The Erosion of Childhood: Child Oppression in Britain, 1860-1918

By Lionel Rose | Go to book overview

19

THE FORMATIVE RESULTS OF EDUCATION

The Royal Commission on Employment of Children in 1864 plumbed some astounding depths of ignorance among working children. In the Midlands at one metalworks factory an investigator found that nearly three-quarters of the 80 7-16-year-olds there were completely illiterate. 1 Even where they had received a smattering of schooling, the scraps of knowledge retained by such children were vestigial and muddled. Replies to various inter-viewers’ questions included such answers as 'I've heard that [Christ] but don’t know what it is’; ‘The devil is a good person; I don’t know where he lives’; ‘Christ was a wicked man’; ‘The Queen has a name; it is “Prince”’; ‘Have not heard of France or London‘ (from a 12-year-old Midlands girl) and ‘Have not heard of Scotland’ (from a 19-year-old). One limited Leeds survey in 1859 revealed literacy rates of 24 per cent among 13-16-year-olds, and of those who could not read just under a quarter had worked as part-timers between 8 and 13 and therefore had experienced some half-time education. 2 Full-time schooling, as it developed after 1870, was destined to face some initial uphill struggles to raise basic levels of literacy. In the early years of the board schools, despite the pounding in the three Rs, literacy standards remained below Standard 1 for over a quarter of pupils in some schools serving the poorest districts; that is, they could not read simple sentences. 3 At the most rudimentary level—the ability to sign one’s name—there were distinct advances through the century even before the era of state schooling. In 1840 66 per cent of males could sign their names; in 1870, just before the board schools were established, 80 per cent could do so, and in 1900 97 per cent. 4 Among juvenile prisoners in 1842-53 nearly 43 per cent were totally illiterate, just over 30 per cent could read and write imperfectly, 24 per cent

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