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The Elementary Education Act of 1870 page 2


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The next provision of the bill concerned the framing of a stringent conscience clause, to be accepted by every elementary denominational school before public money would be granted to it, There had been at one time strong opposition on the part of a fraction of the Church party to any conscience clause whatever. It became evident, however, several months before the introduction of the Education Bill, that public opinion, both lay and clerical, was strengthening in its favour, and the adoption of a conscience clause into the programme of the National Education Union virtually settled the matter. The Conscience Clause in the bill of 1870 ran as follows: -

" No scholar shall be required, as a condition of being admitted into or of attending or of enjoying all the benefits of the school, to attend or to abstain from attending any Sunday school, or any place of religious worship, or to learn any such catechism or religious formulary, or to be present at any such lesson or instruction or observance as may have been objected to on' religious grounds, by the parent of the scholar sending his objection in writing to the managers or principal teacher of the school, or one of them."

By far the most practical objection which had been made to a conscience clause, had been that it would be in reality of little or no use in any case where the clergy man or other manager of a school should be bent on setting it aside. " That, however," said Mr. Forster, " is not the view that I have formed from my personal experience. In the first place, I do not know any case in which our present conscience clause has been applied in which it has not been found thoroughly effective; but our new clause will be different in this important respect, that whereas the old clause was applicable only in some cases to building grants, the new one will apply to all grants, and especially to all annual grants. It is perfectly clear in its operation, and I am quite sure that no manager of a school will risk the loss of the annual grant by violating its conditions."

Experience, however, has since shown that a clever and zealous manager of a denominational school can invent ingenious ways of evading the conscience clause, which have more than once proved extremely perplexing to the Education Department.

Mr. Foster went on to state that every opportunity would be afforded to the upholders of the voluntary system, to do what was necessary for themselves, and thus avoid the interference of Government. " We have said," hh continued, " that we must have provision for public elementary schools. The first question, then, is, by whom is it to be made? Now here for a time we shall test the voluntary zeal of the district. Not only do we not neglect voluntary help, but, on condition of respecting the rights of parents and the rights of con science, we welcome it. To see, then, whether voluntary help will be forthcoming, we give a year to test the real and willingness of any volunteers who may be disposed to help; but we ought not to give longer time, because we cannot afford to wait." If, therefore, the educational need had not been met in any given district by voluntary effort at the expiration of the year of grace, the State would step in and supply the deficiency the next point was one of great importance. The bill admitted the principle of compulsion, so often attacked as un-English; and in certain districts and under certain conditions, compulsory education was in future to be enforced. It will be seen that Mr. Forster was subsequently obliged to defend himself from the charge of timidity and half-heartedness in this matter of compulsion. Having gone so far, it was asked, why not go farther; and having once admitted the justice of the principle of compulsion, why not make it the general law of the land, instead of allowing its application to depend upon the caprice of individual school boards who might adopt it here and there? No doubt since 1870 compulsory education has gained greatly in public opinion, and, as in the case of the Ballot, people are prepared to welcome what they once denounced; but it may be doubted whether this would have been the case had Mr. Forster proceeded on a different plan, and adopted compulsion wholesale to begin with. England is a country of gradual changes; and the principle of compulsion in education is all the more likely to rule the future from having been put on its trial for a few years in isolated instances.

The machinery of school boards - the newest and most prominent feature in the bill - by means of which education was to be provided by the State where voluntaryism failed, had next to be explained to the House. For the Government did not propose to educate the nation by means of an enormous and omnipotent central department. This would indeed have been un-English, for local action and self-government have been throughout English history the mainstays of English life. Local resources were still to supply local wants, but they were to be made to do this in a far more effective, systematic, and public manner than heretofore. "Voluntary local action," said Mr. Forster, " has failed, therefore our hope is to invoke the help of municipal organisation. Where we have proved the educational need, we supply it by local administration - that is, by means of rates, aided by money voted by Parliament, expended under local management, with central inspection and control.... Undoubtedly this proposal will affect a large portion of the kingdom. I believe it will affect almost ail the towns and a great part of the country."

With regard to the area of the school districts, Mr. Forster had already indicated the boundaries established by the bill. In the provinces, the parish was to be looked upon as the unit of area - the Government, of course, reserving to itself the power of throwing two or more parishes together if necessary - rather than the union, as being smaller, more convenient, and freer from practical difficulties. In London, the existing school districts were to be taken; and where these did not exist, the boundaries of vestries. And in every school district where the voluntary system had proved inadequate to meet the educational demand, a school board was to be elected - that is to say, a body of responsible and official persons, whose business it would be to provide sufficient and suitable education for the whole district over which their power extended. " But the next question that arises is - How are we to elect our school boards in the provinces (London having been already provided with school boards under a previous bill), and whom are they to elect? Now, first, who is to elect? Well, the electoral body we have chosen for the towns is the Town Council. I do not think there can be much dispute upon that point. In the country, we have taken the best body we can find - the Select Vestry where there is one, and' a Vestry where there is no Select Vestry. Secondly - Whom are they to elect? " The answer to this was very simple. The electors were to choose whom they thought fit with out limitation of choice; but there was to be a limit of numbers. The school board was to consist of never less than three nor more than twelve members. Mr. Forster had come to the conclusion that it was not desirable to add ex officio members to the board, thinking very rightly that " the very men fit to be ex officio members would come in with greater influence and almost equal certainty if subjected to popular election." Nor were the boards to be saddled with Government nominees - a proceeding which would make the Government responsible for the failures as well as the successes of any given board. The Government only reserved to itself the rights of a final Court of Appeal, in any case where the work of the board was either carelessly done, or done in opposition to the spirit of the Act. In any such case, the Government claimed a right to step in and manage the district for as long as it thought fit.

The important question of school fees, important in one way to the poor parent and in another to the taxpayer, came next to be considered. The Government, however, said Mr. Forster, had no intention of making elementary education in England free. In the first place, such a change could only be effected at the cost of a great sacrifice to the country - a sacrifice of some six or seven hundred thousand pounds yearly - an amount which it might fairly be calculated would be reached by the parents' pence under the new scheme. And in the second place, supposing that the country were ready to undertake the sacrifice, the framers of the bill were, on general principles, wholly averse to it. To relieve the parent of all payment for his children's education, would be, said Mr. Forster, to weaken the sense of parental obligations in him, and to pauperise those who had hitherto kept themselves free from the taint of pauperism. Some pro vision, however, was to be made for extreme poverty, and real inability to pay school fees was in no case to prove a bar to any child's education. " We take two powers," said the speaker. " We give the school board power to establish special free schools under special circumstances, which chiefly apply to large towns, where, from the exceeding poverty of the district, or for other very special reasons, they prove to the satisfaction of the Government that such a school is needed and ought to be established.... We also empower the school board to give free tickets to parents who, they think, cannot really afford to pay for the education of their children; and we take care that those free tickets shall have no stigma of pauperism attached to them. We do not give up the school fees, and, indeed, we keep to the present proportions - namely, of about one-third raised from the parents, one-third out of the public taxes, and one-third out of local funds. Where the local funds are not raised by voluntary subscription, the rates will come into action." A question of rates is always, as Mr. Forster went on to say, treading on delicate ground, but the future education rate need alarm no one. Should it ever exceed threepence in the pound - a most unlikely event - Government would step in with a " very consider able extra grant out of the parliamentary votes." And the education rate would save the prison rate and the pauper rate, and might thus prove the most hopeful and satisfactory of all economies.

With regard to the other powers to be granted to school boards, they were, first of all, to be allowed the choice of two alternative courses. Either they might meet the need of a particular district by providing extra schools of their own, or they might supply it by assisting and extending existing schools. But supposing they decided upon the latter alternative, they were to exercise their right in no prejudiced or limited manner. " If they do go on the principle of assisting, they must assist all schools on equal terms. They may not pick out one particular i denomination and say, 'We shall assist you, but not the others.'" To this part of the bill belonged the after wards famous 25th clause, by which school boards were enabled to pay the fees of indigent children at denominational schools out of the rates - a point which has been attacked with equal ardour by the liberal philosophers of the Fortnightly Review, the members of the Birmingham League, the Dissenters generally, and all other advocates of secular education. For these last Mr. Forster held out no word of hope. Speaking of the restrictions which ought or ought not to be laid upon school managers with regard to religion, lie denied the existence of any real religious difficulty at all, the great plea of the secularists. Or rather, he held that there was a theoretical difficulty, which might occur to and perplex an honest man in his study, but no practical difficulty which would affect the parents and children considered by the bill. The bill decreed that no restriction was to be laid upon school managers with regard to religion. If the neighbourhood which elected them chose, they might leave religious teaching altogether alone, but they certainly should not be forbidden, in any case, to teach or to explain the Bible. " Now just look," said the speaker, " at the age of the children with whom we have to deal. The great majority of them are probably under ten years of age.... We want a good secular teaching for these children, a good Christian training, and good schoolmasters. It may be said, that as these children can hardly be supposed to require doctrinal or dogmatic teaching to any great extent, 'Why do you not then prescribe that there should be no doctrinal teaching - why not, in the first place, prescribe that there shall be no religious teaching at all? ' Why do we not prescribe that there shall be no religious teaching? Why, if we did so, out of the religious difficulty we should come to an irreligious difficulty!... If we are to prevent religious teaching altogether, we must say that the Bible shall not be used in schools at all. But would it not be a monstrous thing that the book which, after all, is the foundation of the religion we profess, should be the only book that was not allowed to be used in our schools? It may be said that we ought to have no dogmatic teaching. But how are we to prevent it? Are we to step in and say the Bible may be read, but may not be explained? Are we to pick out Bible lessons with the greatest care, in order that nothing of a doctrinal character may be taught to the children?" A hard and thankless labour indeed, but one which the Government would undertake were it convinced that such was the wish of the country. But it was convinced, on the contrary, that the country wished no such thing; and in no case could such a matter be satisfactorily undertaken or discharged by the central government. In fact, the framers of the bill felt confident that the religious difficulty would turn out to be one of words and theories only. " Get your school boards together," they said; "give them the practical work to do of providing efficient secular education, and you will see that at the same time they will find ways and means of managing the religious education satisfactorily also. Put the fiercest of controversialists to the practical handling of details, and he will soon find that the imaginary parent possessed by an imaginary hatred of all religion, or a stubborn and exclusive preference for one form of religious teaching rather than another, is almost wholly the creature of his own fancy; and that the so-called religious difficulty is a phantom which vanishes before the open work-a-day atmosphere of facts." We shall have to describe the many arguments brought forward against this view presently, when we come to the speeches of Mr. Winterbotham, Mr. Dixon, and others. Certainly the religious difficulty has turned out to be no phantom, at least if we may take the heat and clamour with which it has been since discussed as evidences of its reality. But whether the question can ever be solved, as the League proposes to solve it, by the adoption of a purely secular national education, leaving the several denominations to provide their own religious instruction, admits at least of considerable doubt, when a country, which is at bottom now, as always, so serious and so religious as this Teutonic, Puritan England of ours, has to be dealt with.

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Professor Henry Fawcett, M.P.
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Mr. W. E. Forster, M.P.
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Mr. Mundella, M.P.
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Attack on the English travellers
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