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

By Lionel Rose | Go to book overview

15

HEALTH AND SCHOOLING

It was an irony in the last quarter of the nineteenth century that schools, which were proclaimed as vehicles of child advancement, were also standing accused of mental and physical oppression.

‘Overpressure’ was the in-word of the period in attacking the effects of the codes and ‘Payment by Results’ in the elementary schools, and the examination rat race in middle- and upper-class schools. Following studies of the causes of headaches and ‘brain exhaustion’ among Prussian pupils in the 1870s, British medical journals were beginning to publish articles and correspondence on the subject, and as the country moved towards compulsory education in 1880, so the issue came increasingly to the fore. 1 Edwin Chadwick, the public health reformer, had implicitly criticized the indigestibility of full-time learning when he maintained that half-timers could learn at almost the same pace, and he recommended that lesson times for 5-7-year-olds should not exceed 15 minutes, rising to a maximum of 30 minutes from 12 years old. 2 Dr Pridgin Teale’s Effects of Compulsory Education and Competitive Examination on the Mental and Physical Health of the Community criticized the hot-house atmosphere of competitive examinations in the public schools and the Damocles sword of ‘superannuation’ (dismissal) which hung over those who failed, compelling parents to send their sons to crammers. Dr Clement Dukes, physician to Rugby School, was a leading voice against ‘overpressure’ and in the 1890s criticized the excessive length of the school day. Children under 13, he reckoned, ideally needed at least 10 1/2 hours’ sleep a night, and he condemned the stresses placed on 3-year-olds in the babies’ classes and the neglect of physical education in the elementary schools. In middle-class education he claimed that youngsters might work up to 14 hours a

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