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The Elementary Education Act of 1870


The Elementary Education Act of 1870 - Introduced by Mr. Forster - The existing state of Education described - Deficiencies in the System - The Union and the League - Mr. Forster's Speech- Inspection to be no longer Denominational - The Conscience Clause - Power to compel attendance - Machinery of School Boards - How to be elected - School Fees and School Rates - The Twenty- fifth Clause - Religious Teaching in Board Schools - The Bill is favourably received as a whole - Mr. Dixon moves an Amendment to the Second Reading - Speech of Mr. Winterbotham - He advocates Secular Education - Mr. Dixon's Amendment withdrawn - The Bill in Committee - The Government accepts Mr. Cowper Temple's Amendment - Other Amendments - The Bill read a Third Time and passed - Is carried through the House of Lords, and becomes law.
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Two days after the introduction of the Irish Land Bill, on the 17th of February, Mr. Forster, the Vice-President of the Council, brought in his Elementary Education Bill, a measure which, fair as were its opening prospects, was destined ultimately to become far more of a bone of contention in England than any Irish question. Mr. Forster had kept his secret admirably. It was, of course, known that the Government had pledged themselves to deal with the Education question during the session, and that the construction of an Education Bill had been long ago entrusted to Mr. Forster. As the Radical member for Bradford, Mr. Forster had many times proved his Liberal principles, and had already gained the respect and attention of the House before taking office. His vigorous Yorkshire character, his capacity for hard work, and his known ability, seemed to point him out as specially fitted to deal with the vexed and intricate problem of National Education. But how was he going to deal with it? "What line was the Government, as represented by him, about to take up with regard to the great questions of free education, compulsion, and State aid to denominational schools? The London newspapers guessed in vain. No one out of the Cabinet had any idea of the provisions of the bill before the night of the 17th of February, when Mr. Forster disclosed his scheme to a crowded House. His speech, as a speech, was perhaps a greater success than any he had achieved before. Perfect mastery of his subject gave a freedom and self-possession to his manner in which it had sometimes been wanting, and his whole demeanour was that of a man who had gone to the bottom of a great question, and who felt himself to be the most competent person to lead the opinion of the House and the country to a satisfactory decision with regard to it.

Before describing the means by which the Government hoped to effect a radical change in the educational condition of the country, it may be as well to glance over the system of National Education as it existed at the time of Mr. Forster's speech. " In no other country," said an able contemporary article in the Quarterly Review, " is primary education provided for as it is in England. Whether children in England shall go to school or not is optional. Whether a parish shall have a school or not for them to go to depends here (but in no other country) on whether any benevolent person will come forward and establish one by himself or with the assistance of his neighbours. In either case he may have help from the State.... The subscription of the State (to the school) is not otherwise different from that of any other subscriber than in its being conditional. It has no power over the school as a State, but only as a subscriber. If its annual subscription were withdrawn, its power would cease." And again, "It is only during the last twenty-five or thirty years that voluntary efforts for the education of the people and the action of the State have been brought into presence of one another, and that the State has come to the help of education. Its relations to it are necessarily difficult, especially as regards its religious objects. The early policy of the Committee of Council experienced frequent discomfitures, and the existence of more than one Administration was perilled by it." The whole system of National Education in England, then, before the Act of 1870, was a matter of voluntary effort. In bygone ages, Greek philosophy had held the education of children to be one of the most essential duties of the State as such - a duty which could not be relegated to private hands, and which the State was bound to conduct with reference to the general welfare of the community. In more modern times, Prussia had recognised this political view of education, and had made the training of every Prussian child a State matter. In England alone, with her over-fondness for self-government, and her love for the system of local provision for local needs, voluntaryism remained intact; and the education of the poor was left wholly at the discretion and in the hands of their richer and more intelligent neighbours. Voluntary effort must come first; then, indeed, State help would follow in the shape of Building Grants or Annual Grants, coupled with the condition of Government inspection; but in all cases the help given by the State had to be called forth by the prior voluntary action of some particular individual or some particular neighbourhood. It had long been felt that the results of this system were most unsatisfactory and inadequate; and as the Reform question advanced, and political enfranchisement had to be yielded step by step to the working classes, the gross and widespread ignorance prevailing among the lower orders began to force itself more and more strongly upon the attention of the country. Mr. Lowe only expressed the general feeling in a bitter and cynical way when, after the passing of the Reform Bill of '67, he pointed out the power which it had conferred upon the working-man, and uttered the now famous phrase, "Let us educate our masters! " The amount of educational destitution existing in England in 1870 maybe roughly gathered from the following statistics. From the Census of 1851, it appeared that about one-fourth of the population of England were of an age to go to school - that is to say, from the ages of three to thirteen or four to fourteen. In 1870 the population of England was twenty-one millions, so that about five millions and a half of children would be of what is technically called the school age. Of these, 23 per cent, had to be allowed for as absent from school from allowable causes, such as sickness; half a million were at school for the upper or middle classes; and rather less than two millions and a half of the remaining three and a half millions were actually at school. There remained about one million one hundred thousand children who were not at school at all. Nor did this represent by any means the whole extent of the deficiency. Of the two and a half millions represented as actually at school, only a very small proportion indeed could possibly derive real benefit from the education offered them, because, as was abundantly proved by statistics, far the greater number of children were removed from school before their twelfth year - that is to say, before the age when the average child, much more the child of poor and uneducated parents, becomes capable of anything like lasting and profitable learning. This evil of short-lived and irregular attendance had been increasing during the years preceding 1870 rather than diminishing, and it was admitted on all hands to form one of the most serious elements of the educational difficulty. With regard to local deficiencies, especially to the educational needs of our large towns, let Mr. Forster speak for himself. " It is calculated," he said, " that in Liverpool the number of children between five and thirteen who ought to receive an elementary education is 80,000; but, as far as we can make out, 20,000 of them attend no school whatever, while at least another 20,000 attend schools where they get an education not worth having. In Manchester - that is, in the borough of Manchester, not including Salford - there are about 65,000 children who might be at school; and of this number, 16,000 go to no school at all.... As a Torkshireman, I am sorry to say that, from what I hear, Leeds appears to be as bad as Liverpool; and so also, I fear, is Birmingham." The educational need, then, could scarcely be denied, though extreme Conservatives, like Lord Robert Montagu, might attempt to palliate it. But the question of " how is this need to be supplied? " admitted of very different answers; and opinion was indeed divided into at least two hostile camps with regard to it, represented by the National Education Union and the famous Birmingham League. The avowed object of both was " to bring a good education within the reach of every child in the country." But the Union proposed to accomplish this by means of the existing system, supplemented and reformed; the League, on the contrary, aimed at the destruction of the existing system, and at the gradual erection of some thing wholly different upon its ruins. The Union desired, above all things, to keep education in England denominational and founded upon religious teaching; while the League asserted strongly that education ought to be wholly undenominational, that State aid should only be given to secular instruction, and that religion should be provided by the voluntary efforts of all religious sects, the Church of England included. The doctrines of the League were supported inside the House of Commons by men like Mr. Mundella, Mr. Dixon, and Mr. Fawcett; and outside it, by the bulk of the Dissenting communities, who saw in the programme of the League a protest against the undisputed supremacy of the Church in education. On the other hand, the sequel showed that the partisans of the more moderate policy advocated by the Union had Mr. Forster himself in the main on their side, a large majority (both Liberals and Conservatives) in the House, and the whole influence and power of the Church of England. The Church talked of her " claims," and pointed triumphantly to the work done by her, and by her alone, in the cause of education; while the Dissenters complained of grievances, accused the clergy of intentional violations of the Conscience Clause then existing, and professed to regard their zeal for education as a mere cloak for widespread projects of priestly aggrandisement. Between these contending factions Mr. Forster had to take his stand, and to frame a bill which should if possible satisfy both. Many sanguine persons, perhaps even Mr. Forster himself, imagined that it was possible to content both, and that the quarrel was in a great measure one of words. Time, alas! has brought out only too plainly the strength and bitterness of the feelings involved in the dispute.

We cannot do better than let Mr. Forster describe his bill mainly in his own words. The first problem, then, to be solved, said the Vice-President of the Council, was this: " How can we cover the country with good schools?" The answer to this must be influenced by three considerations - considerations of the duties of parents to their children, of the duty of the Government to the taxpayer, and of the duty of every educational reformer to those who were already labouring in the cause of education, and to the system which they, at great cost, had built up and supported. That is to say, " in solving this problem, there must be, consistently with the attainment of our object, the least possible expenditure of public money, the utmost endeavour not to injure existing and efficient schools, and the most careful absence of all encouragement to parents to neglect their children." The principles upon which the present bill is founded, he continued, "are two in number - legal enactment that there shall be efficient schools everywhere throughout the kingdom; and compulsory provision of such schools, if and where needed, but not unless proved to be needed. So much for the principles of the bill. Coming now to the actual provisions by which they are to be enforced, it will suggest itself to the minds of all that there must be to begin with a system of organisation throughout the country. We take care that the country shall be properly mapped and divided so that its wants may be duly ascertained. For this we take present known divisions and declare them to be school districts, so that upon the passing of this bill there will be no portion of England or Wales not included in one school district or another. We have taken the boundaries of boroughs as regards towns, and parishes as regards the country, - and when I say parish, I mean the civil parish, and not the ecclesiastical district. With regard to the metropolis, we have come to the conclusion, subject to the counsel and advice of the Metropolitan members, that the best districts we can take in the metropolis are, where they exist, the school districts already formed for workhouse schools; and whore they do not exist, the boundaries of the vestries. Having thus got our districts, our next duty is to ascertain their educational condition, and for that purpose we take power to collect returns which will show us what in each district is the number of schools, of scholars, and of children requiring education. We also take power to send down inspectors and officers to test the quality of the schools and of the education given in them. Then if in any one of these districts we find the elementary education to be sufficient in quantity, efficient in quality, and suitable in character, that is to say, hampered by no religious or other restriction to which parents can reasonably object, we leave that district alone; and we shall continue to leave it alone so long as it fulfils those conditions. And I may as well state, that for the purpose of ascertaining the condition of a district, we count all schools that will receive our inspectors, whether private or public, whether aided or unaided by Government, whether secular or denominational."

Here Mr. Forster, before describing in detail the means by which districts insufficiently supplied with schools were to be sufficiently supplied, proceeded first of all to explain an important change in the character of Government inspection to be introduced by the bill. " Hitherto," he said, " the inspection has been denominational; we propose that it should no longer be so." The reasons for this change were indeed obvious. In the first place, under the then existing system, an invidious distinction was kept up between Church inspectors and inspectors of other denominations - the Church inspectors alone having the right to inquire into the teaching of doctrines in any school. Thus both sides were in many cases aggrieved. Clergymen complained that their school-children were subjected to examination in religious doctrine by an inspector whose religious views differed from their own, while a Wesleyan or an Independent school could not be subjected to any such examination at all. On the other hand, the Dissenters were justly irritated by a distinction which seemed to imply that their peculiar tenets were not, and could not be, recognised by the State, in the same way as the doctrines of the Church. The denominational character of the inspection also very much complicated the whole system of inspection, introducing many practical difficulties into the division of inspecting districts, and so on.

In consideration of all these objections, and believing that the existing system was favourable neither to religion in general nor to the Church cause in particular, "we propose," said Mr. Forster, " that, after a limited. period one of the conditions of public elementary schools shall be, that they shall admit any inspector without any denominational provision"

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