The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Education and the Education Act, 1902

by Edith Escombe
Volume 14, 1903, pgs. 664-669

["The Act abolished the 2568 school boards set up by the Education Act 1870 and handed their duties over to Local Education Authorities (LEAs). It also brought voluntary schools under some control of the government, giving them funding." Read more about the Education Act 1902 here]

To those interested in education, the first impression produced on reading through the New Education Act is one of disappointment. So much space is allotted to the management and working of the Act, whereas—apart from the controversial religious instruction—such slight reference is made to teaching per se; whilst in Part III., relating exclusively to elementary education, the word "children" is only once mentioned.

It seems such a mighty mill of organization for grinding knowledge into pot-hooks and vulgar fractions; and the reader may, perhaps, be forgiven should he wonder if the dame school and dunce's cap of the past were not simpler methods for obtaining the same results. But an Act of IV. Parts and 27 Sections cannot be laid aside with a mere cursory glance. These pages represent the hard work of several weeks before the House—endless debates, heated controversies—not to mention the labour entailed in drafting the Bill itself. With this year the working of the same Act is placed in the hands of the elected men and women of every town and village throughout the length and breadth of England, who thus become the operatives of this mighty mill; and with them rest the success or failure of the scheme, for in their keeping lies the Education of the Act.

Part II., Section 2 (1) opens with the words: "The local education authority shall consider the educational needs of their area," and in these words lie, or should lie, the educational force and power of the Act.

Hitherto the child of the Essex agricultural labourer has been following the same course of instruction as the child of the Birmingham mechanic or artisan; the boy destined for the colliery or the girl intended for domestic service have followed—however distantly—the same curriculum as the sons and daughters of the smaller tradesmen or the teacher's own children. On the face of it, the conditions are bound to result—as they have done—in failure. In towns, the results have been somewhat more favourable; it is in agricultural districts that the effects have been so disastrous. In urban districts, the elementary education has in many instances been supplemented by secondary and technical schools; whereas in rural districts girls and boys have, at the age of 13 or 14, been returned to their homes unfitted for the work they are required to perform, and have in consequence "flocked to the towns," to compete with the children of cities in the terrible struggle for work and position, whilst sharing with them in the garish pleasures of the towns, having, as farmers tell, "no love of the land or of the animals."

"The local education authority shall consider the educational needs of their area": if only for this phrase, let the new Education Act be greeted with a cheer!

Passing to Part III., Section 5, it is stated that "the local education authority" shall "be responsible for, and have the control of all secular instruction in public elementary schools," so that from the very entry of the child upon its school career, the education can—and should—be directed according to the needs of each respective locality. With these two clauses, applying as they do to both elementary and higher education, there is given an opportunity for adapting instruction—and the mode of instruction—to the needs of those it is hoped to benefit individually, not losing sight of national efficiency as the underlying fundamental principle.

Past history has been written for our learning, and it is for each local education authority to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the facts to be learnt therefrom. Satisfactory education is the instruction which trains a child to fill, in after life, those positions for which by circumstance he is naturally destined. To study the educational history of the past thirty years, and to contemplate the present state of national and individual inefficiency, is sufficient confirmation of the highly unsatisfactory condition of our national education. Those who are in favour of the present system will quote instances of scholars who have risen from the Board School to be "teachers at Oxford," wranglers, and what not; but these examples are the exception, and of the ultimate career of the scholars, nothing further is heard. Whereas, on the other hand is heard from all sides the wail of inefficiency; no servants, no skilled hands, and worst of all, no agricultural labourers. The lack of domestic servants can, to a great extent, be met by ladies doing the work themselves, and learning skilled trades, such as bookbinding, dress-making, basket-work, fine needle-work, etc., or taking up such occupations as dairy-work, gardening, fruit-growing; but, so far as the labour question is concerned, matters are less hopeful. In many counties the country districts are becoming depopulated. The children of agricultural labourers leave school with no applicable knowledge, incapable of and with no taste for farm-work, and drift into the towns, leaving the least intelligent and least capable to inadequately carry on the ever-decreasing work. Lord Londonberry, President of the Board of Education, addressing a conference of the Chief Inspectors of Elementary Schools, dwelt upon the above question; "I am," he said, "an ardent advocate of the practical education of children in the wants and requirements of their future, by which I mean that I think the surroundings and natural interests of these children should be considered, and their liberty under our regulations taken advantage of by the teachers in their respective districts." The late Archbishop of Canterbury, referring to the same question, said: "The use of machinery has been growing on the farms of England for many years, and yet how many boys in our national schools know the construction of a reaping-machine or a threshing-machine? A knowledge of this would be deeply interesting, both to the children and to the parents of the children, and to win their interest is of the highest value. A boy who has been trained to use his brains on the understanding of the science which is, as it were, in constant operation around him, is sure to find new calls in the course of his life for using his brains in the same way. The material we already possess for a good system of education is very good, but it requires very careful handling."

Mr. Balfour, speaking at the Mansion House on commercial education, said: "It is strange that we, who are thus concerned with this universal commerce, should be a nation that has lagged behind all the great nations in the world, not merely in commercial education, which is a portion of technical education, but also in many of the wider and more important aspects of national education." The same speaker, in his speech before the House of Commons, March 20th, 1902, said: "It will be for each district to determine what is the species of education most needed by the children of the district to fit them for their future work; a subject which no central department can so well judge of as those whom the parents of the children elect, and who are well acquainted with all the circumstances in which they live." [Unfortunately, as the Act now stands, the managers are not directly elected by the parents of the children].

An anonymous writer in a recent issue of The Standard, signing himself "Country Manager," writers: "We shall shortly be settling down under the new Education Bill, with new authorities, new managers, and a new syllabus. Could we not induce the framers of the new syllabus to include an hour's technical instruction every day in country schools? In the play-ground or close at hand, a shop or convenient shed might be erected, where the boys might learn a little practical carpentering, shoe-mending, plumbing or tailoring . . . That a country lad should know all the rivers in Austria may, in some latent manner, be useful to him; but that he should know how to mend a chair, patch a shoe, glaze a window, and mend a garment, would seem to be of far greater service to him in after life."

The Duke of Devonshire, in a recent speech, said: "It was constantly said that the farmers were no friends of education. Well, if there was any truth in that statement, he for one had never wondered at it . . . They had seen it mainly from this point of view, that it had taken the best and brightest boys and girls from the country districts away to employment in the towns, and that it had done nothing to improve the character of the labour which was still left to them in the country. The education which the children received in our villages and rural districts might have been such as to fit the children for occupations in towns and large populous centres in various branches of industry, but it had not been such as to make a boy or girl a better member of the agricultural community. It was worth while, at this crisis, for every one of us to consider what were the objects we really hoped to gain by education . . . What we wanted was to form the character of the children; to make them honest, industrious, more reflecting and steadfast, and, next, to improve their intelligence so that they might be more capable of doing whatever class of work might fall to their lot in life, in a better and more conscientious manner."

Surely in rural districts a system of half-day school instruction might be arranged whereby a child should have the opportunity of learning out-door and home work, as well as mere book knowledge, or to insure such instruction being given; to arrange half-day work being devoted—in the case of the girls—to domestic training in the schools. In healthy country districts, let the incarceration for infants be limited to half a day; however light and well chosen the occupation, nature and pure open air will be the better masters. If the mothers tell how the children cry when kept from school, let adults in their turn weep over the modern child who has ceased to make daisy-chains and cowslip-balls, to search for fairies, or to wonder what the stars are!

"The great difficulty is, that we have not yet learned the relative meaning of ignorance and knowledge. We do no teach the right things, and we do not get the best results. We get bits of information and progressive series of bits. We have flooded the child's mind, not developed it."

These words were written by an American in 1888 with regard to the American system, but they may be applied with equal aptness to English schools in the present year. He further states:—"Train our teachers well, but allow them to work out results. It is not information that we should ask of school children so much as it is character and mental life . . . To make education amusing, an easy road without toil, is to train up a race of men and women who will shun what is displeasing to them."

In Section 9 it is stated that "the Board of Education . . . shall have regard to the interest of secular instruction, to the wishes of parents as to the education of their children, and to the economy of the rates."

Here are three distinct statements not lightly to be passed over by those in authority. (1) "The interest of secular instruction." (2) "The wishes of the parents" (hitherto entirely disregarded). (3) "The economy of the rates" (a question disregarded with equal callousness). The interest of secular education is undoubtedly the interest of the locality in question, and in all probability will be found to coincide with the wishes of the parents in their respective districts, whilst the economy of the rates has become a matter of moment to the public at large in these days of reduced incomes, industrial and agricultural depression, and heavy Income-tax.

The wisdom of the above Section (9) if not nullified, is at any rate considerably qualified, by the suggestions contained in Part IV., Section 23. (1) Where it is stated that:—"The power of a Council under this Act shall include the provision of vehicles or the payment of reasonable travelling expenses for teachers or children attending school or college whenever the Council shall consider such provision or payment required by the circumstances of their area or of any part thereof"; and in Clause (2) where it is directed that:—"The power of a Council . . . shall include power to make provision for the purpose outside their area, and shall include power to provide or assist in providing scholarships for, and to pay or assist in paying the fees of, students ordinarily resident in the area of the Council at schools or colleges or hostels within or without that area."

Little scope is here left for individual enterprise! No fear need henceforth be entertained for future village Hampdens, or mute inglorious Miltons! And yet . . . may there be no fear for the future character of a people that is to gain its knowledge by means of a drain upon the classes that are not to benefit by the result? Was it not strenuous effort against obstacles and difficulties that made our ancestors what they were? No amount of peptonised book-education will compensate for an emasculated manhood, an effeminated womanhood. It were well for 'the educational authority' to keep in mind the words of Sir William Hamilton that "all true education is growth, and what we grow to be concerns us more than what we live to know."

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, October 2008