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The Elementary Education Act of 1870 page 3

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Having now described the school districts, the school boards, and the various minor arrangements connected with them, Mr. Forster came finally to the important question of " attendance." In other words, " Having got our schools, how are we to get the children to come to them in anything like sufficient numbers, and with any thing like sufficient regularity? " In his answer to this, Mr. Forster enlarged upon the direct compulsion permitted by the bill. The Short Time Acts, on which so many depended for securing the attendance of children, would no doubt contribute greatly to that object, and they might be so amended as to render them still more effectual.

But the difficulty could not be met by their aid alone, and compulsory attendance was therefore to be resorted to, though, as we said before, only in a limited and partial degree. " What we do in the Act," said Mr. Forster, " is no more than this. We give power to the school boards to frame bye-laws for the compulsory attendance of all children within their district from five to twelve. They must see that no parent is under a penalty - which is restricted to 5s. - for not sending his child to school if he can show reasonable excuse, - reasonable excuse being either education elsewhere, or sickness, or some unavoidable cause, or there not being a public elementary school within a mile. These bye-laws are not to come into operation unless they are approved by the Government, and unless they have been laid on the table of this and the other House of Parliament forty days, and have not been dissented from."

Having thus described his bill, with every detail of which lie had shown himself perfectly familiar, Mr. Forster concluded in words of genuine and sincere enthusiasm, which could not but awaken the sympathy of all who had listened to him. They were as follows: -

" Upon the speedy provision of elementary education depends our industrial prosperity. It is of no use trying to give technical teaching to our artisans without elementary education; uneducated labourers - and many of our labourers are utterly uneducated - are, for the most part, unskilled labourers; and if we leave our work-folk any longer unskilled, notwithstanding their strong sinews and determined energy, they will become overmatched in the competition of the world. Upon this speedy provision depends also, I fully believe, the good, the safe working of our constitutional system. To its honour, Parliament has lately decided that England shall in future be governed by popular government. I am one of those who would not wait until the people were educated before I would trust them with political power. If we had thus waited, we might have waited long for education; but now that we have given them political power, we must not wait any longer to give them education. There are questions demanding answers, problems which must be solved, which ignorant constituencies are ill-fitted to solve. Upon this speedy provision of education depends also our national power. Civilised communities throughout the world are massing themselves together, each mass being measured by its force; and if we are to hold our position among men of our own race or among the nations of the world, we must make up the smallness of our numbers by increasing the intellectual force of the individual.

"But there are many men, I doubt not many members of this House - and these not the least earnest to do their duty, or the least able to help their fellows - who are swayed, not so much by these general considerations, as by the condition of the individuals around them. Well, then, to these gentlemen let me say one word - I am not a fanatic in this matter of education; I know well that knowledge is not virtue - that no education, much less elementary education, gives power to resist temptation, is a safeguard against calamity; but we all know that want of education - that ignorance is weakness, and that weakness in this hard struggling world generally brings misfortune - often leads to vice. Let us then each of us think of our own homes, of the villages in which we have to live, of the towns in which it is our lot to be busy; and do we not know child after child - boys or girls - growing up to probable crime, to still more probable misery, because badly taught or utterly untaught? Dare we, then, take on ourselves the responsibility of allowing this ignorance and this weakness to continue one year longer than we can help? Not doubting that these considerations will weigh with the House, as they have with the Government, I venture to submit this measure to the House, and therefore, Sir, I beg to move for leave to bring in a bill to provide for public elementary education in England and Wales."

The short debate which followed was extremely flattering to Mr. Foster personally. Liberal and Tory complimented the speech and the bill, regretting only that the framer should occupy what was nominally, at least, a subordinate position in the Ministry, and should speak as the Vice-President of the Council under its President, Lord de Grey, instead of as " the responsible Minister of Public Instruction." Scarcely a murmur of the coming struggle disturbed the amiability of the House, and on the morning of the 18th the newspapers were full of Mr. Forster and Mr. Forster's admirable bill. For a while it seemed as if the apparent concessions of the bill, and the conciliatory tone of its advocate, had silenced both the League and the Nonconformists, until a series of ominous articles in the Daily News - to be known henceforth as the organ of the secular party - dispelled the illusion, and a cloud of hostile talk and writing began to gather definitely round certain portions of the proposed Act. By the time the second reading arrived, all the world knew that the Government would find the passing of the measure by no means a matter of such plain sailing as had seemed likely at first. And the motion for the second reading was met, in fact, by a motion of Mr. Dixon's (member for Birmingham and founder of the League), to the effect, <( That no measure for the elementary education of the people could afford a permanent and satisfactory settlement which left the important question of religious instruction to be deter mined by the local authorities." Mr. Forster might well point Ťout with some warmth that the success of such an amendment at the present stage of matters could have no other-effect than to throw out both the bill and the Government. Such a question, he argued, should be discussed in committee; only when approached in detail could the religious difficulty be either satisfactorily debated or satisfactorily settled. " Unsectarian education " - which, however, throughout he carefully distinguished from secular education - he thought not at all difficult to reach in practice, though extremely hard to define, and personally he strongly supported it. But unsectarian education could never be attained by definite and minute legislation. " Surely," he said, " the time will come when we shall find out how we can agree better on these matters; when men will discover that on the main questions of religion they agree, and that they can teach them in common to their children.

Shall we cut off from the future all hope of such an agreement, and say that all those questions which regulate our conduct in life and animate our hopes for the future after death, which form for us the standard of right and wrong - shall we say that all these are to be wholly excluded from our schools?... I confess I have still in my veins the blood of my Puritan fore fathers, and I wonder to hear descendants of the Puritans talk of religion as if it were the property of any class or condition of men. The English people cling to the Bible, and no measure would be more unpopular than that which declares by Act of Parliament that the Bible shall be excluded from the schools! " Cut the knot of the religious difficulty in this way, and a far greater irreligious difficulty would be created. Instead of the few scores of individuals who might, were the bill passed in its present form, object to paying the school rate, multitudes would be found objecting to an education from which religion was left out. The greater part of Mr. Forster's speech consisted of an able appeal on behalf of local government as against central government. What the amendment proposed, he said, was to force the central government to adopt one rigid line of policy, regardless of all the varying circumstances and wishes of the different localities, the result of which could only be to produce endless opposition and heart-burning. Under the bill, the will of the majority in any given neighbourhood would always take effect, whether that will was in favour of secular or religious education. " What more, then, can my hon. friend the member for Birmingham (Mr. Dixon) and his friends of the Education League desire than they obtain in this bill? With the exception of the principle of free schools, which I think does not meet with much acceptation, there is no principle adopted by the League which cannot be carried out in any locality where the majority of the population desire it and surely my hon. friend does not wish to push his educational dogmas down the throats of the majority. But wherever the majority believe in his dogmas, they can carry them out.... I ask him not to press his amendment to a division, because I cannot bear the thought that this which I believe to be one of the strongest Radical measures which could be proposed, should pass the second reading in the face of Radical opposition. It is a bill in framing which we have endeavoured to carry out two principles - the most perfect protection to the parent, and the security of the most complete fairness and impartiality in the treatment of all religious denominations. If, in order to carry out these principles, it is necessary to amend the provisions of this bill, that must be done." Only let the House set its face against any abstract proposition like the present amendment. In committee would be the place and time to discuss the several points as they arose, fairly and calmly, and to take the sense of the House upon the religious question detail by detail.

The second night of the debate upon the second reading was marked by an effective and brilliant speech, in behalf of secular education, from Mr. Winterbotham, the young Liberal and Nonconformist member for Stroud. All the opinions and prejudices which the great majority of the House had been accustomed to consider as the mere j vulgar talk of back-alley Dissent, they were now to hear expressed in logical and forcible English by a man of liberal culture and large experience, who, while freeing himself from what were regarded as the worst and most narrowing influences of the Nonconformist creed, was yet true to all its main articles, and unfeignedly proud of being a Dissenter. Mr. Winterbotham began by expressing a wish that the Education Bill had been deferred a session or two. The country, in his opinion, was not yet ripe for thorough educational reform. Still the Government had thought otherwise; a great bill was now before them, and it was the business of every Liberal member to make up his mind respecting it. " We complain, then, first," said he, " that by this bill the school board in each district is left to determine the kind of religious instruction to be given in the schools founded by them. We say this is shirking the difficulty, not settling it; that the point ought to be determined by Parliament, and not feebly left to be fought over every year in every parish in the land.... The result will be this: In the towns, either the schools will be unsectarian, or existing denominational schools will divide the rate under Clause 22; in the rural parishes, the schools will belong exclusively to the Church of England, and the rate will go, under Clause 22, in aid of the present national schools, where they exist - that is, the school remaining as purely a denominational private school, as at present, the rates will be in lieu of subscriptions." That is to say, the existing denominational system already so repugnant to the Non conformists was to receive an indefinite expansion; " and I do assure the Government," said Mr. Winterbotham warmly, "that they could not have devised a surer means of alienating their warmest friends!" It was not the proselytising teaching of the Church school so much that was feared. Mr. Winterbotham personally thought that the conscience clause proposed would sufficiently protect the children of Dissenters. " But why, you ask, are we not content with this? I will try to explain why. To understand our strong repugnance to these denominational schools, the House must patiently bear with me while I show them shortly what is the attitude of Dissent towards the Church, especially in rural districts. And to understand this, you must consider what is the attitude of the Church to us." And here for once the feeling of the House went wholly with Mr. Winterbotham in his indignant description of a charge delivered in 1863 by Dr. Wilberforce, then Bishop of Winchester, the substance of which was repeated in another subsequent charge delivered at Oxford. In it occurred the famous passage to which Mr. Winterbotham now drew public attention for the first time, in which the Bishop, speaking of the evil of country parishes, denounced "beer-houses, Dissent, and overcrowded cottages as the three chief obstacles to the moral and religious progress of the people." Certainly an unfortunate classification, and one which, often as the friends of Dr. Wilberforce have tried to explain it away, has never ceased to rankle in the minds of the Nonconformists. " I am not concerned," said Mr. Winterbotham, "to question the charity or decency of such language in the mouth of a Christian minister. But I put it to every candid man who hears me, as a question strictly pertaining to the question before us - Is it in human nature not to resent this prelatical insolence? And when Dr. Wilberforce goes on to inculcate, as a remedy, more distinctive Church teaching in the schools, especially infant schools, however absurd this may seem, is it altogether unreasonable in us to be unwilling to send our children to be educated by men who act on such principles? " He was willing and glad to acknowledge that such was not the universal temper of the Church. If all the bishops were Temples or Thirlwalls, the Non conformists would have little to complain of. But in general the attitude of the Church towards Dissent was one of dislike and contempt. " Dissent, in many rural parishes, is treated like the cattle-plague - to be stamped out." A state of things for which the clergy are not wholly to blame, but which arises out of the primary fact of an Established Church. For, by the law of the land, no less than of the Church, one man, and one man only, is recognised as the authorised religious teacher of the parish; all others are interlopers and trespassers on his spiritual domain. The High Church Revival, too, had done its part in stereotyping and strengthening this view of things in the mind of the Churchman, so that reconciliation seemed now impossible. What, then, is the natural result of this state of affairs? asked Mr. Winterbotham, and his own answer to the question is a remark able one. " Side by side with this (the High Church Revival) there has grown up among the Dissenters an ever-increasing impatience of religious inequality, and an ever-deepening hatred of priestcraft and episcopal assumption in all their forms. The habits of independence, self-government, and free thought are growing ever stronger among us, and we cannot brook the assumption of superiority, whether tolerant or intolerant, which is all we generally receive from the clergy of the Established Church. Hence alienation, an absence of co-operation in social and philanthropic objects, a habit of watchful jealousy, a readiness - I confess it - to take offence, sometimes irritation, occasionally even open strife - these are the normal relations of Dissent to the Church in many parishes in this land." True, society could not be changed, at least not in a moment; but why make it worse? Why introduce a fresh element of discord, such as the Education Bill in its present form must inevitably prove, into a situation already so embittered. Speaking for himself, and for many of his fellow-Dissenters, Mr. Winterbotham disclaimed any wish to see the downfall of the Church; but were such a measure as this to pass, the Dissenters would have no alternative but to seek to destroy it altogether. What, then, did the Nonconformists want? "I avow it frankly - secular education. A national system of education for a people who do not agree, or who will not admit they agree, in their religious opinions must be secular." Mr. Winterbotham went on to maintain strongly that such a claim was in no way irreligious. Why should the tone of a secular school be irreligious, or the schoolmaster an irreligious man? " There is nothing in a secular school," he declared, " which should render it hostile to religious teaching; and there is no reason in the world why as good men and women should not be found teaching in secular schools as in denominational schools, exercising all the humanising influence of a wise and kindly Christian character." Even under the existing system, it was from the Simday schools that the children really got what religious know ledge they possessed. And were secular education established, the voluntary Sunday school system, maintained by the ministers of the various denominations with their voluntary assistants, would be naturally and healthily developed to meet the additional want. Mr. Winterbotham warmly denied the truth of that part of Mr. Forster's speech in which the Nonconformists were accused, at least by implication, of indifference to the Bible. It is our only book, he said, our only authority. No creed, catechism, or liturgy is its rival; no Pope, Bishops, or Privy Council may interpret or override its decisions. It is strange indeed that we should be accused of indifference to it.

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