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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 29. The state assumes responsibility for elementary education; The revised code

Shortly before parliament, in 1833, voted £20,000 per annum in aid of schools for the people, John Arthur Roebuck unsuccessfully moved a resolution in the commons in favour of universal, compulsory education, the professional training of teachers in normal schools and the appointment of a minister of education, in all these proposals avowedly following the example of Prussia and of France. The state policy here outlined was only partially realised during the ensuing seventy years, throughout which period it was almost continuously discussed. The appointment in 1839 of a committee of the privy council on education to “superintend the application of any sums voted by Parliament for the purpose of promoting public education” was an assumption of direct responsibility by the state which promised to have far-reaching consequences. But the committee suffered defeat at the very outset. The first requirement of a great system of public education was the existence of a body of competent teachers. Lord Melbourne’s ministry, therefore, proposed to establish a national normal school, the details of their plan being committed to the secretary of the committee, James Phillips Kay (Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth), a close student of Swiss educational practice.

In order to maintain religious instruction as an integral part of the scheme, and to respect “the rights of conscience,” it was proposed to give both denominational and undenominational instruction in such a manner as to safeguard conscientious objectors. But this was to raise the “religious difficulty” in connection with a policy not too popular on other grounds; and so loud was the clamour, that the government threw over the training college scheme as a whole and confined itself to the appointment of inspectors of schools. The National society and the British and Foreign School society had, from the beginning of their history, trained their teachers; this “voluntary” arrangement was continued and the number of training colleges was greatly increased by different religious bodies after the government’s failure in 1839. In 1846, the committee of council, still intent on the creation of a corps of teachers, materially altered the monitorial system by permitting teachers to engage apprentices, or pupil-teachers, who, after five years’ service in the receipt of government pay, became eligible by examination for admission to one of the “voluntary” training colleges, which the state aided. The system of apprenticeship for teachers has undergone great changes since its introduction; but denominational training colleges still take part with universities and university colleges (since 1890) and municipal training colleges (since the legislation of 1902) in the preparation of teachers for the work of elementary schools.

A greater admission of state responsibility was made in 1856 by the establishment of the Education department for the supervision of elementary education; with this department was associated that of Science and Art, a public office which had been created three years earlier. The ministries of Aberdeen and Palmerston were marked by a series of abortive bills (1853–8) designed to bring public elementary instruction under public control in conjunction with expedients to meet the religious difficulty or to ignore it. Both parties to the controversy agreed that more information on the working of the existing arrangement was required, and, in 1858, the Newcastle commission was appointed for the purpose, and to report on measures likely to extend “sound and cheap elementary instruction to all classes of the people.” The commissioners’ report (1861) complained that elementary schools, as a whole, neglected the rudiments and the less capable children. Their outstanding recommendation was that the financial aid given to any school should depend, in part, upon the attainments of its pupils as determined by the inspector’s examination; effect was given to this recommendation by Robert Lowe’s “revised code” of 1862, which introduced what is known as “payment by results.” This specious phrase won public favour for a very mischievous method of administration. In the first place, as Kay-Shuttleworth strongly urged, there was no “payment” for those moral “results” which were the best outcome of the schoolmaster’s labours, and his devotion was diverted from these to the bare rudiments of knowledge which could be assessed and paid for. The school depended for its existence upon the capacity of the children to read, write and sum; the ability to use these tools in acquiring knowledge and, still more, the manual exercises, which hitherto had formed part of the education of children of handicraftsmen and labourers, were, in consequence, thrust aside. In the struggle for grants, the teaching, neglecting the intelligent, was adapted to the lowest capacity and became very mechanical as Matthew Arnold pointed out at an early stage in the system’s history. Poorer schools, unable to employ teachers skilled in securing the highest “results,” found, to their cost, that the watchword of the new order was habentibus dabitur, and their attempt to keep going was a weary business for all concerned. Until the system was abolished in 1890, attempts at improvement or palliation were, from time to time, made by the Education department in response to pressure from teachers and school-managers.