Andrew Bell, the son of a barber, was born at St. Andrews in Scotland on 27th March 1753. At the age of sixteen he entered St. Andrews University to study mathematics and natural philosophy. After completing his studies he moved to America where he became a tutor to a family that owned a tobacco planation in Virginia.
Bell returned to St. Andrews in 1781 where he took orders in the Church of England. After a period at the Episcopal Chapel in Leith he became an army chaplain in India. Eight years later he was appointed superintendent of the Madras Male Orphan Asylum, an institution founded by the East India Company for the sons of its soldiers.
The teachers at the Madras Male Orphan Asylum were badly paid and of poor quality. Bell had the idea that some of the teaching could be done by the pupils themselves. He selected a clever eight year old boy who he taught to teach the alphabet by writing on sand. This approach was successful and so he taught other boys how to teach other subjects. Bell called his new system of education, mutual instruction.
Bell returned to England in 1796 and the following year published An Experiment in Education, an account of the teaching methods he had developed in Madras. In 1798 St. Botolph's School in Aldgate became the first institution in England to use Bell's system. Other teachers also adopted mutual instruction, including Joseph Lancaster, a young teacher at the Borough School in London. Lancaster amended Bell's methods and gave it the name, the monitorial system.
Lancaster was a Quaker and his approach was adopted by other Nonconformist schoolteachers. Some of Bell's supporters in the Church of England became concerned about this development. Sarah Trimmer, who used Bell's methods to teacher her twelve children, warned in an article published in the Edinburgh Review that Lancaster's example might increase the growth of Nonconformity in England.
Bell responded to the fears expressed by Trimmer by publishing, Sketch of a National Institution (1808). In this pamphlet Bell urged the Church of England to use his methods throughout the country. Progress was slow and so in 1811 Bell formed the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church. Bell became superintendent of the society and with the help of people such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, the movement grew rapidly.
By the time Andrew Bell died on 27th January 1832, the Society for the Promoting the Education of the Poor had established 12,000 schools in Britain.