Schooldays….the best days of your life?
Why and when was school invented?
Throughout the 1800’s there was a push towards literacy and education for everyone, leading to the Elementary Education Act of 1870. Times were changing, with industrialisation and scientific innovation leading the way. People were leaving the old, rural lifestyle behind them, flocking to the cities in droves, in search of better lives. This upheaval also meant that people needed more education or training in order to find better paid jobs.
Prior to the 1870’s, education had always been at best, patchy and certainly not widely available to all and sundry. There were some independent voluntary schools, usually managed by the Church or a charity, with the emphasis on religious education. The first of these was set up in 597 and known as the King’s School, Canterbury, and still exists today. Part of the impressive modern school campus is shown below.
Public schools – not open to the public
The official educational establishments that existed were known as public schools, as opposed to private tuition, both systems only available to the wealthy. In time these schools would evolve into institutions that were and still are exclusive to the public at large – for example, today, public schools for the very wealthy include Eton, Westminster or Rugby. So confusingly, a public school in England is not for the public at all, in fact it is a highly expensive private school.
Of course, it should be noted that before the mid 1800’s education at school was for boys only. If girls received any type of academic education at all, it would be at home via a nanny or a governess. Today, of course, the vast majority of British boys and girls go to state schools, that is, those funded by the government.
The type of education a child would receive (or not) depended, of course, on their family’s place in society.
In the 1840’s voluntary schools which came to be known as Ragged Schools began to appear in the poorest areas of the country, and provided food, shelter and the rudiments of an education. These were for children at the opposite extreme from the public school students, minors who were extremely poor or destitute and often excluded from Sunday or voluntary schools because of their behaviour and/or appearance.
These schools were maintained by philanthropists, notably Charles Dickens amongst others, and staffed by volunteers, and newspapers spread the word about their existence. Not everyone liked the idea – common opinions were the schools were a waste of time, the children were too stupid or lazy to learn, or they would just learn how to become better criminals. Take your pick.
But there was a genuine feeling in Victorian society that the poor should be helped and the ragged schools established themselves, proving that the not only the well-heeled had a desire for education. In poor inner city ragged schools there could be between 50 to 70 children in a class. It is estimated there were about 350 schools of this type by the time the Elementary Education Act was passed in 1870.
The beginnings of education for all
Even so, many of the working class were unable to read and write. Child labour was also normal, with kids of school age working in factories for a pittance.
With the implementation of the Education Act in 1870 school boards were created and could use ratepayers’ funds to improve or set up schools, universal education finally becoming a government concern. The boards also laid down the priorities of education. By 1876 it became mandatory for all children between 5 and 10 years of age to attend school, considerably lower than the leaving age nowadays.
Yet again there was opposition; some of the upper classes opposed the idea of educating the working classes for fear it would cause a revolution, while a section of the lower classes feared their children would be indoctrinated by propaganda. The Church, who still provided voluntary schooling and Sunday schools, also did not want to lose its influence on young people. Sometimes the parents needed the small amount of money that their children earned at work and therefore prevented them from going to school.
However, it was also clear that an educated workforce would enhance Britain’s competitive status at large. By 1902, school boards were abolished in favour of local education authorities, which were responsible for education within their designated area, and the basis for our modern education system was created.
Let’s look at the mainstream schools during this time.
What was taught?
Lessons were fairly basic and monotonous, with a huge focus on reading, writing and arithmetic. The pupils would copy what the teacher had written on the blackboard and a lot of attention was given to copperplate handwriting and learning by heart. Numeracy was also essential and usually involved the children chanting times tables until they all did it perfectly. There was no creativity and teaching through fun activities and games were an alien concept far off in the future.
However, depending on the school and the teacher, other things were taught. Religion was almost always included and sometimes history and geography. There were object lessons where a picture, model or artefact would be observed by the pupils.
If it was a mixed gender school, sometimes pupils were separated by gender into different classes – the boys might do woodwork or gardening, and the girls cooking or embroidery.
The classroom was generally called the schoolroom. The windows were situated high up to avoid distractions and as a result, it was often airless and stuffy. If there were more than one classroom, they were divided only by a curtain. As you can see in the photo below, the desks were bolted to the floor and the classroom often had tiers so all the children could see the blackboard, and the teacher, in turn, could see them.
The children wrote on slates which were rubbed out and re-used. The older students might have used ink pens that dipped into ink wells to produce their written work.
There were far more female teachers than males – the pay was low and therefore the profession did not attract many men. Schoolmistresses tended to be unmarried females, who gave up the job when they gained a husband.
The better establishments had teachers who had received certification in various subjects. The poorer schools could not afford to be so choosy. These teachers probably learnt their profession from day one at school.
The teachers were generally very strict and expected all the children, even the youngest, to pay attention at all times. Poor work, speaking out of turn, answering back or any misdeeds from the pupils meant they could receive blows from either the teacher or a cane.
There was practically no understanding of slow learners, and pupils who did not keep up with the class could be made to sit or stand on a dunce’s stool wearing a dunce’s hat for up to an hour, Conformity was the name of the game, and the left-handed were forced to use their right hand for writing tasks.
With time, society has gained more knowledge about the learning process and our schools today have moved on in several aspects. New technology and not least, the recent coronavirus pandemic have introduced different ways of teaching – online, or encouraging more self-study for example. Nevertheless, the Victorians were responsible for the foundation of our modern educational system.
Some questions for you:
Do you think schooling helped children in Victorian times?
Do you think our contemporary schools help students to face the working world today ?
Are/Were schooldays the best days of your life?