Elementary education in the 19th century

During the late 18th century, Sunday schools held at church or chapel became widely popular, receiving much charitable backing from the middle classes. They provided children from poor families with another opportunity to receive some basic learning, usually the ability to read.

Basic learning

The promoters of Sunday schools also became involved in the provision of regular day schools, and in 1811 the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor was formed to try to develop schooling in the growing industrial towns. The society was a Church of England body, and was able to make use of the parish organisation of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and its 230 schools.

In 1814 the British and Foreign School Society was founded and catered for the children of nonconformist parents.

Children in Factories

The two societies worked closely with factory reformers to limit children’s hours of work, and felt that young children should attend school at the very least on a part-time basis. In 1833 new legislation was enacted which restricted the employment of children in factories, and in the same year the House of Commons approved a grant of £20,000 to the two voluntary bodies. It was the very first occasion on which government assistance to schools was given.

It was a small sum, but there was increasing concern about the dangers of ignoring the moral well-being of children. In 1834 the report on the Poor Law made it clear to parliamentarians that there was a duty on the government ‘to promote the religious and moral education of the labouring classes’. In particular it was felt that literacy needed to be extended so that working people had the power to understand their responsibilities as citizens.

Grant

By 1857 the annual grant was well over £500,000, and a government department was set up to oversee expenditure. Following the report of a parliamentary commission in 1861, an increase in the state grant was paid, but it was allocated to schools partly on the basis of examination results conducted by school inspectors. From the teaching point of view this was, of course, far from satisfactory. It also meant that rural and industrial areas which had no schools usually remained without them.

Related information

Historic Hansard

The House of Lords debates education in March 1833

The House of Commons debates a system of National Education in July 1833

The House of Lords debates recommendations for Ragged Schools from the Education Commission

Also within Living Heritage