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

XIV. Education

§ 7. Elementary education

The aims and methods of schools of good, but not of the first, standing, may be inferred from Knox’s Liberal Education. The author, who was master of Tunbridge school from 1778 to 1812 and a very popular writer for some forty years, was always a staunch upholder of “the established manner” in education. The basis of all sound instruction was to be found in Latin and Greek alone; but, when the foundation had been laid, it was desirable to include modern studies in the superstructure. The school was primarily concerned with the grammar of the two languages and the writing of verse and of prose in both; the list of authors to be read was but a short one. To these indispensable studies there might be added, as opportunity offered, the elements of geography and history, French, some mathematics and such accomplishments as music, drawing and fencing. These last received only a tepid encouragement from Knox, who was more warmly in favour of dancing and “the learning of the military exercise, which is now very common.” Boys were expected to read English and easy Latin books in their leisure time; it was a general rule of practice with Knox that as much self-initiated effort as possible should be exacted from the pupil. He set his face against all such debilitating aids as translations, “keys,” “introductions” and the like.

That the established curriculum was not universally satisfactory is evident from the pains Knox took to show the inadequacy of the instruction given in many private schools, commonly termed “academies,” which prepared boys for “business” and “the office.” Though these academies professed to teach many things, of which Latin or, more frequently, French was one, Knox asserted that their success was confined to reading, writing and summing. Forty years later he repeated this opinion; but the public demand in the interval had brought about a great increase in the number and efficiency of schools of this kind, the monopoly of the grammar school and the severely classical course being seriously impaired in consequence.

Carlisle (Endowed Grammar Schools, 1818) records the foundation of twenty-eight schools between 1700 and 1798, of which only six belong to the later half of the period; at least one-fourth of these twenty-eight schools, in spite of their name, confined their instruction to English reading, writing and summing. In one or two cases, the endowment was expressly said to be for the benefit of girls as well as boys. The charity schools, which, at the beginning of the century, had promised to develop into a widespread system of popular schools, ceased before the accession of George III to increase in number, and those that survived had outlived their usefulness. Sarah Trimmer (Reflections upon … charity schools, 1792), a critic not entirely unfriendly, describes them as teaching by rote religious formularies greatly beyond the capacity of children, while many of the teachers were incompetent to do better, and the whole plan of instruction was too sedentary.

The primary purpose of the Sunday schools started in 1780 by Thomas Stock, a Gloucester clergyman, and Robert Raikes, a newspaper proprietor of the same city, was the religious and moral instruction of the poor; all these schools taught reading, some taught writing also and a few added to these arts simple arithmetic or “accounts.” During the early nineteenth century, writers on public education invariably included Sunday schools and their very numerous pupils as part of the national equipment in education. These schools outdid the rapid success of the charity schools; so early as 1784, Wesley reported that he found them springing up wherever he went. In the following year, their organisation was assured by the creation of the Sunday Schools’ Union. The teachers were not all volunteers; in some instances, where there were eighteen children in a school, the teacher was paid as many pence for his day’s work, and a penny a day was deducted, or added, for each pupil less, or more, than the normal eighteen. This was done deliberately in order to induce teachers “to be more careful about the attendance of the scholars”; it was one of two, or three, devices employed in the early Sunday schools which were adopted by the government in respect of elementary day-schools at a later time.

For those who could pay a few pence weekly, there were, by the close of the eighteenth century, an unknown number of privately conducted schools which taught reading, writing and summing, either in the evening or day-time; and many men and women followed the ancient practice of supplementing their domestic employment by teaching children. Mrs. Trimmer and Joseph Lancaster (who began life as the master and proprietor of a school for the poor) both drew unfavourable pictures of the instruction given under these conditions; but their statements imply that the instruction itself was widely desired by the poor themselves and accessible even in villages. For the benefit of an even humbler rank, “schools of industry” gave instruction, for the most part to girls, in spinning, knitting and plain needlework, and to a smaller number of boys in weaving, gardening and minor handicrafts; in some cases, manual exercises were supplemented by the teaching of reading and writing. Mrs. Trimmer and Hannah More were conspicuous in organising and conducting this voluntary extension of casual and strictly local efforts, sometimes supported from the parish rates, which, from the sixteenth century onwards, had been made on behalf of pauper children. The inception of the “school of industry” seems to have been due to a most retiring, public-spirited woman, Mrs. E. Denward, of Hardres court, Canterbury, who, about the year 1786, induced Mrs. Trimmer to put the idea of such a school into practice. In method and intention, these English schools may be compared with the experiment in educating the very poor which Pestalozzi began at Neuhof some twelve years earlier.