Education in Britain 1750-1914

W.B. Stephens

Macmillan 1998
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011 http://dannyreviews.com/
In Education in Britain 1750-1914 Stephens takes a broad approach, emphasizing social and cultural changes and covering general literacy and the foundations of scientific and technical knowledge as well as the formal institutions of elementary, secondary and higher education. He divides his period of study roughly around 1860, and for each part has chapters on elementary schooling, on secondary and higher education, on literacy and the culture of reading, and on the links between education and science and technology.

The provision of voluntary schools was dominated by the British and Foreign School Society (non-denominational but largely non-conformist) and the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church. For the poor there were dame schools, the "infant schools" pioneered by Robert Owen, and "ragged" and "industrial" schools. The situation was similar in Scotland, but

"the enduring Scottish belief that a democratic (or at least meritocratic) educational system promoted social harmony, ensured that divisions between working- and middle-class schooling never became as clear-cut as in England and Wales."

Government funding brought government interference, but

"the Benthamites lost control of the British and Foreign School Society to the evangelicals, and religious influence was still strong enough in the 1840s for the various churches in Britain to extract from government a say in the appointment and activities of the inspectors assigned to their schools and to slow the process of secularisation."

Some solid evidence for basic literacy rates comes from figures for school attendance and the proportion of signatures at weddings. There were correlations with day school attendance, the strength of the Established Church and the attitude of its clergy, and community social and occupational structure, as well as negative trends in areas growing too fast for the schools to keep up (including many mining districts) or with smallholders dependent on family labour. Female literacy in England often followed father's occupational type rather than male literacy.

The evolution of an elite Public school system played a role in "the growing fusion of the landed and the new opulent upper middle classes into a larger, broader-based and more professional governing and social élite". Some grammar schools declined, while others emulated Public school curriculum and culture. Higher education saw the establishment of University and Kings Colleges in London around 1830 and serious reforms of the relatively poor quality Oxbridge system starting in the 1850s.

Downplaying the importance of literacy and science for the Industrial Revolution, Stephens highlights the role of technicians, skilled workers and artisans, mathematics, provincial scientific associations, and mechanics institutes.

"[N]either the formal literary skills provided by elementary schooling, nor the theoretical scientific knowledge disseminated at a higher level were as significant in the flowering of the British economy in the period of the Industrial Revolution as sometimes suggested. ... [they] are likely to have contributed to economic enterprise indirectly, through influencing the way men thought and behaved, and by assisting the exploitation of the practical skills learned elsewhere."

The introduction of (local) government-funded and compulsory elementary education was a rarely revolutionary process, in which the Education Act 1870 was only the most prominent event. In England and Wales the result was "an untidy compromise, with public schooling controlled partly by democratically elected local bodies and partly by voluntary religious organizations". There was great variation: "sometimes clerical and other opponents of board schools gained control of school boards [and] parsimony ruled", whereas "some of the powerful city boards pursued active and progressive policies". Stephens also touches here on the debate over the extent and quality of private and grant-aided voluntary schools before the introduction of state education.

The "publicly financed, locally controlled secondary education" that was gradually introduced ended up being more traditional and academic than specialised, which Stephens argues was not so bad an outcome as some have claimed. It helped to prevent a divided system, though "the cultural gap between the secondary education of the minority and the elementary schooling of the mass of the population was not abolished by the advent of public secondary schooling". Scotland took longer to evolve a distinctive secondary system. There was a rapid expansion of secondary education for girls:

"In England and Wales, in the 1860s, there were no girls' grammar schools and only a handful of academically orientated proprietary schools. ... by 1914, there were 349 girls' and 237 mixed secondary schools receiving government grants, besides large private establishments."

The reforms of existing universities and the introduction of new ones were part of a reorientation from the needs of clergy and landed gentry to those of the new professional and business elites. Scottish and Welsh universities had a broader social basis. Looking at the education system as a whole, Stephens sees a trend of democratization rather than, as has been argued, segmentation.

In the debate over a perceived decline in Britain's economic success leading up to the First World War, Stephens is sceptical of the idea that the Public schools and Oxbridge were responsible for an emphasis on classics and history which crippled science and technical teaching. Countering claims that Britain lagged other industrialised states, he suggests that it had a more varied and flexible education system than its rivals, with universities supplemented by local technical institutes, private organisations, and informal on-the-job workshop training.

Stephens focuses in his final chapter on working class reading. Driven by cheaper printing and improved transport and communications, the boom here predated compulsory elementary education. There were competing attempts to influence reading, towards religious instruction or classical political economy (to demonstrate the futility of trade unions and socialism). Politically radical publications declined along with the taxes that were supposed to restrict them.

"From the later nineteenth century the truly working-class press was the cheap Sunday and daily newspapers, which might support liberal and radical causes in their pages, but whose raison d'etre was commercial rather than political."

There is nothing new about the orientation of mass literature to "the sensational, sentimental and salacious".


Some of the material in this is relatively dry basic data: "The 77 per cent of spouses who signed in 1871 in England and Wales embraced some Welsh counties with only 50-60 per cent, Bedfordshire with 68, Monmouthshire with 62 and Staffordshire with 60." There are only a few tables, used to present geographical variation in schooling and signature rates, and there are places where more might have been useful. (There are also places where maps might have helped: to illustrate, for example, a statement that English Public schools were "usually situated in the rural and Anglican south".)

This kind of low-level data is a relatively small part of Education in Britain, however, and much more space is devoted to the engaging "big question" material, where Stephens weighs in on both contemporary and modern debates. Overall there is a good balance between detail and the broader picture.

There is little on politics: local struggles on school boards are occasionally touched on, but there is nothing on the national debates over legislation and policy. Nor is there is there any treatment of home-schooling, with governesses mentioned only as a job prospect for educated women.

Education is often heavily politicised, but Stephens seems free of wildly partisan prejudice. He is sceptical about the extent to which education was used as a means of social control and he defends Oxbridge and the Public schools from many of the accusations levelled at them. But he is also sceptical about claims that private schooling could have replicated what was achieved by government provision and funding of education.

A survey like this is necessarily dependent on secondary sources, and Stephens only touches in a few places on primary sources; he does however provide full notes and a bibliography. Education in Britain will be an outline for education students but makes a good introduction for general readers, especially those who also have an interest in the history of science and technology.

February 2011

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%T Education in Britain 1750-1914
%A Stephens, W.B.
%I Macmillan
%D 1998
%O hardcover, notes, bibliography, index
%G ISBN 033360511X
%P 220pp