Educating the nation

It will be observed that many characters in the Memoirs and Clorinda’s Circle more generally had relatively little formal education, and had improved their minds and extended their knowledge by self-education, wide reading, employing specialist tutors in foreign languages, and similar expedients. However other characters did receive some more structured and even elite education. Whether this equipped them any better to face the challenges of a rapidly changing world is moot.

The ancient universities: Oxford and Cambridge were gradually moving on, slowly, from their rather lackadaisical days in the eighteenth century. In 1850 a Royal Commission was appointed: in proposing a motion for this purpose in Parliament, Mr Heywood MP invoked ‘That in the ancient English and Irish Universities, and in the Colleges connected with them, the interests of religious and useful learning have not advanced to an extent commensurate with the great resources and high position of those bodies; that collegiate statutes of the fifteenth century occasionally prohibit the local authorities from introducing any alterations into voluminous codes, of which a large portion are now obsolete…’ and further arguments suggesting that these institutions were not entirely fit for purpose. Reforms took place.

Scottish universities: the ancient universities at St Andrews, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh had become major intellectual centres during the eighteenth century, at the forefront of the Scottish Enlightenment; however by the nineteenth century although they were by not means as ossified as Oxbridge a need for some reform was perceived.

New universities: University College London was founded as a secular alternative (‘the godless institution in Gower Street’) to the strictly Church of England universities of Oxford and Cambridge in 1828, as London University, but strong opposition prevented the granting of a charter until the University of London was established in 1836 and it was legally recognised as University College London; King’s College London was founded as the establishment alternative to UCL in 1829 and granted a charter in that year; Durham University was founded in 1832; Owens College Manchester, 1851.

Colleges for women: Queen’s College, Harley Street, founded by F. D. Maurice under the auspices of the Governesses’ Benevolent Institution in 1848, in conformity with the teachings of the Established Church; and the Ladies’ College in Bedford Square, set up in 1849 to provide a liberal, non-sectarian education for women.

Mechanics Institutes: originally formed to provide adult education, particularly in technical subjects, to working men in Victorian-era Britain and its colonies. While in some instances funded by the beneficiaries themselves they were often funded by local industrialists on the grounds that they would ultimately benefit from having more knowledgeable and skilled employees. Institutes often included libraries, to provide an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking in pubs. Several have now, over the years, evolved into universities: e.g. one of the most famous or notorious, the London Mechanics’ Institute, now Birkbeck College, University of London, founded in a pub, 1823.

Compulsory free universal education was not introduced in the UK until 1880. However various forms of education were available.

British schools: schools run by the British and Foreign School Society for the Education of the Labouring and Manufacturing Classes of Society of Every Religious Persuasion, employing the Lancastrian or Monitorial system devised by Joseph Lancaster, as a means of providing a cheap basic education.

National Schools: schools run very much on the same lines at the British schools, but by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales.

Ragged Schools: charitable schools dedicated to the free education of destitute children.

Dame schools: usually taught by women in their own homes for small remuneration. Might be little more than childcare facilities, or might provide a decent introduction to the 3 Rs.

Grammar schools: a number of these were founded as a result of the English Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries in the Tudor era, and subsequently as an act of civic philanthropy by wealthy merchants, nobles, or guilds. Initially they taught the classical language and scripture, and this was often laid down in their founding statutes, so that it was difficult to modernise the curriculum even when there was a wish to do so. An 1840 Act made it possible to apply endowments to teaching other subjects without obtaining special permissions, and further changes led to their recreation as academically-orientated secondary schools later in the century.

Dissenting academies: intended to provide Protestant students dissenting from the Church of England and therefore excluded from Oxford and Cambridge with a higher education. Their impact on British life extended beyond maintaining an educated dissenting ministry, contributing in numerous ways to national culture, notably in theology, philosophy, literature, and science.

Private schools: there was also a plethora of schools run by individuals or institutions on a profit-making or charitable basis, with life-spans which could be long or very short.

Public schools: Winchester, Eton, Westminster, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby and Shrewsbury. Thomas Arnold as Headmaster from 1828 had instituted a reforming regime at Rugby, but this new approach did not become widespread until after the Clarendon Commission, 1861-4, leading to the Public Schools Act 1868. However, the era of actual rebellion by the pupils had more or less ceased although the general brutality remained. A Critical View of British Public Schools: ‘If Public Schools failed to notice the importance of science and technology and hence had little effect on these fields, they also did little to advance literature and culture.’

With the decline of public schools accepting very young boys (with often traumatic effects) and focusing their efforts on a rather older age-group, preparatory ‘prep’ schools developed for this younger tranche.

Thursday 18th August 2022

L.A. Hall, FRHistS