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

XIV. Education

§ 36. The Education Act of 1870

The Reform bill of 1832 had led the state to assume a very small measure of responsibility for public instruction; but mere trifling could not satisfy the demand for popular education heightened by the much greater extension of the parliamentary franchise effected in the bill of 1867. Nearly as many children were believed to be without schools of any kind as were in attendance at all schools, state-aided or uninspected, put together. Abortive bills and resolutions in parliament urged the imposition of an education rate, the provision of free education and the safeguard of a conscience clause in schools. Outside parliament, there was loud and persistent agitation, which centred chiefly about the question of religious instruction and the rights of conscience. Finally, in 1870, the government introduced a bill to provide for public elementary education in England and Wales, which was passed after six months of contentious debate. Its introducer, William Edward Forster, explained that its purpose was supplementary, to ensure an efficient school in every part of the kingdom, to make the erection of such schools compulsory where they did not already exist, but to use compulsion in such cases only; for this purpose, it was requisite to maintain an effectual conscience clause, undenominational inspection and a standard of efficiency in secular study. In the course of the debates, it was decided that ratepayers, not town councils or vestires, should elect school boards (the education authorities formed by the bill), to take voluntary schools out of the measure and to forbid the teaching in board schools of any formulary distinctive of a particular religious body. This last clause favoured, at the expense of all other denominations, that which was completely satisfied by bible-reading. However expedient at the moment, it was but an imperfect compromise which did not really solve the religious difficulty; it merely kept it alive. But the full significance of the Education act of 1870 lies in the fact that the English state then definitely assumed direct responsibility for public education, whose provision became a state service like that of defence or the administration of justice; it was no longer a matter of private charity conducted by the well-to-do for the benefit of the poor. For the time being, this responsibility was confined to elementary instruction; but its extension was unavoidable. The lack of schools drove most school boards into activities which rendered the “supplementary” nature of the act a wrong description, and the boards themselves became great corporations which overshadowed the voluntary system they had been created to supplement. The principle of universally compulsory education was asserted, but it was so fenced by the permissive powers granted to the boards and by the want of schools as not unfrequently to be inoperative. The principle was enforced by an act passed in 1880, rather more than a year in advance of the French compulsory law.