Old school education

Old school education

Dickens’ unyielding schoolmasters Thomas Gradgrind and Wackford Squeers have left a stain on Victorian school life, but Neil Hallows wipes the slate clean with a history of educational reforms

Neil Hallows, medical journalist

Neil Hallows

medical journalist

A Victorian education is sometimes viewed with nostalgia. It was tough, but at least children knew their reading, writing and ’rithmetic. But did they? And how happily or painfully did they acquire those three cherished Rs?

Before the Victorian era, most of them did not. A report in 1816 found that a quarter of English parishes had an ‘endowed’ school – where a building or fund had been established for educational use. A quarter had nothing, and half of parishes had some kind of private arrangement.

‘Private’ did not generally mean blazers and boaters. It included the ‘dame’ schools – often single, crowded rooms presided over by an illiterate childminder. One report tells of a dame who never looked up from her mangle, another of 27 children sharing three writing slates (and no books).

Very few schools were free, with funding coming from the pupils’ parents, charitable giving, and novel methods such as the ‘charity sermon’, a rousing annual appeal from the pulpit that could raise enough for a teacher’s annual salary.

For many children, the only education available was in Sunday school. More than a million attended in the 1830s, where they learned religious passages off by heart and were sometimes taught how to read them.

The churches were also a major force behind the movement to set up a school in every parish. Two rival, religiously-based organisations, were formed in the early 19th century and from the 1830s were given government grants to build schools (see timeline below). Some funding was also provided to subsidise the education they provided, although parents were also charged fees averaging threepence per week.

This led to a massive increase in building, but not necessarily in quality. In 1861, a royal commission found only a quarter of children received a good elementary education, with others lacking a “thorough grounding in the simplest but most essential parts of instruction”.

The government wanted value for money and, not for the last time, set national standards for schools which caused stress for both teachers and pupils.

A governess being interviewed
A governess being interviewed, from an illustration for The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, a Sherlock Holmes story. In the story we learn the governess expects a salary of around £4 a month

Under the Revised Code of 1862, pupils were subjected to an annual inspection, where their proficiency in the three Rs, plus religion, and needlework for girls, had a direct bearing on the funding their school received.

In Warwickshire, the arrival of a school inspector made “the boys howl and the girls whimper”, while in Suffolk a teacher collapsed during an inspection because she thought her children were failing. Some school grants – which made up the bulk of teachers’ salaries – fell by three quarters as a result of a bad inspection.

The Revised Code was not entirely responsible for the way Victorians taught children. Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times, published eight years before the code, satirised Thomas Gradgrind’s obsession with pouring “imperial gallons of facts” into his pupils. But the Code served to narrow curricula, and promote endless repetition, for fear of failing the dreaded inspection.

Although at this time schools charged parents a fee, and attendance was not compulsory, the vast majority of our ancestors did have some kind of schooling. By the 1850s, perhaps 90 per cent of children attended, although the average length of attendance was only two years. And it was patchy at best. A teacher’s log book from Kent in 1865 complains: “Cannot get the children together. Hopping [picking hops], nursing [younger siblings], wood cutting, whooping cough, grandmother dead, etc.”

Corporal punishment was common in schools, although considered unremarkable even by those who received it. The pressure faced by schools in meeting government targets, maintaining discipline among a large number of children of different ages and enforcing attendance probably fuelled its use, but mostly it was just a social norm, one Victorian way of bridging the gulf between normal, healthy children and the robotically obedient ideal to which the authorities aspired.

Gradually, the government also became involved in making education compulsory. In 1870, the newly formed local school boards were given the power to make children attend school until 13, although few did. But in 1880, attendance was made compulsory up to age 10, and the leaving age was increased to 11 and then 12 by 1899. School places for teenagers were rare until the early 20th century.

Compulsory attendance was not always popular: it meant the loss of a wage earner. Although legislation prevented very young children from working in factories or mills, children worked in agricultural areas from virtually the time they could walk. School fees, although only a few pennies a week, could be crippling, especially during the years between education being compulsory and it becoming largely free in 1891. Then, as now, parents worried about sending their children to school decently clothed.

With only a small minority of children continuing their education beyond 12 or 13, there were far fewer of what we would now call secondary schools. There were the ancient grammar schools, although many were as expensive and exclusive as the ancient public schools. However, towards the end of the 19th century there was a building programme of ‘higher grade’ schools, and by 1915 a minimum of a quarter of all places in local authority grammar schools were free.

School dinners, despite their eternal reputation, could be as important to the children as the education they received. From the 1860s, Lord Shaftesbury’s Destitute Children’s Dinner Society gave free food to very deprived London schools. An experiment in Bradford in 1907 gave children not just nutritious food, but cloths and flowers on the table. The children in the programme were weighed – they put on weight during term, and then it came crashing down again during the holidays when they relied on food from home.

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Nicholas Nickleby
Mr and Mrs Squeers in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby are the archetypal cruel, disciplinarian schoolteachers

The rich, meanwhile, could find themselves hungrier. A mid 19th century report of Eton said a joint of meat would arrive in the dining hall and be consumed in strict order of seniority, so the younger boys frequently were left with nothing. In 1834, the Quarterly Journal of Education said: “The inmates of a workhouse or gaol are better fed and lodged than the scholars of Eton.”

The education in Eton and other major public schools was overwhelmingly focused on Greek and Latin, ignoring such upstart subjects as Maths and English. The curriculum was gradually broadened to meet the demands of the new examinations required to enter the Civil Service and Army, and under ‘reformist’ headmasters such as Thomas Arnold at Rugby.

Thomas Arnold
Reforming headmaster Thomas Arnold, who introduced history, maths and modern languages at Rugby School

The real-life Arnold appears in the fictional Tom Brown’s School Days, one of the best known accounts of Victorian school life. He is portrayed as a man of saintly wisdom, who instilled a sense of Christian authority in his boys, yet both he and the author Thomas Hughes seem to accept a high degree of brutality in schools that were largely pupil-run.

Two pages after the famous scene where Tom Brown is held in front of a fire by the school bully until he passes out, the author writes: “I trust and believe that such scenes are [now] not possible at school.” But he is writing about a betting syndicate, and not the scene of torture. That was instead resolved, to the author’s obvious approval, by a little organised violence on the part of the victims.

At least the pupils of Rugby and Eton could emerge from their school years to a life of privilege. For the vast majority of Victorian pupils, the memory of school may have been brutal, but at 11 or 12, worse could be waiting for them in the factory or mine. Perhaps they really were the best years of their lives.


Robert Raikes began the Sunday school movement in Gloucester
The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church was formed, creating hundreds of C of E schools which still stand today. A rival society had formed three years earlier, becoming the British and Foreign School Society in 1814. It represented a wider range of religions
The first of five parliamentary acts in 11 years to provide grants for land and school buildings
Lord Shaftesbury founded the Ragged Schools Union, to cater for the poorest children who would otherwise be excluded
The average length of school attendance was found to be only two years – although double what it had been a generation earlier
The government-commissioned Newcastle Report argued that no more than a quarter of children received a good education, with many attending ‘dame schools’ – no qualified teacher and often filthy conditions
The Revised Code linked school funding to pupils reaching set standards in the three Rs, causing many schools to narrow their curricula to the areas on which they would be inspected
School boards created, which had the powers to create compulsory attendance – but only a minority did – and offer financial assistance with fees
School attendance was made compulsory up to 10 – 12 in some cases
School attendance was made compulsory up to 10 – 12 in some cases
School leaving age raised to 11
A survey of seven English counties found that only 4 per cent of boys and girls aged 14 and 15 were still at school and only 1 per cent of 16-year-olds
School leaving age raised to 12
Education Act created local education authorities, which are still in operation, giving solid financing to schools and a rapid growth of secondary schools

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