The events that lead directly to the birth of the modern system of education in England are to be sought mainly in the second half of the 19th-century.
There were certain individuals at the beginning of the 19th century who were in favour of widespread education, however, for a number of reasons, they did not have the backing either of the government or of the people. Later on in the century leaders of the Chartist Movement and the Radicals were in favour of some sort of national system of education. However, it is safe to say that there was no widespread desire for the education of the population as a whole. In the social legislation of this period education did not become a real priority until the year of the first Education Act, 1870.
Obstacles in way of a national system of free compulsory education
The establishment of a national system of education came late in England mainly because of the social, economic and religious climate of the century.
- 1. The higher classes of society had no interest in advocating the cultural development of the working classes. On the contrary, the effects of the revolutionary spirit in Europe reinforced conservative attitudes that were certainly not conducive to advocating the development of the critical faculties of the people as a whole.
- Neither did the vast majority of the working class have any real interest in education. Child labour was common practice in this period and working-class families were very reluctant to give up the earnings of their children for the benefit of education. The employment of children continued to increase even after 1850.
- Also the effect of Protestantism, with its emphasis on individualism, personal salvation, the private reading and interpretation of Scripture, ran contrary to any sort of collectivist thought.
- Religious conflict also delayed the establishment of a national system of education. One example of this can be seen in the reaction to the clauses regarding education in the 1843 Factory Bill. There was violent opposition on the part of nonconformists and Catholics alike because, according to the Bill, headmasters had to be of the Church of England. Furthermore, the children were to be taught the catechism and be present at liturgical celebrations as well as service on Sundays. The Bill failed.
- The idea of secular education had never been popular during the century. Education had almost exclusively been under the control of the established church. Furthermore, we should not forget the conflict between secular and religious thought that characterised the century, especially the latter half. Given the cultural and religious climate of the century it became obvious that any nondenominational system of education would be well nigh impossible. It was only in the 20th century, with the rise of indifference towards religious teaching, that general nondenominational schooling became possible. Denominational education was further reinforced by the increase in the Catholic population due to the wave of Irish immigrants during and following the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-50).
- It was also thought that the voluntary school system was quite successful and that it was better not to encourage government intervention. Furthermore, the dominant laissez-faire theory of the time meant that, as in most areas, any direct intervention on the part of the state in the field of education was to be discouraged. The state was only too happy to leave education to the private sector, voluntary or otherwise. Education could not constitute an exception to the tenaciously upheld doctrine of laissez-faire. However, these voluntary institutions did not have the influence or power to construct a nationwide system.
Economic development and the increase of wealth were seen to be priority issues. The question of education only attracted very limited attention.
Tendencies and events favouring national education
Not everything was negative; there were quite distinct undercurrents of thought beginning to emerge that eventually led to the 1870 Education Act. During the century, and particularly during the second half, we have the beginnings of a national system of education that owes its birth to many factors.
- From the first decade of the 19th-century there emerged indications of new thinking in the field of education. Of particular interest is the Bill introduced into the House of commons by Samuel Whitbread in 1807.
- In 1807 Samuel Whitbread proposed to deal with the whole of the Poor Law with the introduction of a Bill in the House of Commons. Of particular interest is the first part of the Bill, which dealt specifically with education. Whitbread advocated making the parish responsible for education and proposed that each child should have two years of education between the ages of 7 and 14. He thought this would reduce crime and pauperism.
- It was considered too expensive to implement and it was also thought that the introduction of such a scheme would take the people away from manual work and make them dissatisfied with their social situation. Although unsuccessful the thought of generalised education for the masses was even then being expressed and was later to be reiterated constantly throughout the century eventually leading up to the 1870 Education Act.
- The idea of widespread education was also helped by the gradual increase in collectivist thought especially after 1865. This is quite evident in the works of Carlyle and Ruskin. It was only after this date that any idea of widespread state intervention in the field of education could find fertile ground.
- The various Factory Acts of 1833, 1844, and 1867 were another contributory factor towards the general tendency towards national education. These acts focused not only on the condition of workers but they also had the effect of imposing certain restrictions on child labour, which in turn favoured the opportunity of an alternative: education for the child.
- In the second half of the 19th-century crime and pauperism increased, so did riots strikes and social unrest. The commercial and manufacturing supremacy of Britain was in decline and this was seen to be mostly due to the fact that other European countries had a more developed technical education system. Political stability and economic prosperity now seemed to be associated with the education of the people. Education now seemed financially viable.
- In 1869 two other societies were established: the Education League, which turned secular and the National Education Union, which was conservative and Anglican. It was mainly due to these two societies that the Education Act of 1870 was passed.
The Education Act of 1870
It was with the Education Act of 1870, also known as the “Forster Act”, that we have the real birth of the modern system of education in England. This not only gave rise to a national system of state education but also assured the existence of a dual system – voluntary denominational schools and nondenominational state schools.
The act required the establishment of elementary schools nationwide. These were not to replace or duplicate what already existed but supplement those already run by the churches, private individuals and guilds.