Magazine article History Today

The 1902 Education Act: Kevin Manton Regrets the Political Decision to Remove Direct Democratic Control over Education a Hundred Years Ago. (Cross Current)

Magazine article History Today

The 1902 Education Act: Kevin Manton Regrets the Political Decision to Remove Direct Democratic Control over Education a Hundred Years Ago. (Cross Current)

Article excerpt

BY NOW the annual autumnal scramble to get children into desirable secondary schools is, one hopes, over for most families. The cause of this headache is that despite the increasingly unitary and centralised control over the school curriculum, management and control of schools is fragmented, giving us a variety of school types with differing levels of social prestige. The roots of this plurality lie in an education act that has its centenary this winter. The 1902 Education Act was a

deeply reactionary piece of legislation that consciously set out to dismantle the popular schooling system developed by the school boards that had been created by the 1870 education act. The purpose of this dismemberment was to buttress the control of education by religious groups and by the grammar schools which were withering under pressure from school board initiatives.

Prior to the 1870 act elementary education in Britain was provided by voluntary organisations, usually religious, that were given public money to teach a proportion of children from the poorer sections of society. This instruction was only at elementary level, defined as being the 3Rs and practical subjects such as needlework and woodwork. Secondary, that is academic, education was provided by fee-charging grammar schools that had an exclusive, middle-class ethos. This voluntary provision was patchwork and intermittent at best. The 1870 act sought to remedy this situation by giving all children elementary education provided by newly-created, democratically-controlled public bodies: school boards.

School boards had between five and fifteen members and were the most advanced democratic bodies of their day. They were elected by ratepayers on a secret ballot every three years, a system that allowed women both to vote and stand for office. Boards soon sprang up in all major urban centres. Elementary education was not free until 1891, but Boards could cover the fees of poorer children. They were also empowered to borrow money, to use compulsory purchase orders to acquire sites and to accept the transfer of religious/voluntary schools to their control.

This last point highlights the fundamental weakness of the board system. It was not designed to replace the voluntary provision of education through religious bodies, but rather to fill the gaps in that system. Boards could only be established where there was a proven shortfall of places (measured as one sixth of the elementary school-age population). Moreover, even where this deficiency was confirmed, the existing religious providers were given six months to find a solution before the boards could start working. Nor was there anything to prevent those opposed to the whole concept of school board education from standing for election and, if successful, from hampering the development of the system.

Yet despite these very serious structural and political impediments, school boards were able to introduce several major improvements in the education offered to the urban population. Firstly, they became involved in teacher training. The career route into teaching for a working-class child was to become a pupil teacher, assisting in the classroom during the day and taking extra classes at night. In 1885 the Liverpool Board introduced a half-day at work for pupil teachers coupled with a half-day's study at a purpose-built centre. These centres, soon established by boards in London, Birmingham and Bradford, extended the education of their charges beyond the elementary syllabus by introducing subjects such as Science and Maths, hitherto the responsibility of the secondary schools.

Secondary education was spread yet further by the second key development instigated by school boards, namely evening classes. These were originally established as elementary education courses, but during the 1890s they increasingly covered secondary subjects and even some courses at university level. …

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