As trade and wealth improved the newly rich middle class wanted an education for their sons and a number of grammar schools were established, some by the church and some by wealthy businessmen. Many of these schools offered places to "sons of poor gentlemen" but were mainly for fee paying pupils.
Few people at the beginning of the eighteenth century could read or write, neither accomplishment being essential to the way of life of the ordinary working man, but as the century progressed and new inventions changed the manner of working, the gap between the literate and illiterate became a chasm that only education could bridge. Many enlightened mill owners provided schools for their workers of all ages, but as school attendance was based on either "half-time" doing half a days work in the mill then attending school, or on Sundays after a full week's work, the children were usually too tired to learn, and many preferred to sleep at their desks.
Sunday Schools already established by the churches in some areas were promoted by Robert Raikes, a newspaper owner from Gloucester, ensuring that the workers were taught to accept their place in the divine plan, without taking up any of the time devoted to work.
Lord Shaftesbury, champion of factory reform was also interested in education, and was one of the founders and President of The Ragged Schools Union. Established to provide education for children in the poorest inner cities, and often taught by local working people, the ragged schools concentrated on teaching the 3Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) and Bible study. They later expanded to include commercial and industrial subjects, and provided many other benefits to the community such as reading rooms, men's clubs and sewing and knitting classes. The Ragged Schools Union also established the provision of regular dinners for underfed children.
Poor Law Unions were obliged, under an Act of 1834, to provide a basic education for workhouse children. Charles Dickens wrote an article in the journal Household Words (issue: Saturday 13th July 1850) about the conditions in the workhouse at Swinton;
" The scene the schoolroom, during the reading lesson, presented, was remarkable. Groups of four or five little fellows were gathered in various parts of the room before a reading-card, one acting as monitor; who was sometimes a girl. It was a pleasing sight to see half-a-dozen children seated or kneeling in a circle round the same book, their heads almost meeting in the centre, in their earnestness to see and hear, while the monitor pointed quickly with the finger to the word which each in succession was to pronounce. All seemed alert, and the eyes of the monitors kindled with intelligence. Meanwhile the master was busied in passing from one class to another, listening to the manner in which the pronunciation was caught, or the correctness with which the rapid combination of letters and syllables was made. Sometimes he stayed a few minutes with a class to give aid, then proceeded to another; and occasionally, on finding by a few trials, that a boy was quite familiar with the work of his class, he would remove him to another more advanced. These transfers were frequent."
In many cases workhouse children probably obtained a better standard of education than other poor children.
The 1870 Education Act brought into existence Local Authority controlled School Boards. The schools controlled by these boards were allowed to charge fees but also could be paid for out of local rates and Government grants. School Boards were elected bodies and for the first time women were allowed not only to vote in these elections but also to stand as candidates. In Manchester Lydia Becker was elected a member of the first School Board and was continually re-elected until her death twenty years later. These Boards continued until they were abolished under the Education Act of 1902. It was not until the Mundella Act of 1880 that education became compulsory for children under ten years of age.
The education of the working classes was helped considerably by the Public Libraries Act of 1850. There was much hostility to the Bill when first introduced, the Conservatives claimed that the upper and middle classes would be paying for a service that would be mainly used by the working class, and that "the more education people get, the more difficult they are to manage". The Bill was eventually passed, though with many modifications. One of the first authorities to establish a public library service was Manchester, and one of the main campaigners for the reform, Edward Edwards was appointed its first Chief Librarian. A former bricklayer, he had educated himself at the library of the local Mechanics Institute, and in 1839 became an assistant at the British Museum. He was dismissed from his post at Manchester in 1858 for his Radical political views.
The Education Act of 1906 empowered Local Authorities to provide school meals, ensuring that poor children, being fed would be better equipped to learn. Further legislation provided medical inspections and nursery schools. In 1946 Ellen Wilkinson, the country's first woman Minister for Education, introduced free milk for all school children.
In 1944 a new blueprint for schools was created. At age 11 children were to be tested and streamed to different schools according to their abilities as determined by the 11+ test. The three levels of school were known as Secondary Modern, Technical and Grammar. This form of schooling existed despite opposition from many educational experts, until the Labour Government elected in 1964, put into operation plans for a new type of secondary education, the Comprehensive system.
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Education: The Potters.|