were outside the church’s supervision. Some “free grammar schools”, free from church control, and free to teach other subjects, started to appear from 1150 onwards.

In 1391 Richard II outlawed education for serfs unless permitted by the lord of the manor. Serfs were a valuable economic commodity, so unlikely to receive educational encouragement from their masters. This attitude was to persist for another 500 years.

The history of education for the elite started in 1382

Following the decimation of the priesthood as a result of the Black Death, Winchester College was established in 1382. It was to replenish the ranks by educating scholars (poor) and commoners (gentry). The education of scholars was without charge. The commoners paid. Winchester was the feeder school to New College, Oxford. Universities were new independent learning institutions, independent from church control.

Winchester changed the grammar school model in several ways. Firstly, it was free (independent from the Church). Secondly, it was linked to an institution pursuing academic excellence (a university). Thirdly, its pupils were boarders so came from far beyond the immediate. Fourthly, it used a prefectorial system of control (power vested in senior pupils). And fifthly, it was wealthy due to its endowments. As a result it became popular with the wealthy and the ruling class. The boarding and prefectorial aspects prepared pupils for posts at Court, diplomacy and the army. The model was adopted in 1440 by Eton College, endowed by King Edward VI. Seven others followed.

The history of education from Henry VIII to the Industrial Revolution

Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries meant the refoundation of their associated grammar schools as free or joint Church/State enterprises. The compromise suited Henry as head of both State and the Church and enabled him to retain teaching clergy. But even though Church influence reduced dramatically, the curriculum did not change.

William Tyndale’s English Bible, the first in English, was distributed widely through churches. Albeit for only three years during Henry’s reign. Some sources suggest that Tyndale’s Bible contributed to the history of education because it was the first incentive to encourage the poor to read.

There were about 400 grammar schools in 1519, when Henry came to the throne. In the 16 th and 17 th centuries the number of grammar and schools grew to nearly 2000 with sponsorship (endowments) from philanthropic merchants. In the majority of cases, the size of the endowments paid for little more than the schoolmaster’s salary. The terms of the endowment also restricted the curriculum to Latin and Greek, though some may have ventured into the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric). However, for most, the curriculum stayed narrow and failed to adapt to the evolving needs of science, maths and languages teaching.

The narrow curriculum also blighted the fee-paying charity grammar schools (public schools). Twinned with corruption, they fell into disrepute in the decades leading up to the early 1800s.

Grammar school pupils were still predominantly male. Girls education, if any, was little more than Bible reading and homecraft.

The history of education for the masses started around 1750

The Industrial Revolution brought a profound change to British society. The population doubled from 1750 to 1820, and then doubled again to 1870. Many moved to the industrial cities and cheap child labour was prevalent. Laws passed in 1802 required apprentices and children to receive some form of basic numeracy and literacy schooling. However, only the most enlightened factory owners observed them.

For children aged 7 to 11 schooling expanded through this period. But it was random and informal. It consisted of a mixture of “petties” (small schools linked to the grammar schools), writing schools, private schools, Dames Schools, Charity Schools, Sunday Schools and Ragged Schools. The curriculum rarely ventured from reading the Scriptures.

The quality of education and the curriculum certainly didn’t promote the Industrial Revolution and British Empire. But sustaining them would make demands of the curriculum.

National Schools (from 1811) and British Schools (from 1808)

The National Society was established in 1811 with the ambition of establishing a National School in every English and Welsh parish. The Society built schools next to parish churches. Charitable in purpose, affiliated to the Church of England, the curriculum majored on religious education. The established Church had returned to the history of education. Charitable and missionary.

The Royal Lancastrian Society (later the British and Foreign School Society) had a similar mission but was non-denominational, and less extensive.

Both sought to provide elementary education for the poor, and on a very limited budget. Similarly, they both used a monitorial teaching style. Older and more able pupils were taught with standardized repetitive exercises. And they in turn taught the younger and less able pupils. As a result one teacher could teach a class of hundreds of pupils.

The curriculum was basic but it was the first attempt at universal education. Access to elementary education rose from 58% in 1816 to 83% in 1835. But average attendance was for one year only. Their legacy is as faith schools within the state system.

Grammar Schools Act 1840

This Act represents the beginning of active State intervention in the history of education. Up until now education had been the preserve of the Church, religious charities, and philanthropic individuals.

Grammar schools were in crisis with too narrow a curriculum to cater for the needs of a growing manufacturing economy and Empire. The 1840 Act made it lawful to apply the income of grammar schools to purposes other than the teaching of classical languages, with the schoolmaster’s consent.

Now that grammar schools could teach new subjects, they could charge a growing and wealthy middle class for schooling in subjects of value such as English reading and writing, maths, science and languages.

It led to a new breed of fee charging grammar school. Sometimes founded by non-conformist religions (Methodist, Quakers), they had headmasters with high Victorian moral purpose. Academic exams were introduced. And, this being the age of railways, and Empire, they were boarding schools, preparing pupils for careers in administration and the Services.

Boarding and, especially, sport became the most important element of education at these schools. H.H. Almond, the headmaster at Loretto, famously listed the educational priorities at his school as “First character, second physique, third intelligence, fourth manners, fifth information”.

Public Schools Act 1868

The decline in standards and competitiveness of the nine leading independent Charity Schools (Eton, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester, St Paul’s and Merchant Taylors’) led to the Clarendon Commission report into their conditions and finances. The Act led to the reconstitution of the first seven of those schools. They were to have independent governing boards, independent of the Crown, clergy or government.

The Taunton Report 1868

The report published by the Taunton Commission which stratified educational need according to social class. It was to influence educational policy for nearly 100 years.

It divided parents into three “grades”, in effect, gentry, middle and working classes

  • The “first grade” who wished for their children to be educated up to and beyond the age of 18, and who had “no wish to displace the Classics from their present position in the forefront of English education”.
  • The “second grade” who wished their children to be educated to the age of 16. These parents would “approve of a curriculum which included not only Latin, but also a thorough knowledge of those subjects which can be turned to practical use in business”. Meaning English, maths, science, and a modern language.
  • The “third grade” who wished for their children to be educated to the age of 14. These parents belonged to “a class distinctly lower in the scale”, and who wanted a curriculum with no Classics but only reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The Endowed Schools Act 1869

Acting on the Taunton report of 1868 the Act established the Endowed Schools Commission. The Commission had the legal authority to change the terms of the endowments of individual schools to address the uneven distribution of (endowed) grammar schools throughout the country, and the paucity of education for girls.

It formalised the stratification of education into public schools (mostly boarding with a classical education, preparation for university), grammar schools (day schools to age 16), third grade schools sending children into employment at 14.

It also established the fee paying academic grammar school for middle classes. Which led to a growth in grammar schools under the auspices of Victorian principles of self-improvement.

Elementary Education Act 1870 (The Forster Act)

For the first time, the government mandated the provision of elementary education for children aged 5-13. Attendance was compulsory for boys and girls, aged 5-10, thereafter until attainment of the “educational standard”.

As stipulated by Taunton (1868) the curriculum was limited to the 3Rs (reading, writing, ‘rithmetic). The schools were all fee paying, with exceptions for qualifying “poor”.

Board Schools were to be built where current provision by Church and private schools was inadequate. Board schools were funded by the state, secular, and managed by locally elected school boards. By 1900 Board Schools accounted for half of all elementary schools. An unexpected consequence of this new school building initiative was that Church schools doubled in number (to 12,756) by 1895, capitalizing on the 50% maintenance grant. But they overstretched and ran out of money.

There were attendance exemptions for illness, children in employment, and those living too far from the school. But exemptions were revoked in 1880 and enforced by School Attendance Officers.

There was a prevailing sentiment that universal education was probably a good thing to keep Britain competitive in manufacturing. But this is still a time when the idea of education for the masses was controversial. If working classes could think, then they might consider their lives unsatisfactory and revolt.

Some Board Schools established higher age range classes “higher tops” and “higher grade” schools. This was beyond their remit.

Education Act 1902 (The Balfour Act)

By the turn of the century, Church schools taught one third of elementary age children. The schools lacked cash, were “appallingly old and out of date” and “pigsty schools”. Trading cash for influence, control and “efficiency” the Balfour Act was highly controversial.

The Act established the Local Education Authorities (LEAs), with the ability to raise local taxes to fund schools and disbanded school boards. Church, board and endowed grammar schools now came under the supervision of one of 328 LEAs.

LEAs paid for the teachers, maintenance of all schools, but if the Church schools wanted a denominational curriculum, they had to pay for their own new buildings. The Act didn’t include non-conformist schools, only Catholic and Church of England.

The Act also led to the establishment of over 1000 new “municipal” or “county” secondary schools, including 349 girls’ schools.

The LEA was responsible for secular curriculum in all schools. The curriculum for the county and municipal schools now included science and languages. In 1904 the Board of Education mandated a four year subject-based course of English, geography, history, foreign language, mathematics, science, drawing, manual work, physical training, and, for girls, housewifery. For the first time in the history of education the broad curriculum was available to all.

The school leaving age had been raised to 11 in 1893, 12 in 1899 and then to 14 in 1921.

Education Act 1944 (The Butler Act)

In the spirit of post war consensus and the desire for social reform the Butler Act created an educational landscape that is recognizable today. State education was now free for all children.

The Act created separate primary schools (5-11) and secondary schools (11-15). LEAs also had to ensure nursery provision, disability provision and boarding. The compulsory school age was raised to 15, then 16 in 1973.

Secondary education, stratified in the Taunton Report (1868) became formalized in the Tripartite system consisting of grammar schools, secondary modern schools and secondary technical schools. Selective entry to grammar schools was to be based on the Scholarship Exam (later 11+). 1951 saw the introduction of national exams, the General Certificate of Education “O” and “A” Levels.

Another Church school compromise traded funding for control of admissions and the RE syllabus to give rise to Voluntary Controlled and Voluntary Aided Schools.

Some independent schools, particularly in the North of England, became Direct Grant schools, funded directly by central government to provide free places for many but still charge others. They became the most academically successful grammar schools.

The School Health Service was established, requiring the provision of school meals, free milk, medical and dental care. Now schools were responsible for more than just teaching.

Circular 10/65 (Comprehensive schools)

The Tripartite system was deeply unpopular and socially divisive. Some LEAs abandoned it in favour of comprehensive education in mixed ability schools. A 1965 government circular encouraged others (rather than compelled them) to do likewise. The result was a mixed implementation. Some LEAs retained the 11+ and grammar schools, most went fully comprehensive abandoning the 11+ and streaming.

By 1975 Direct Grant funding ended. Of those grammar schools, 100 schools became fully independent, 50 became comprehensive schools.

1967 Central Advisory Council For Education Report, Children and their Primary Schools (The Plowden Report)

The Plowden Report was important because it was a state of the nation report on education in England. It was optimistic and did much to promote new ways of teaching Progressivism. It espoused humanism and child-centred approaches “at the heart of the educational process lies the child”. In other words, individualized teaching and learning with teachers responsible for the curriculum.

If the 60s represents a high water mark for post war educational experimentation and idealism the 70s were a turning point in the history of education. Education policy starts to convulse from one political leaning to another with no clear direction or momentum. It started through the 70s and 80s when a popular consensus of declining standards and school discipline led to a new measurement and results oriented culture at the Department for Education.

Education Reform Act 1988 (The Baker Act)

The Act introduced a compulsory National Curriculum consisting of 14 subjects. Teachers were no longer in charge of the curriculum. But they were accountable for it through the introduction of compulsory assessments (SATS) at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16 (GCSE). League tables became the evidence of excellent teaching or otherwise. Independent schools and grammar schools came to dominate these tables raising questions and feelings of resentment.

The Baker Act marks the beginning of a long process to wrest control of schools away from LEAs and teachers to an alliance of parents and central government. The aim was to boost standards by creating a market in education of competing schools. Parents could choose which school to send their children. Schools with declining headcounts would have to improve or shut down. Market forces were to determine the history of education.

Schools were now to receive funding relating to the number of pupils at the school. Grant Maintained status gave a school more generous funding from central government if the school’s parent body voted to opt out of LEA control. The Act also saw the introduction of City Academies. These were state schools outside LEA control with autonomy in budget control and curriculum. They became prominent as academies and “academisation” in the subsequent Blair, Brown and Cameron administrations.

And so did “Specialist schools”, which were first established by the 1988 Act. With the aim of improving achievement, specialist status allowed state secondaries to specialise in an area of the curriculum. Though they still had to observe the National Curriculum. 88% of schools participated. Specialisms were one of the arts, maths and computing, business and enterprise, music, engineering, science, humanities, sports, languages, or technology.

1992 Education (Schools) Act

The 1992 Act established Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education). Ofsted was to ensure compliance by inspecting schools on a six yearly cycle. It would publish its reports and it had the power to name and shame underperforming schools.

Together with the imposition of the National Curriculum, testing and league tables, the bureaucratic burden of Inspections starts the steady demise of morale in the teaching profession.


History repeats itself. The history of education repeats itself.

Today we find ourselves in a funding crisis. Who will pay for our schools? Central government? LEAs? The Church? Other religious denominations? Charities? Businesses? Wealthy individuals?

We find ourselves in a curriculum crisis. Child-centred or teacher-led? Fact-based or skills-based learning? Exams or course work? SATs or a broader curriculum?

We argue about who should be controlling our schools. Central Government? LEAs? Academy Trusts? Charities? Businesses? Teachers? Parents?

We hear daily and weekly reports about skills gaps, falling standards, grade inflation, declining social mobility, overstretched, understaffed, plummeting morale.

The education debate seems to focus on knocking independent schools, educational fads, silver bullet “one size fits all” solutions, and the whims of a here-today-gone-tomorrow education minister with a vanity project for their CV.

We’ve been here before. Many times.

The history of education shows that up to 50 years ago, education was principally geared towards getting a job. That’s no longer the case, it seems. If we could agree the purpose of education (and I return to the opening sentence of this article), then we can agree the curriculum to fulfill that purpose. Everything else follows. And there may be more than one purpose and there may be more than one curriculum. One size doesn’t fit all.

I’m sure there should be a call to arms here, a manifesto. For the moment, rather than admit to not being smart enough, I’ll sleep on it, let the dust settle, get on with being a parent.

History of Education Further reading

I have skated over a great deal of detail. If I have piqued your interest in the history of education I can recommend three sources in particular

Battling for the right to public education

Having lived among white neighbors for so long, it seemed natural to Mary and Joseph Tape to send their eldest daughter to the primary school in their neighborhood, rather than to the mission-run schools in Chinatown. After Hurley barred Mamie’s admission to Spring Valley, the couple turned to the Chinese consulate, which lodged a protest with the school board. The board (despite opposition from some of its members) ruled that the exclusion was lawful, and the Tapes retained a lawyer, William Gibson, to sue Hurley and the San Francisco Board of Education on their daughter’s behalf.

Barring Mamie Tape from Spring Valley not only violated the 1880 California school law, Gibson argued—it also violated Mamie’s right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Tape v. Hurley first went to Superior Court, which agreed with Gibson’s interpretation of the constitution, and went further to say that “it would be unjust to levy a forced tax upon Chinese residents to help maintain our schools, and yet prohibit their children born here from education in those schools.” The case advanced to the California State Supreme Court, which in March 1885 affirmed the Superior Court decision and ruled that state law required public education to be open to 𠇊ll children.”

But as the court had said nothing to threaten the prevailing “separate but equal” doctrine that justified segregation, the San Francisco school board successfully pushed for the quick passage of a new state law authorizing separate schools for 𠇌hildren of Chinese and Mongolian descent.” In a telegram to the state assembly, Superintendent Andrew Jackson Moulder warned that, without the law, “I have every reason to believe that some of our classes will be inundated with Mongolians. Trouble will follow.”

Looking at History

The Elementary Education Act 1870 created school boards for those parts of England and Wales in that there were insufficient school places for working class children. These boards possessed power to enforce the attendance of their pupils. Ten years later this power became a duty that devolved also on the school attendance committee, a body created under an act of 1876 in the non school-board areas. The idea of compulsory education was not new. Certain groups of children had been forced, under a variety of legislation that included the Factory Acts, the Reformatory and Industrial Schools Acts and the Poor Law Acts[1], to attend school before 1870 but the numbers involved were comparatively small. What was new about the legislation of the 1870s was the extent of its operation. For the first time the nation’s children had to attend school on a full-time basis for a minimum of five years, a period that extended to nine for many by 1914.

The new laws had an important effect on the working class way of life. No longer could parents take for granted the services of their children in the home and their contributions to the family budget. Traditional working class patterns of behaviour continued in defiance of the law. The state had interfered with the pattern of family life by coming between parent and child, reducing family income and imposing new patterns of behaviour on both parent and child.

Background to reform

The 1870 Act is best treated as a culmination of thirty years’ struggle. Two elements of this struggle were the religious problem and the system of payment by results. The main elements of the religious problem were as follows:

The root of the religious problem was the firm belief that any education ought to have a moral and therefore a religious base. This raised the question—which religion? There had been rivalry between Anglicans and Nonconformists since the 1810s and with the creation of the Roman Catholic Poor School Committee in 1847, this had become a three-way contest. As long as the provision of schools was considered a voluntary, charitable activity, the societies could co-exist. But any attempt to establish education as the responsibility of the state, and thus spend public money on it, created acute tensions. Anglicans, as members of the Established Church, claimed that any national system must be Anglican-based, a claim fiercely resisted by Nonconformists and Catholics. As the events of the 1830s and 1840s show, each side was able to mobilise enough support to prevent successive governments from taking any large-scale action.

Some of the conflict and bitterness was due to the social and political divisions that underlay and reinforced sectarian and theological disputes. By the 1840s the Anglican Church had become a monopoly bitterly resented by its rivals: a national institution identified with a class. Many Anglican clergymen regarded education crudely as a means of social control. In this they were at one with the bulk of a Tory party that had frustrated Whig efforts in 1839-40 to establish a national non-denominational system and that fought hard for the interests of the Church during the long debates in 1870. Paradoxically, the provisions of the 1870 Act had the effect of allying the Catholics and the Anglicans and thus, up to a point, to the Tories. Voluntary schools were to be in competition with the new board schools and Catholics were implacably opposed to this.

Nonconformists naturally ranged themselves behind the Whigs and then the Liberals. However, at no point did they constitute a majority of Whig or Liberal supported. They were never more than a vigorous pressure group within the party that, after 1867, was led by William Gladstone who in 1838 had been ‘desirous of placing the education of the people under the efficient control of the clergy’. By 1870 he was prepared to accept the need for some government action on a non-denominational basis but refused, as did the majority of the Liberal party, to act against the voluntary schools. It was impossible to devise a bill that would have satisfied both sides.

The system known as payment by results was a mid-Victorian attempt to introduce the principle of the free market into elementary education. Grants were extended during the 1840s and 1850s and schools were inspected to see that they were not abused. By 1861 they had reached 𧿥,441 and had become a source of anxiety in some quarters. Any attempt to devise a national system of schools, and not comply aid the existing voluntary schools raised the question of whether the existing way of helping schools were not too grandiose and expensive to extend to the whole country. The Newcastle Commission recommended the creation of local boards of education in areas where the voluntary principle was weak. This proposal that would founder on the rock of the religious problem. It also recommended the power to award grants on the basis of examination performance leading to the Revised Code of 1862 and payment by results.

Reform: a central perspective

  • There was a lack of a real parliamentary and administrative will to address the problems that did exist.
  • There was an absence of a structure of local government that would provide the indispensable local agencies. Municipal corporations had been reformed in 1835 but their powers were limited and their influence small. In the counties elected councils were not established until 1888.
  1. But local rate support would certainly bring demands for local control that was bound to raise the denominational issue
  2. There was the growing problem of expense that the Revised Code was supposed to have resolved.
  3. This was combined with the tension that, since education was a local service, it ought to be financed from the local rate. This proposal was a central feature of the National Public School Association founded in 1850.

The final problem was one of timing. The education issue took up a good deal of parliamentary time in the mid-fifties. In 1855, for example, there were three bills before Parliament. All were withdrawn. It was not a period when the state was likely to move into a major new area of social policy because the government was tending to restrict its activities in central planning. The 1850s was the decade of administrative reform with reformers planning to achieve economies rather than extend the range of government activity.

Elementary education was an area where national policies were greatly influenced by local initiatives, beginning first in Manchester and later in Birmingham. The National Public School Association formed in 1850 had the support of Richard Cobden and, among others, a young Bradford manufacturer named W.E.Forster who later carried the 1870 Act through the Commons. It campaigned for public, rate-supported, non-denominational education during the 1850s but ran out of steam after a 1857 bill failed to become law.

During the 1860s opinion in cities became increasingly concerned about the large numbers of children who were not in school. The Social Science Association argued, as a result of an extensive survey, that in every 100 children living with parents and not at work, 40 were at school and 60 were not. Their conclusion was that only compulsory education could deal with the apathy of parents and the inadequacy of the voluntary system. Education bills were introduced in 1867 and 1868. The 1868 bill was withdrawn when it was clear that a general election was imminent. When Gladstone formed his new government, Forster became Vice-President of the Committee of Council for Education, the man who spoke for education in the Commons.

  1. The Reform Act 1867 enfranchised the urban working class. Both Disraeli and Gladstone accepted that self-improvement and rising levels of literacy were, in part, a justification for this development. There is, however, some debate on the degree to which reform in 1867 led to educational reform in 1870. Robert Lowe’s statement that ‘we must now educate our masters’ has to be seen as partly rhetoric but it raise the issue of parental non-consumers and the degree to which they should be coerced into sending their children to school. It has been argued that the extension of education in 1870 was a matter of social policy not one of political necessity.
  2. The leadership that had long rested with Manchester now passed to Birmingham. Education was one of the major interests of the Birmingham municipal reformers and in 1869 they created the National Education League with George Dixon as President and Joseph Chamberlain as Chairman of the committee. The League was a national movement that carried on the ideas of the National Public School Association and represented the non-sectarian and Nonconformist view of the way ahead. In November 1869 the National Education Union was founded in Manchester with the protection of the interests of denominational schools as its primary objective.
  • Where the existing school provision was inadequate or where a majority of ratepayers demanded it, school boards should be set up for boroughs and parishes with a single board for the whole of London, with the duty of building the schools that were necessary.
  • These boards were to be elected triennially in the boroughs by the burgesses and in parishes by ratepayers, and were given the power to issue a precept on the rating authority to be paid out of the local rate.
  • The religious question was resolved by allowing schools provided by the boards to be non-sectarian [the so-called Cowper-Temple clause] but giving parents the right to withdraw their children from any religious observance or instruction.
  • Elementary education was not made free and school boards might make it compulsory for children to attend school. This was not extended to the voluntary schools. The Act essentially filled in the gaps.
  1. Some Radicals were strong Nonconformists who advocated the disestablishment of the Church of England. Prominent in this group was Edward Miall, a former Independent minister who had founded The Nonconformist in 1841 and who was a leading figure in the Society for the Liberation of the Church from State Patronage and Control [or Liberation Society for short]. A Welsh MP with similar views was Henry Richard who pointed out the particular difficulties raised by the religious situation in Wales and the dislike of the Welsh people for Anglican teaching in schools. They argued that school instruction should be entirely secular so that religious agencies would be left to do their work outside schools.
  2. The pressures were not all from the religious side. Compulsory education was strongly advocated by the Cambridge economist Henry Fawcett and by Sir Charles Dilke, whose main contribution to the final act was to propose that the ratepayers should elect the school boards. Free education, part of the programme of the National Education League, was little discussed and an amendment in favour of it soundly defeated.

Board schools with rates as well as government grants to drawn on had the resources to grow. Voluntary schools had no source of local income comparable to rates. There was no way in which they could keep pace. In this sense the settlement of 1870 carried within it the seeds of its own destruction. By the 1890s it was clear that provision for elementary education was uneven and annually growing more so. Nor was the structure one on to which any provision for secondary education could be grafted. The Education Act 1902 put the Church on the rates. School Boards were abolished and, in return for rate aid, voluntary schools’ committees of management came within the control of the new Local Education Authorities, county and county borough councils, some 140 of them.

[1] After 1832 a series of acts shored up, but did not radically modify, the voluntary school system. The Industrial Schools Acts of 1857, 1861 and 1866 the Reformatory Schools Acts of 1854, 1857 and 1866 and the Education of Pauper Children Act of 1862 all helped local authorities to tackle the problem of the education of the 'residuum', the class the voluntary schools had neglected. When these efforts of pre-1867 parliaments had failed and the voluntary system had lost credence as the means of educating the children of the nation, then and only then, did the 1870 Act belatedly and reluctantly 'fill the gaps'.

1850-1877: Education: Overview

The State of Education. By 1850 American educational reformers, led by Horace Mann, had succeeded in convincing many leading citizens of the merits of establishing a system of publicly supported “ common schools. ” Inspired by newly developed European models of public education, the common-schools crusade had been initiated in the 1830s and won its first enthusiastic supporters in the larger, established towns of New England. From the beginning these schools were conceived not only as centers for learning, but as important vehicles for projecting the moral values considered essential to the American social order. Mann himself had stressed the importance of “ moral education ” in canvassing support for the common schools, and in the hands of New England descendants of the Puritans, this morality came to be closely identified with Protestantism and with the values of industriousness, frugality, and personal responsibility. Although by midcentury the common-school crusade had begun to win adherents beyond New England, American public education remained fairly disorganized, more notable for its remarkable variation than its homogeneity. In the still sparsely settled regions of the West, for instance, the availability of schooling could vary widely from one settlement to the next. In the South “ public education ” in the sense familiar to the North barely existed: the meager public funds spent on education went to subsidize “ pauper schools ” for indigent whites or private academies that were attended mainly by the sons and (occasionally) daughters of wealthy planters. Even in New England, conditions could vary widely between urban and rural schools. The primary challenge facing advocates of public education, then, was to forge an organized system of public education out of the disparate initiatives that had begun to show success across the country.

Contested Aims. From the beginning of the common-schools campaign, the task facing educational reformers was complicated by the fact that no clear consensus existed about the role or even necessity of public education in national life. Among the more privileged classes, whose own children already enjoyed access to private schooling, the very idea of taxing the citizenry in order to finance the education of working-class and poor children seemed, besides being wasteful, an infringement upon property rights. One of the crucial problems faced by reformers lay in convincing the more well-to-do that public education would benefit society as a whole. Mann, Henry Barnard, and others stressed the value of “ moral instruction ” for ensuring social stability and reinforcing the existing social order. Between 1840 and 1870, with the prodding of reformers, public financing evolved from a laissez-faire approach, where almost no tax money went toward education, to the “ rate-bill ” system, under which parents paid according to the number of children they had enrolled in the public schools, to a flat-rate system more closely resembling the one we are familiar with today. Common-school promoters faced a challenge at the other end of society as well: labor reformers also favored the establishment of public schools, though often for different reasons than those advanced by Mann and his followers. They resented the stigma associated with sending their children to “ charity schools ” and looked on public education as a means of reversing the growing inequality perceived by them as the main threat to American society. In many ways the most formidable task faced by educational reformers lay in attempting to reconcile these divergent expectations. These tensions would continue to manifest themselves in different forms throughout the period from 1850 to 1877, but by midcentury the reformers had managed to build a fairly solid consensus among diverse constituencies in favor of public education.

Moral Instruction. The massive transformation of American society during the middle of the nineteenth century swept aside much of the ambivalence toward educational reform. Reflecting developments in western Europe, the cause of public education in the United States found a new resonance precisely at the time that industrialization began to alter the face of society. By 1850 the revolutionary-era republic of small farmers and independent artisans was increasingly giving way (in the Northeast, at least) to an unprecedented concentration of wealth and the rise of a large class of factory operatives and other wageworkers. Although most Americans continued to live in rural areas, in 1850 nearly one of five people lived in cities. By 1880 that proportion would double to 40 percent. From only six cities of one hundred thousand or more in 1850, there would be nineteen in 1880, including one (New York) with over a million inhabitants. In the wake of rapid industrialization came growing social stratification, with large numbers in the factory towns and cities seemingly locked into a cycle of poverty and resorting increasingly to strikes and other means to press their grievances. Equally alarming for many established New Englanders was the dilution of the citizen population with immigrant stock. Famine in Ireland and social upheavals in central Europe brought hundreds of thousands of newcomers to America by 1849 Horace Mann reported that more than half of Boston ’ s 10,162 public-school students were the children of immigrants. City administrators complained that the influx was “ countervailing the Puritan leaven of our people, and reducing the scale of public morality and public intelligence. ” With fears of cultural disintegration and social upheaval never far from their minds, many who had been unconvinced of the merits of public education before 1850 now supported the reform project and its prescription of “ moral instruction ” as an antidote for the restlessness taking hold of the lower classes and as a bulwark of national identity in the face of large-scale immigration.

Centralization. The transformation of public education from a diverse and uncoordinated mixture of local experiments into a coherent system required organization. From 1850 onward, reformers spent much of their time developing ideas that would bring some uniformity to the emerging national system. At the local level, this involved the introduction of an administrative structure inside the schools that challenged the tradition of direct community control of education. Previously, individual teachers had exercised a great degree of control over the content of their courses, and conditions varied greatly from one schoolroom to the next in the 1850s a uniform course of study was introduced, along with new officials — school principals and city, county, and state superintendents — to oversee instruction. The growing importance of the school principal during this period indicated the bureaucratic trend. Cincinnati school board members noted in their report for 1858 that although principals “ till the last two years ” were “ only teachers of the highest classes of their respective schools, ” their new supervisory responsibilities made it necessary to assign them “ small recitation rooms … where they keep records, examine classes, and transact the general business of the school. ” In the Northeast the principals ’ new role was reflected in architecture: one of the notable innovations in school construction after 1850 was the principal ’ s office itself. Overseeing the principals was another layer of city and county district officials, who themselves answered to state superintendents. Establishing an office of state superintendent of schools in 1854, New York reported that overburdened town and city superintendents had made over twenty-two thousand visits to the state ’ s schools in the previous year. By the early 1860s, the trend had begun to take hold even in the Far West, with California appointing its own state superintendent in 1862. Centralization reached its zenith in 1867, when prominent educational reformer Henry Barnard was appointed the first U.S. Commissioner of Education.

Professionalization. Along with their attempt to bring organizational coherence to public education, reformers embarked on an ambitious program of teacher training. One of the most pressing problems faced by school districts across the country was the high turnover and subsequent lack of experience among teachers. Pennsylvania authorities found in 1856 that of some six thousand teachers in the state, nearly two-thirds had been teaching for under three years other states reported similar figures. The employment of more women, a trend accelerated by the drain of young men during the Civil War, meant that teachers frequently joined the workforce for only a few short years before marriage. Nearly 80 percent of teachers in southeastern Michigan in 1860 were between seventeen and twenty-four years of age, and in one Wisconsin county more than one-quarter of teachers were under eighteen. Low wages partially explained this instability: rural teachers earned less than common laborers throughout this period, and urban teachers could expect only slightly better conditions. In any case reformers were determined to train a corps of educators, and several initiatives begun during this period left a permanent imprint on the American teaching profession. One of the major functions of early superintendents was to introduce a uniform course of study in school systems under their direction. City Superintendent William H. Wells ’ s Graded Course of Instruction for the Public Schools of Chicago, published in 1862, was adopted as a teachers ’ manual by many cities and set an example that would be emulated for years afterward.

Normal Schools. The rise of normal schools represented another significant development. The first state-supported teachers ’ training school had been opened in Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1839, but by midcentury only a half-dozen other states had followed suit. As late as 1860 there were only twelve state normal schools in the country, but Edward Sheldon ’ s pioneering efforts in opening the Oswego Normal School in New York a year later proved to be a turning point in establishing the normal schools as a permanent fixture in American education. Within twenty-five years of the school ’ s founding, Oswego graduates had taught in forty-six states of the Union and at least six foreign countries. The Oswego school became the model, and most states and many cities began establishing their own normal schools. By 1871 U.S. Commissioner of Education Henry Barnard reported that fifty-one publicly funded normal schools existed in twenty-three states, training over six thousand future teachers annually.

Attendance and Access. One telling illustration of the trend toward greater uniformity and organization in education was the change in official policy on school attendance. Not surprisingly, few children outside of the major New England towns attended school with any kind of regularity before midcentury. In many areas, schooling was considered the responsibility — and prerogative — of individual parents. In agricultural areas children ’ s labor often played a critical role in helping families secure a livelihood, and formal schooling was subordinated to the seasonal rhythms of planting and harvesting. In these areas children might attend school as little as three months during the year. The average duration of a child ’ s common-school experience in 1858 was eight years. Even by the end of this period in 1877, high school was still a luxury that many young people and their families could not afford. Extending mandatory school attendance across different regions and intensifying the academic experience of those enrolled in public schools became obvious priorities for reformers determined to create a uniform system of education. Beginning in the Northeast in 1852, a series of laws were passed that made attendance compulsory for school-age children. Massachusetts, characteristically taking the lead in this movement, required children between eight and fourteen to attend school at least twelve weeks per year, with at least six of them continuous. Many school systems set up special “ truant schools ” to compel attendance, and by 1860 some one hundred “ reform schools ” existed across the United States for those considered especially troublesome. Interestingly, however, these measures did not necessarily translate into a higher proportion of children attending ordinary public schools. While the length of the school year was extended from 150 days to 192, the percentage of children in school actually declined in Massachusetts between 1840 and 1880. In part, this was due to the uneven enforcement of existing laws and the large influx of immigrants who did not register their children. But the most difficult obstacle to universal attendance seems to have been the increasing trend toward child labor in industry. Children made up over half of the workforce at the Rhode Island ’ s Hope Factory, one observer noted in 1853, working fifteen or sixteen hours a day. Important as they were in laying a foundation for public education, the accomplishments of educational reformers during this period would have to await more fundamental changes in public attitudes toward child labor before they could guarantee equal access to education.

African Americans. While educational reformers worked to extend the influence of public schooling, the fruits of their efforts seem to have eluded at least one important segment of the population: African Americans. The southern states, ever conscious of the threat of insurrection, had barred even rudimentary education for slaves and increasingly, from the 1830s onward, passed further restrictions preventing even freed blacks from attending school. Outside the South, conditions were somewhat better, though far from ideal. While in most northern and western states blacks had won the right to attend public schools by midcentury, almost every school they attended was segregated and inferior to those available to white children. African American delegates to an 1847 convention in Troy, New York, complained that the instruction of black youth was “ shamefully limited ” throughout the North. Three years later, a convention of fugitive slaves gathering in Albany urged black northerners not to send their children to any school “ which the malignant and murderous prejudice of white people has gotten up exclusively for colored people. ” Education was “ too costly, ” they declared, “ if it is acquired at the expense of such self-degradation. ” In one school system after another, blacks petitioned for integrated and equal facilities for their children. The turning point in the fight against school segregation came in 1855 in Boston. Blacks elsewhere in New England had won the right to send their children to integrated schools, but in Boston school officials resisted such efforts until Benjamin Roberts, the father of a young black girl who had been rejected from four different primary schools, filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination. Roberts was supported in his efforts by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and the prominent abolitionist Charles Sumner, who argued the girl ’ s case before the court. The end of legal segregation in Boston cleared the way for similar victories elsewhere across the country.

Higher Education. Though they served a far smaller proportion of the public than elementary schools, the nation ’ s colleges and universities were also affected by the powerful forces transforming American society at midcentury. During the colonial period and well into the first half of the nineteenth century, colleges understood their primary mission to be the preparation of young men for careers as ministers or public leaders. These priorities were reflected in the curriculum, where a strong emphasis on classical learning and the study of Greek and Latin was evident, and in the very sponsorship of these institutions: of 1812 colleges still surviving today that were extant at the outbreak of the Civil War, 104 of them were affiliated with various religious denominations. The demand for technological and scientific knowledge, complemented by a popular backlash against the “ aristocratic ” pretensions of higher education, led many in and out of the academy to press for reform. College trustees feared that unless their institutions adapted to changes in society, increasing numbers of prospective students would opt for careers in business and industry, forgoing higher education completely. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute had been founded in 1824, offering degrees in engineering and the natural sciences, and its success was emulated with the appearance of Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (1854), Cooper Union in New York City (1859), and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1865). Even traditional institutions such as Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth, which had earlier resisted the calls for reform, had by 1860 installed programs in the applied sciences. “ Practical ” education won its permanence in national life, however, with passage of the Morrill Land Grant Act in 1862, which laid aside federal lands for the support of state-run schools “ where the leading object shall be … to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts. ” The democratization of higher education was evident in at least one other area: women ’ s increasing access to college training. The female seminaries and teacher-training institutes had somewhat cautiously opened the door to higher education for women, and Oberlin College ’ s inauguration of a coeducational policy in 1838 marked an important advance, but it was not until the 1850s that coeducation gathered momentum. Genesee College (later Syracuse University) was founded as a coeducational institution in 1850, followed by Antioch in 1853 and the University of Iowa seven years later. In 1859 Elmira College in New York became the first women ’ s college to award a baccalaureate degree to women. Although college education remained out of reach for the vast majority of Americans during this period, the practical needs of a rapidly industrializing society and the spirit of reform had decisively altered the mission of higher education and laid the foundations for broader access in the future.

A System of Public Education. “ By 1870, ” a chronicler of the common-schools movement observed, “ the pendulum had swung from no system to nothing but system. ” Another observer, this one a European visitor, was similarly struck by the “ system of free schools ” he found in America. “ In place of a few casual schools dotted about town and country, ” a historian of American education has remarked more recently, there arose in the second half of the nineteenth century “ true education systems. ” Rather than the laissez-faire approach which had been established in the early years of the American republic, new circumstances between 1850 and 1877 seemed to demand that the state play a more direct role in overseeing the education of its young. Reformers saw a need to maintain social equilibrium in the face of growing inequalities of wealth and to preserve a common sense of America ’ s national identity during a period of massive foreign immigration.


During the last two centuries education in Ireland has proved a very contentious issue. The question of educational provision has brought the church and state into conflict on numerous occasions and at times even had the power to threaten the stability of the Northern Irish government. From the creation of the national education system in 1831 to the development of two separate systems after 1921, it is an issue which has had an impact at almost every level of Irish society.

Education in Ireland

In 1831 a new education system was adopted in Ireland, its aim was to provide non-denominational education for all Irish children. It was believed that if children from all denominations learned together then they could live in peace as adults.[1] The National Education Board consisted of seven commissioners of education. The commissioners were unpaid dignitaries, three Anglican, two Presbyterian and two Roman Catholic. The rules that they set had to be followed in all national schools and were to be enforced by school inspectors.[2] Whilst all children were to be taught secular subjects together, religious instruction was separate and outside of school hours. This proved to be a very controversial proposal and the commissioners were ultimately forced to back down and allow schools to become denominational. The opposition which non-denominational schooling faced was largely based on the idea that education is an extension of pastoral care and as such cannot be separated from religion. All the major churches saw it as their prerogative and were alarmed by the intrusion of the state into their sphere of influence.[3] In Ulster in particular Presbyterians were strongly opposed the new system, causing the Synod of Ulster to pass a resolution rejecting it in the 1830s. This was in addition to the campaign launched in Presbyterian areas of Co. Antrim and Co. Down in which schools were burned and teachers intimidated.[4] It was the reaction of Presbyterians and the other two main churches which forced the National Board to allow schools the power to exclude clergy from other denominations.[5] If the Board had refused, the churches may have stopped their schools becoming national schools and in doing so caused the whole system to collapse.

Local control of education by clerics is a notable feature of the system and one which persisted well into the twentieth century. As Donald Akenson points out the system was shaped by the religious, social and political realities of the nineteenth century.[6] This was particularly the case in Ulster as populations were more mixed along religious lines than in other areas of the country. Education proved to be a volatile area of &lsquointense cultural politics&rsquo.[7]

In 1868 the Powis Commission was established to inquire into the state of the National Education System. One of its recommendations was to introduce a payment by results scheme for all national teachers. The basic premise was that a proportion of a teacher&rsquos salary would depend on the marks pupils obtained in exams set by inspectors. This system differed from that in place in England since 1862 because Irish teachers&rsquo salaries were not solely dependent on the grades of their pupils.[8] The &lsquoresults fees&rsquo system was adopted in 1872 and meant that teachers earned money for each pupil that had attended one hundred times and reached a prescribed standard in core and optional subjects.[9] This method of payment meant that teachers were accountable for the progress of the children under their tutelage.[10] Unfortunately, the system was flawed and was ultimately detrimental to Irish education. Payment by results ensured that teachers followed a very narrow curriculum consisting of the &lsquothree R&rsquos&rsquo (reading, writing and arithmetic), geography and needlework for girls or agriculture for boys. This established a dull routine and turned the school inspector into an adversary to be outsmarted.[11]

The Powis Commission also reinforced the sexual division of labour within schools as it recommended that female teachers should be used for &lsquofemale work&rsquo only.[12] This is typical of attitudes towards female education in the nineteenth century. The curriculum for girls differed in that it focused on domestic concerns such as needlework with only a rudimentary knowledge of subjects such as arithmetic.[13]

Teacher training

With the introduction of the National Education System in 1831, a new method of teacher training was also developed. In 1845 the monitorial system of teacher training was put into practice.[14] This meant that promising pupils at the age of eighteen were given the opportunity to become monitors. These older students worked in national schools and simultaneously took extra lessons so that at the end of three years they could sit the King&rsquos or Queen&rsquos scholarship exam. If they were successful this would allow them to progress to a training college.[15] However the training college was not a compulsory element of a teacher education.

Model schools were specifically designed to train monitors the larger ones also had boarding facilities and were divided into male, female and infant. The central model school was set up in Dublin in 1835.[16]

There were seven teacher training colleges in Ireland by 1900. Until 1883 the National Board refused to recognise any training college except Marlborough Street which was established in 1837 with a college for women opening 1844.[17] Marlborough Street was predominantly Presbyterian as the other major denominations favoured their own colleges. The Church of Ireland had Kildare Place it was originally opened in 1811 and became the Church Education Society College in the 1850s. By 1878 it had been taken over by the General Synod of the Church of Ireland.[18] Catholic women could attend Our Lady of Mercy College, Baggot Street, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick or St Mary&rsquos Training College, Belfast. Catholic men had a choice of St Patrick&rsquos T.C., Drumcondra or De La Salle T.C., Waterford.[19] It was not until 1922 that a second training college was opened in the North under the newly established Ministry of Education. Stranmillis Teacher Training College was almost exclusively Protestant as the Catholic Church would not recognise Catholic teachers who trained there.

Education 1900-1920

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the national education system was coming under considerable criticism for the narrow curriculum and the non-practical nature of the subject matter. The Belmore Commission (1897) was set up to assess practical and manual instruction in Ireland. It concluded that the current curriculum was out of date and recommended that more attention needed to be paid to useful practical skills and kindergarten.[20] This was partly due to the payment by results scheme but the large numbers of small schools did not help the situation. These schools were inadequately funded often with very few pupils. In 1904, 60% of all national schools were single teacher with an average daily attendance of less than fifty. Teachers were often responsible for teaching multiple age groups at once, making it very difficult to broaden the curriculum.[21] There were also influences coming from outside Ireland with regard to what was good educational practice. &lsquoPractical educationalists&rsquo and &lsquochild-centred educationalists&rsquo were challenging approaches to elementary schooling.[22]

One of the key changes to Irish education in this period was the abandonment of the payment by results scheme. It was replaced with a salary scheme based on numbered grades which ranged from three to one with one being the highest. This also meant that teachers were less results driven and could expand the curriculum. The newly appointed Resident Commissioner for education, Dr William Starkie revised the programme for national schools which would now include drawing, elementary science, physical education and manual instruction alongside the traditional subjects.[23] This development was accompanied by a change of emphasis, there was now a more child-centred approach with particular interest in how early (kindergarten) education was carried out.[24] Teachers were encouraged to adapt the National Board&rsquos programme to the facilities they had available.[25] This was significantly different from the rigid, formal style of the nineteenth century.

Education in Northern Ireland

The system which the Ministry of Education inherited in 1921 was largely denominational with the majority of schools under clerical control. There were 2,042 national schools, 75 intermediate schools (mostly grammar) and 12 model schools in 1921. As the commissioners of education had been based in Dublin there was no educational administrative structure. This meant a new department had to be built from the ground up.[26] The education minister, Lord Londonderry wanted to create a non-denominational system with local education committees controlling schools rather than managers. He instructed Robert Lynn to set up a committee and put forward proposals for a new education system. Under section five of the Government of Ireland Act the state could not endow any religious body and as such the new system had to be non-denominational.[27] The result of the Lynn Committee was the 1923 Education Act which passed into law on 2June 1923. It created a county and regional system which could levy rates and administer schools which were fully controlled by the Ministry of Education.[28] National schools became primary or public elementary schools and were split into three categories depending on how they were funded. Class I schools were either newly built or had transferred to the control of the Ministry. They were termed &lsquoprovided&rsquo and &lsquotransferred&rsquo schools and received full funding. Class II schools were known as &lsquofour and two&rsquo as they were managed by a committee of four representatives of the old manager and two from the local education authority. They received partial funding. The final class was for independent schools which refused to allow the ministry any control. As a result they only received funding for lighting and heating. Classes II and III were known as voluntary schools.[29] The 1923 act also banned religious instruction during school hours and prohibited the religious affiliation of a teacher being taken into account when they were being considered for a post.[30] It was these arrangements in particular that provoked a strong reaction from the Protestant churches which in turn led to the amendment acts of 1925 and 1930.

The Catholic hierarchy was suspicious of the new education system. Cardinal Logue felt that the Lynn Committee was a pretext for an attack on the Catholic school system. This added to the general feeling of hostility towards the Northern Irish State. The main concern of the hierarchy was to retain complete control of their schools so that a Catholic ethos could be maintained.[31] The Protestant churches were equally troubled by the idea of non-denominational institutions as they considered the function of schooling to be both moral and educational. This attitude is unsurprising given the response of the churches to non-denominational education in the nineteenth century. The same suspicions and anxieties which prevented joint education in 1831 once again made themselves known in 1923.

In 1924 the main Protestant churches formed the United Education Committee to protest the secular nature of the education provided by the 1923 act. They put considerable pressure on the government and as the stability of the country was tied to the support of grass roots unionism an amendment was passed in 1925.[32] This meant that the ban on religious education was lifted and religious tests for teachers were permitted. In practice this destroyed all attempts at a non-denominational system as publically funded schools became Protestant whilst a separate Catholic school system developed simultaneously.[33] After further debate over the next five years a second amendment was granted in 1930. It permitted clerical representation on both regional education committees and management boards of transferred schools.[34]

The next major piece of education legislation came in 1947 and was modelled on the English Butler Act 1944. It introduced universal secondary education for all children up to the age of fifteen in Northern Ireland. The act also created a new secondary school system which pupils would transfer into at the age of eleven. Northern Irish children could go to an intermediate secondary school, which was free and non-academic, or a technical intermediate school which they entered at the age of thirteen. Alternatively schools were available for those who were able to pass the eleven plus exam and thus receive government funding to go to a fee paying grammar school.[35]

Education in Northern Ireland has seen many changes since the first National schools were opened in 1831. Political and social developments have had a significant impact on how schools were run. This coupled with changes to teacher training and the completely new system introduced in 1921 meant that educational provision was constantly under pressure from external forces. Despite its challenges the Northern Irish education system survived the early years of the new state with certain aspects still apparent in the modern school system.

[1] M. Cohen, &lsquo&ldquoDrifting with denominationalism&rdquo: a situated examination of Irish national schools in nineteenth century Tullylish, Co. Down&rsquo in History of Education Quarterly, XL no. 1 (2000), p. 52.

[2] Cohen, &lsquoDrifting with denominationalism&rsquo, p. 52.

[3] J. Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure (Dublin, 1981), p.5.

[4] J. Magee, &lsquoFrom national schools to national curriculum: popular education in Ulster from 1831 to the 1990s&rsquo in E. Phoenix (ed.), A century of northern life: the Irish News and 100 years of Ulster history 1890s-1990s (Belfast, 1995), p. 100.

[5] N. C. Fleming, &lsquoThe first government of Northern Ireland, education reform and failure of anti-populist Unionism, 1921-1925&rsquo in Twentieth Century British History, xviii, no. 2 (2007), p. 157.

[6] D. H. Akenson, The Irish education experiment: the national system of education in the nineteenth century (London, 1970), p. 376.

[7] Cohen, &lsquoDrifting with denominationalism&rsquo, p.50.

[8] Akenson, The Irish education experiment, p. 316.

[9] Magee, &lsquoFrom national schools to national curriculum&rsquo, p. 106.

[10] Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure, p. 7.

[11] Magee, &lsquoFrom national schools to national curriculum&rsquo p. 106.

[12] R. Cullen Owens, A social history of women in Ireland (Dublin, 2005), p. 26.

[14] Magee, &lsquoFrom national schools to national curriculum&rsquo p. 102.

[15] G. Beale, and E. Phoenix, Stran: Stranmillis College 1922-1998: an illustrated history (Belfast, 1998), p. 3.

[16] R. Wylie, Ulster model schools (Belfast, 1997), p. ix.

[17] Magee, &lsquoFrom national schools to national curriculum&rsquo, p. 102.

[18] S. Parkes, Kildare place: the history of the Church of Ireland Training College 1811-1969 (Dublin, 1984), p. 13

[19] Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure, p. 33.

[20] Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure, p. 34.

[21] D. Akenson, Education and enmity: the control of schooling in Northern Ireland 1921-50 (Newton Abbot, 1973), p. 12.

[22] Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure, p. 33.

[23] Magee, &lsquoFrom national schools to national curriculum&rsquo, p. 107.

[24] Coolahan, Irish education: its history and structure, p. 33.

[26] P. Daly and K. Simpson, &lsquoPolitics and education in Northern Ireland an analytical history&rsquo in Irish Studies Review, xii, no. 2 (2004), p. 168.

[27] N. C. Fleming, &lsquoLord Londonderry and educational reform in 1920&rsquos Northern Ireland&rsquo in History Ireland, ix, no. 1 (2001), p.37.

[28] S. Farren, &lsquoUnionist-Protestant reaction to educational reform in Northern Ireland, 1923-1930&rsquo in History of Education, xiv, no. 2 (1985), p. 227.

[29] Akenson, Education and enmity, pp 61-62.

[30] D. Akenson, J. Coolahan and S. Farren, &lsquoPre-university education, 1921-84&rsquo in J. R. Hill (ed.), A new history of Ireland, vol. 7: 1921-84 (Oxford, 2003), p. 713.

[31] S. Farren, &lsquoNationalist-Catholic reaction to educational reform in Northern Ireland, 1920-1930&rsquo in History of Education, xv, no. 1 (1986), pp 19-21.

[32] N. C. Fleming, &lsquoThe first government of Northern Ireland, education reform and failure of anti-populist Unionism&rsquo, pp 162-163.

[33] S. Farren, &lsquoA lost opportunity: education and community in Northern Ireland 1947-60&rsquo in History of Education, xxi, no. 1 (1992), p. 72.

[34] Daly and Simpson, &lsquoPolitics and education in Northern Ireland an analytical history&rsquo, p. 169.

Improvements in children's health

From Germany, the idea of the 'open-air school' came to England. Sick or disabled children studied in outdoor classrooms. Their diet was improved. Even in winter, wrapped in blankets, they took their afternoon naps outside.

The first of these schools was opened in 1907 by London County Council at Bostall Woods, Woolwich. By 1939 there were 150 open-air schools, providing places for almost 20,000 children and here, away from unhealthy, crowded home environments, their health began to improve.

The 1902 Education Act

Kevin Manton regrets the political decision to remove direct democratic control over education a hundred years ago.

By now the annual autumnal scramble to get children into desirable secondary schools is, one hopes, over for most families. The cause of this headache is that despite the increasingly unitary and centralised control over the school curriculum, management and control of schools is fragmented, giving us a variety of school types with differing levels of social prestige. The roots of this plurality lie in an education act that has its centenary this winter.

The 1902 Education Act was a deeply reactionary piece of legislation that consciously set out to dismantle the popular schooling system developed by the school boards that had been created by the 1870 education act. The purpose of this dismemberment was to buttress the control of education by religious groups and by the grammar schools which were withering under pressure from school board initiatives.

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