Origins of State Education

Origins of State Education

The basis of the English state education was designed during the 19th century. By considering some of the attitudes and beliefs that informed the system it may enable us to understand what schools were intended to achieve.

Origins of State Education

I am not attempting an all-embracing chronological history here, but the identification of major themes. These themes link past developments to present realities and practice. To do this, it seems reasonable to focus on individuals who were in a position to effectively determine what educational provision should be made for the mass of the people.

Certain convictions held by prominent individuals in the last century have today become enshrined as normal practice. Schooling above all else is about provision for the future, as such a study of educational ideas and provision serves as an excellent indicator of people's attitudes towards the society of which they are a part.

'Educational policy is always social policy? Few things reveal more clearly men's convictions, as distinct from their professions, about the meaning of life than the provision which they make to prepare the rising generation for it.' (R. H. Tawney).

There were two distinct attitudes taken by ruling upper class interests. The first, that of the Tory Party, was that any sort of education for the working class was dangerous. The second approach, that of the Whig (Liberals), was that since the workers if not provided with education would educate themselves, it was better to provide education as then the content could be controlled. This second approach was an attempt to win hearts and minds and reconcile the working class to the existing status quo.

For the Tories education opened doors that should be kept firmly shut. The Whigs realised that the spread of education could not be stopped, but that it could be used as a counter-revolutionary enterprise. Educational provision could be tailored to requirements. One of the chief requirements being that education was used to differentiate. There was the clear idea that different classes of people required different types of education.

Origins of State Education

What was important for poor boys was:

'... their education consists in inculcating habits of industry, frugality, veracity, docility, and mutual kindness.'

The rich boys, on the other hand:

'... they have evidently more to learn...it is for them to understand the true tenure of power, and especially of hereditary power, legitimate because of its public utility.' (De Fallenburg).

Clearly attempts were made to teach workers where their true interests lay. This was the Whig approach: explain to workers why things are fine as they are. Radicals, however, sought to educate workers into the new social order based on an appreciation and acceptance of the logic of capitalism.

In pursuit of their aims the Whigs used religion:

'Religious education... is the spring of public tranquillity... it... communicates the elements of a cheerful and uniform subjection to all lawful authority.'

The Radical approach was based on a 'correct' understanding of political economy, an approach that hoped to reconcile the working class to the workings of capital. So when it came to an explanation of industry, skill, the economy, taxation or trade unions:

'Great care has to be taken to impart such knowledge of these as will satisfactorily account for the obvious unequal distribution of wealth.'

The theme of working class cultural deficit emerges from the way that the middle class used their standards as regards what was normal childish behaviour and applied it to all classes. There was a lack of any recreational facilities, and living in chronic poverty, as a consequence, working class children were seen as:

'Filthy and very ragged... rude and unmannerly in the extreme, being under no sort of control.'
Origins of State Education

In addition to their lack of middle class culture, there was the problem of numbers, there were far too many children for the voluntary societies to cope with on their own. New types of schools started to be built. The first of these were the Sunday schools which started in Gloucester in 1780. These schools were seen to constitute a danger to the status quo in that they were provided by the working class.

The other type of school to arrive were the monitorial schools. The British and Foreign School Society was established in 1808. The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in 1811. It was these two religious bodies that were to dominate education until 1870. They were both openly the instrument of the middle class.

The middle class certainly did not consider that all children should receive the same education, but that a particular type of education be aimed at the working class. Thus J. S. Mill could pose the question:

'What is the sort of education required for the different classes of society and what should be the difference in the training provided for each?'

The Newcastle Commission in 1861 considered that there should be a move away from religious education towards a secular understanding of certain features of society:

'... the knowledge most important to a labouring man is that of the causes which regulate the amount of his wages, the hours of his work, the regularity of his employment, and the prices of what he consumes.'

A sound education also had the benefit of diffusing any potential unrest. A part of this approach was to use 'drill' to inculcate order and respect:

'The habit of obedience to authority, of immediate obedience to commands, may tend to teach the working classes a lesson which many so sadly need... that immediate obedience and submission to authority, deference to others, courtesy to equals, respect to superiors-these are the real marks of a many self respect and independence, and not the vulgar and pernicious doctrine that one man is as good as another.'

There seems little doubt that the intentions of those who sought to educate the working class was to provide an education tailored to their requirements of that class for obedience and respect. The intent to control is quite open. In order for this control to be effective, however, children needed to attend school regularly, and they did not. The working class lack of inclination to attend school was what made compulsory schooling necessary.

The most extensive estimate of national trends was that based on the 1851 census report on education. The estimated average length of a child's school life was about 4 years. There was probably little change in this situation prior to 1870 and the gradual introduction of compulsion with regard to schooling.

The working class had an instrumental attitude to schooling. They took what they wanted from schooling and then withdrew their children, or used the school as a safe place to store their children when there was no work for them.

Not all the working class were united on the usefulness of school. Much of the battle for schooling had to be fought out over the reduction of the working day, and the Factory Acts. Without the reduction in child labour, schools could have been built, but they would never have been filled. What becomes apparent is that educational provision was dependent on the economy.

What were the reasons behind the 1870 Act? By 1870 illiteracy had ceased to be a major problem. So was it social control? The promoters of the 1870 bill wanted to install certain attitudes and this could not be done if the objects of their attentions could exercise choice and leave school.

Statist educational provision had its origin in the desire of one class to control the attitudes and beliefs of another class. There were a number of schooling practices that developed during the 19th century that have become incorporated in everyday thinking about education, their original class basis being ignored. Among these developments are the following:

  • A deficit model of certain classes-cultural deprivation.
  • A differentiated curriculum-different schools for different abilities.
  • The stratification of knowledge.
  • The necessity for moral education.
  • The neutrality of education.
  • The rise of individualistic competition.

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