Spartacus Blog

State Education in Crisis

Tuesday, 9th May, 2018

John Simkin

One of the first decisions that William the Conqueror made when he arrived in 1066 was to ban peasants from learning to read and write. He also gave orders for the Bible to be only available in Latin. This was in direct contrast to Alfred the Great (848-899) who had insisted that all his officials obtain wisdom (learnt to read). He was the first king of the Anglo-Saxons. He was also the first of our kings to be taught how to read and write. According to Patrick Wormald the "idea of wisdom observably drove Alfred's programme of spiritual and cultural revival". (1)

His close adviser, John Assler, supports this view: "Meanwhile amid wars and the frequent hindrances of this present life, the incursions of the Pagans and his own daily infirmities of body, the King did not cease to carry on the government and to engage in hunting of every form; to teach his goldsmiths and all his artificers, his falconers, hawkers and dog-keepers; to erect by his own inventive skill finer and more sumptuous buildings than had ever been the wont of his ancestors; to read aloud Saxon books, and above all, not only to command others to learn Saxon poems by heart but to study them himself in private to the best of his power... Moreover, he loved his bishops and the whole order of clergy, his earls and nobles, and all his servants and friends with wonderful affection, and he looked upon their sons, who were brought up in the royal household, as no less dear to him than his own, never ceasing night and day, among other things, to instruct them in all good morals and to teach them letters." (2)

Alfred the Great introduced our first education system. The emphasis was on a school at court itself rather than in the kingdom's major churches. Children of lesser as well as noble birth were schooled there. "The schooling was to begin in the vernacular, not for its own sake but, as Alfred said, to lay foundations on which Latin learning could then be built in those continuing to higher rank.... The vernacular received such a boost that English now became a language of prose literature, with all that was to mean for its survival." (3)

Alfred decided to translate books into Anglo-Saxon. His first book was Pastoral Care, a treatise on the responsibilities of the clergy, that had been written by Pope Gregory I in about 590. This was followed by
History against the Pagans by Paulus Orosius. This book was written in about 416 and Alfred added a lot of historical information that was not in the original book. He also provided an Anglo-Saxon translation of Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a book that had been translated from Old English into Latin by Bede in the 7th century. It is this work that has given him the title of the "father of English prose". (4)

For most of our past our rulers have considered it very dangerous for people to be able to read and write. As the great British philosopher, John of Salisbury, who lived in the 12th century, wisely said: "knowledge is power". In 1159 he commented: "We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours." (5)

William the Conqueror was a devout Catholic and had talks with Pope Alexander II before the invasion. It is claimed by William of Poitiers that William had papal support for his invasion. There are two very good reasons for this. William promised that he would grant 25% of England to the Church. Alexander was also very angry with the English throne for appointing Stigand as Archbishop of Canterbury without papal approval. (6)

The main book that people wanted to read during this period was the Bible. It was vitally important to the Pope and our rulers that it was not available in a language that most people used. William therefore arranged for all Bibles in English to be destroyed. Therefore, the only people in the country who could read the Bible had to have a good understanding of Latin. It was therefore only priests who knew what was in the Bible. It was also the priests who taught in the few schools that existed. (7)

It was not until the 14th century that the idea of the Bible being available in English became a serious issue. The man behind this was John Wycliffe. As one of the historians of this period of history, John Foxe, has pointed out: "Wycliffe, seeing Christ's gospel defiled by the errors and inventions of these bishops and monks, decided to do whatever he could to remedy the situation and teach people the truth. He took great pains to publicly declare that his only intention was to relieve the church of its idolatry, especially that concerning the sacrament of communion. This, of course, aroused the anger of the country's monks and friars, whose orders had grown wealthy through the sale of their ceremonies and from being paid for doing their duties. Soon their priests and bishops took up the outcry." (8)

It is believed that John Wycliffe and his followers, known as Lollards, began translating the Bible into English. Henry Knighton, the canon of St Mary's Abbey, Leicester, reported disapprovingly: "Christ delivered his gospel to the clergy and doctors of the church, that they might administer it to the laity and to weaker persons, according to the states of the times and the wants of men. But this Master John Wycliffe translated it out of Latin into English, and thus laid it out more open to the laity, and to women, who could read, than it had formerly been to the most learned of the clergy, even to those of them who had the best understanding. In this way the gospel-pearl is cast abroad, and trodden under foot of swine, and that which was before precious both to clergy and laity, is rendered, as it were, the common jest of both. The jewel of the church is turned into the sport of the people, and what had hitherto been the choice gift of the clergy and of divines, is made for ever common to the laity." (9)

John Wycliffe
John Wycliffe

In September 1376, Wycliffe was summoned from Oxford by John of Gaunt to appear before the king's council. He was warned about his behaviour. Thomas Walsingham, a Benedictine monk at St Albans Abbey, reported that on 19th February, 1377, Wycliffe was told to appear before Archbishop Simon Sudbury and charged with seditious preaching. Anne Hudson has argued: "Wycliffe's teaching at this point seems to have offended on three matters: that the pope's excommunication was invalid, and that any priest, if he had power, could pronounce release as well as the pope; that kings and lords cannot grant anything perpetually to the church, since the lay powers can deprive erring clerics of their temporalities; that temporal lords in need could legitimately remove the wealth of possessioners." On 22nd May 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls condemning the views of John Wycliffe. (10)

John Wycliffe tried to employ the Christian vision of justice to achieve social change: "It was through the teachings of Christ that men sought to change society, very often against the official priests and bishops in their wealth and pride, and the coercive powers of the Church itself." (11) Barbara Tuchman has claimed that John Wycliffe was the first "modern man". She goes on to argue: "Seen through the telescope of history, he (Wycliffe) was the most significant Englishman of his time." (12)

In 1379 Richard II called a parliament to raise money to pay for the continuing war against the French. After much debate it was decided to impose another Poll Tax. This time it was to be a graduated tax, which meant that the richer you were, the more tax you paid. For example, the Duke of Lancaster and the Archbishop of Canterbury had to pay £6.13s.4d., the Bishop of London, 80 shillings, wealthy merchants, 20 shillings, but peasants were only charged 4d.

The proceeds of this tax was quickly spent on the war or absorbed by corruption. In 1380, Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested a new poll tax of three groats (one shilling) per head over the age of fifteen. "There was a maximum payment of twenty shillings from men whose families and households numbered more than twenty, thus ensuring that the rich paid less than the poor. A shilling was a considerable sum for a working man, almost a week's wages. A family might include old persons past work and other dependents, and the head of the family became liable for one shilling on each of their 'polls'. This was basically a tax on the labouring classes." (13)

The peasants felt it was unfair that they should pay the same as the rich. They also did not feel that the tax was offering them any benefits. For example, the English government seemed to be unable to protect people living on the south coast from French raiders. Most peasants at this time only had an income of about one groat per week. This was especially a problem for large families. For many, the only way they could pay the tax was by selling their possessions.

John Ball toured Kent giving sermons attacking the poll tax. He also preached on other subjects. He told them that Jesus taught that man should act in a non-violent way. He quoted him as saying: "Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” (Luke 6.27) "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God." (Matthew 5.9) “Do not use force against an evil man.. But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5.39) “Do not resist evil with evil.” (Luke 6.37) “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26.52) They also believed that God was on the side of the poor. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." (Mark 10:25)

The Romans had persecuted the early Christians because they followed the teachings of Jesus Christ. By the 4th century it was the main religion of the urban poor. According to Karl Kautsky, the early Christians put forward "communist" ideas that appealed to the "proletariat" (Romans who did not own property). This is why Emperor Constantine decided in 313 to nationalise the Christian Church. (14)

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, heard about these dangerous sermons he gave orders that Ball should not be allowed to preach in church. Ball responded by giving talks on village greens. The Archbishop now gave instructions that all people found listening to Ball's sermons should be punished. When this failed to work, Ball was arrested and in April 1381 he was sent to Maidstone Prison. (15) At his trial it was claimed that Ball told the court he would be "released by twenty thousand armed men". (16)

Many peasants decided that it was time to support the ideas proposed by John Ball and his followers. It was not long before Wat Tyler, a former soldier in the Hundred Years War, emerged as the leader of the peasants. Tyler's first decision was to march to Maidstone to free John Ball from prison. This was therefore the beginning of the Peasants' Revolt. "John Ball had been set free and was safe among the commons of Kent, and he was bursting to pour out the passionate words which had been bottled up for three months, words which were exactly what his audience wanted to hear." (17)

The Peasants' Revolt was eventually defeated and John Ball was taken to St Albans to stand trial. "He denied nothing, he freely admitted all the charges without regrets or apologies. He was proud to stand before them and testify to his revolutionary faith." He was sentenced to death, but William Courtenay, the Bishop of London, granted a two-day stay of execution in the hope that he could persuade Ball to repent of his treason and so save his soul. John Ball refused and he was hanged, drawn and quartered on 15th July, 1381. (18)

In the 15th century the ruling elite decided to take control of the education of their sons and a series of private schools were founded. The most famous of these was Eton College, founded by Henry VI in 1440. It was a great success and so far have provided 19 of our 54 prime ministers. After leaving Eton they would attend the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. These two universities have so far educated 41 prime ministers. Only nine of them had been educated at non-fee-paying schools. After the election of Harold Wilson in 1964 it was claimed that we would never again have a public school educated prime minister. In fact, three of our last four prime ministers, were educated at fee-paying schools.

In the 16th century the struggle for an English Bible became intensified. The Church was especially worried by the invention of the printing-press in 1439. No longer were we dependent on priest's hand-writing books. The most important figure in this was William Tyndale, a young priest, who began work on an English translation of the New Testament. This was a very dangerous activity for ever since 1408 to translate anything from the Bible into English was a capital offence. In 1523 he travelled to London for a meeting with Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London. Tunstall refused to support Tyndale in this venture but did not organize his persecution. Tyndale later wrote that he now realized that "to translate the New Testament… there was no place in all England" and left for Germany in April 1524. (19)

Tyndale argued: "All the prophets wrote in the mother tongue... Why then might they (the scriptures) not be written in the mother tongue... They say, the scripture is so hard, that thou could never understand it... They will say it cannot be translated into our tongue... they are false liars." In Cologne he translated the New Testament into English and it was printed by Protestant supporters in Worms in 1526. It was then smuggled back into Britain.

Jasper Ridley has argued that the Tyndale Bible created a revolution in religious belief: "The people who red Tyndale's Bible could discover that although Christ had appointed St Peter to be head of his Church, there was nothing in the Bible which said that the Bishops of Rome were St Peter's successors and that Peter's authority over the Church had passed to the Popes... The Bible stated that God had ordered the people not to worship graven images, the images and pictures of the saints, and the station of the cross, should not be placed in churches and along the highways... Since the days of Pope Gregory VII in the eleventh century the Catholic Church had enforced the rule that priests should not marry but should remain apart from the people as a special celibate caste... The Protestants, finding a text in the Bible that a bishop should be the husband of one wife, believed that all priests should be allowed to marry." (20)

John Foxe tells the story of how Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London, arranged with Augustine Packingham, an English merchant who secretly supported Tyndale, to buy every copy of the translation's next edition. As a result, 6,000 copies were burnt of the steps of St Paul's Cathedral. (21) Thomas More targeted Tyndale's friends. Richard Byfield, a monk accused of reading Tyndale, was one who died a graphically horrible death as described in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. More stamped on his ashes and cursed him." (22) John Frith, who had had helped Tyndale with his translation, was also captured by More and suffered a slow death at Smithfield. (23)

William Tyndale
Portrait of William Tyndale that appeared in the first publication of his English Bible

Tyndale now began to work on the Old Testament. He was helped in this venture by Miles Coverdale and John Frith. He lived in Antwerp as a guest of Thomas Poyntz, an English merchant. In 1534 Tyndale was joined by John Rogers who was another talented translator. (24) The continued export of Tyndale's Bibles into England upset conservatives such as Lord Chancellor Thomas More who insisted that anyone who read and distributed the Bible should suffer a "painful death". (25)

In 1530 Henry VIII gave orders that all English Bibles were to be destroyed. People caught distributing the Tyndale Bible in England were burnt at the stake. This attempt to destroy Tyndale's Bible was very successful as only two copies have survived. Lacey Baldwin Smith accused William Tyndale of sharing More's paranoia: "More and his chief polemical rival, William Tyndale, did not hesitate to indulge in paranoid hyperbole. A conspiratorial approach to human affairs was just as central to Tyndale's thinking as it was to More's... Catholic or Protestant, conservative or reformer, each side depicted the opposition as a small band of evil men and women dressed in the cloak of conspiracy and carrying the dagger of sedition." (26)

Lord Chancellor More sent a close friend, Sir Thomas Elyot, to try to arrange the arrest of Tyndale. This ended in failure and the next person to try was Henry Phillips. He had gambled away money entrusted to him by his father to give to someone in London, and had fled abroad. Phillips offered his services to help capture Tyndale. After befriending Tyndale he led him into a trap on 21st May, 1535. (27) Tyndale was taken at once to Pierre Dufief, the Procurer-General, who immediately raided Poyntz's house and took away all Tyndale's property, including his books and papers. Luckily, his work on the Old Testament was being kept by John Rogers. Tyndale was taken to Vilvorde Castle, outside Brussels, where he was kept for the next sixteen months. (28)

Pierre Dufief had a reputation for hunting down heretics. He was motivated by the fact he was given a proportion of the confiscated property of his victims, and a large fee. Tyndale was tried by seventeen commissioners, led by three chief accusers. At their head was the greatest heresy-hunter in Europe, Jacobus Latomus, from the new Catholic University of Louvain, a long-time opponent of Erasmus as well as of Martin Luther. Tyndale conducted his own defence. He was found guilty but he was not burnt alive, as a mark of his distinction as a scholar, on 6th October, 1536, he was strangled first, and then his body was burnt. John Foxe reports that his last words were "Lord, open the king of England's eyes!" (29)

The death of William Tyndale (1563)
The death of William Tyndale (1563)

William Tyndale's main enemy, Sir Thomas More, was executed on 6th July, 1535. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, were now the key political figures in England. They wanted the Bible to be available in English. This was a controversial issue as William Tyndale had been denounced as a heretic and ordered to be burnt at the stake by Henry VIII eleven years before, for producing such a Bible. The edition they promoted, although mainly the work of Tyndale, had the name of Miles Coverdale on the cover. Cranmer approved the Coverdale version on 4th August 1538, and asked Cromwell to present it to the king in the hope of securing royal authority for it to be available in England. (30)

Henry agreed to the proposal on 30th September, 1538. Every parish had to purchase and display a copy of the Coverdale Bible in the nave of their church for everybody who was literate to read it. "The clergy was expressly forbidden to inhibit access to these scriptures, and were enjoined to encourage all those who could do so to study them." (31) Cranmer was delighted and wrote to Cromwell praising his efforts and claiming that "besides God's reward, you shall obtain perpetual memory for the same within the realm." (32)

The next struggle was over educating the people to read. At this time about 97% of the British people were illiterate. This fell to about 80% by the middle of the 17th century. The English Civil War gave a major boost to the desire to read with the first appearance of newspapers (they were called newssheets or newsbooks). In 1643 the Royalists began publishing Mercurius Aulicus and Parliament responded by producing Mercurius Britanicus. They of course were no more than propaganda sheets recording the atrocities being carried out by the opposition. They were extremely popular taking over from the drama and entertainment left by the closure of the theatres. (33)

Some members of the New Model Army began complaining they were fighting for the rights of Parliament when they themselves did not have the vote. This included Lieutenant-Colonel John Lilburne, who became the leader of the group called the Levellers. They published newspapers and pamphlets demanding voting rights for all adult males, annual elections, complete religious freedom, an end to the censorship of books and newspapers, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, trial by jury, an end to taxation of people earning less than £30 a year and a maximum interest rate of 6%. (34)

This picture of John Lilburne appeared on thefront-cover of a Leveller pamphlet published in 1646.
John Lilburne

Oliver Cromwell was willing to let the Levellers have their say while the war was going on but took a different approach when victory was achieved. On 28th October, 1647, members of the New Model Army began to discuss their grievances at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. This became known as the Putney Debates. Leaders of the Leveller movement, including John Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn and John Wildman, were arrested and their pamphlets were burnt in public. (35)

Over the next two hundred years the government attempted to keep control over the publication of newspapers. One of the first things that King Charles II did when the monarchy returned to power in 1660 was to pass legislation "For Restraining the Printing of New Books and Pamphlets of News without leave". The first newspaper to be given permission to be published was the Daily Courant in 1702. It is often claimed that this was beginning of the "freedom of the press". In fact, in was the start of a long struggle for the right to publish information available to the people of this country. (36)

One method of restricting sales of newspapers to the masses was to impose taxes on paper, newspapers and pamphlets. This was first introduced in 1712. If the stamp duty checked newspaper circulation, the libel laws provided the main curb on their contents. Any publication was a seditious libel if it tended to bring into hatred or contempt the King, the Government, or the constitution of the United Kingdom. As W. H. Wickwar, the author of The Struggles for the Freedom of the Press, 1819-1832 (1928) pointed out: "It was thus criminal to point out any defects in the Constitution or any errors on the part of the Government, if disaffection might thereby be caused." (37)

Producing newspapers was a dangerous business and so most radicals concentrated on publishing pamphlets commenting on the political situation. In 1791 Tom Paine, the son of a Quaker corset maker, and a former excise officer from Lewes, published his most influential work, The Rights of Man. In the book Paine attacked hereditary government and argued for equal political rights. Paine suggested that all men over twenty-one in Britain should be given the vote and this would result in a House of Commons willing to pass laws favourable to the majority. "The whole system of representation is now, in this country, only a convenient handle for despotism, they need not complain, for they are as well represented as a numerous class of hard-working mechanics, who pay for the support of royalty when they can scarcely stop their children's mouths with bread." (38)

The book also recommended progressive taxation, family allowances, old age pensions, maternity grants and the abolition of the House of Lords. Paine also argued that a reformed Parliament would reduce the possibility of going to war. "Whatever is the cause of taxes to a Nation becomes also the means of revenue to a Government. Every war terminates with an addition of taxes, and consequently with an addition of revenue; and in any event of war, in the manner they are now commenced and concluded, the power and interest of Governments are increased. War, therefore, from its productiveness, as it easily furnishes the pretence of necessity for taxes and appointments to places and offices, becomes a principal part of the system of old Governments; and to establish any mode to abolish war, however advantageous it might be to Nations, would be to take from such Government the most lucrative of its branches. The frivolous matters upon which war is made show the disposition and avidity of Governments to uphold the system of war, and betray the motives upon which they act." (39)

The British government was outraged by Paine's book and it was immediately banned. Paine was charged with seditious libel but he escaped to France before he could be arrested. Paine announced that he did not wish to make a profit from The Rights of Man and anyone had the right to reprint his book. It was printed in cheap editions so that it could achieve a working class readership. Although the book was banned, during the next two years over 200,000 people in Britain managed to buy a copy. By the time he had died, it is estimated that over 1,500,000 copies of the book had been sold in Europe. (40)

Mary Wollstonecraft had been converted to Unitarianism by Richard Price. She read Paine's book and in response published Vindication of the Rights of Women. In the book Wollstonecraft attacked the educational restrictions that kept women in a state of "ignorance and slavish dependence." She was especially critical of a society that encouraged women to be "docile and attentive to their looks to the exclusion of all else." Wollstonecraft described marriage as "legal prostitution" and added that women "may be convenient slaves, but slavery will have its constant effect, degrading the master and the abject dependent." (41)

The main struggle at the time was the vote for all males. Of course the vast majority of males could not read or write and this was one of the main arguments put forward for denying them this right. This demand increased during the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century with the successful industrial revolution. This new wealth was created by men who had very little education and could barely read or write. For example, Richard Arkwright, the man who invented the factory system, never went to school and could barely read and write. Nor could the men who designed and built the machines that went into his factories. (42)

George Stephenson, the most important figure in the development of the railway industry, was also working on the problem of developing an effective steam-engine. The son of a colliery fireman, his family was so poor he did not attend school. George's first employment was herding cows but when he was fourteen he joined his father at the Dewley Colliery. George was an ambitious boy and at the age of eighteen he began attending evening classes where he learnt to read and write. (43)

In fact, the new factories, employed children from the age of five, so the demand for schooling went down during this period. It is true that some enlightened employers such as Robert Owen, provided schools for their young workers, but this was very unusual. Owen wrote several books including The Formation of Character (1813) and A New View of Society (1814). In these books he demanded a system of national education to prevent idleness, poverty, and crime among the "lower orders". He also recommended restricting "gin shops and pot houses, the state lottery and gambling, as well as penal reform, ending the monopolistic position of the Church of England, and collecting statistics on the value and demand for labour throughout the country." (44)

During this period less than 50% could read and write. For the working-classes there were a variety of ways that their children to get a very basic education. The idea of ragged schools was developed by John Pounds, a Portsmouth shoemaker. In 1818 Pounds began teaching poor children without charging fees. In some cases wealthy individuals paid for these types of schools. There were also Dame Schools hat provided an education for working class children before they were old enough to work. These schools were usually run by an elderly woman who taught the children to read and write and other useful skills such as sewing. Fees were about 3d. a week and the quality of education that the children received varied enormously. Whereas some teachers provided a good education, others were no more than child-minders.

The Church was of course heavily involved in providing schools. Two men Andrew Bell (Church of England) and Joseph Lancaster (Quaker) created Monitorial Schools, a system relied upon the grouping pupils by ability. The children in the top group were taught by a qualified teacher but would also spend time teaching children in the lower groups. It was claimed that this system not only proved low-cost education but helped to train working-class children for responsible jobs in the future.

In the first-half of the 19th century most children had to work and so that most children received their education from Sunday Schools. It is estimated that by 1850 around two-thirds of all working class children aged between 5 and 15 went to these schools. However, the 1851 census revealed that out of a population of nearly 18 million, only 5.2 million attended Church of England services, with 4.9 million attending other Christian places of worship (Methodists, Baptists and Quakers).

The demand for universal suffrage continued throughout the 19th century. The 1867 Reform Act gave the vote to every male adult householder living in a borough constituency. Male lodgers paying £10 for unfurnished rooms were also granted the vote. This gave the vote to about 1,500,000 men. The Reform Act also dealt with constituencies and boroughs with less than 10,000 inhabitants lost one of their MPs. The forty-five seats left available were distributed by: (i) giving fifteen to towns which had never had an MP; (ii) giving one extra seat to some larger towns - Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds; (iii) creating a seat for the University of London; (iv) giving twenty-five seats to counties whose population had increased since 1832. (45)

Working class males now formed the majority in most borough constituencies. However, employers were still able to use their influence in some constituencies because of the open system of voting. In parliamentary elections people still had to mount a platform and announce their choice of candidate to the officer who then recorded it in the poll book. Employers and local landlords therefore knew how people voted and could punish them if they did not support their preferred candidate. In 1872 William Gladstone removed this intimidation when his government brought in the Secret Ballot Act which introduced a secret system of voting. Paul Foot points out: "At once, the hooliganism, drunkenness and blatant bribery which had marred all previous elections vanished. employers' and landlords' influence was still brought to bear on elections, but politely, lawfully, beneath the surface." (46)

After the passing of the 1867 Reform Act, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Robert Lowe, remarked that the government would now "have to educate our masters." As a result of this view, the government passed the 1870 Education Act. The act, drafted by William Forster stated: (a) the country would be divided into about 2,500 school districts; (b) School Boards were to be elected by ratepayers in each district; (c) the School Boards were to examine the provision of elementary education in their district, provided then by Voluntary Societies, and if there were not enough school places, they could build and maintain schools out of the rates; (d) the school Boards could make their own by-laws which would allow them to charge fees or, if they wanted, to let children in free. (47)

Not everyone thought state education was a good thing. Some people were unhappy at the amount of power they gave to the Church. This was the reason for the election of School Boards. This was popular with radicals as they were elected by ratepayers in each district. This enabled nonconformists and socialists to obtain control over local schools.

The 1870 Education Act also allowed women to vote in these elections. Women were also granted the right to be candidates to serve on the School Boards. Several feminists saw this as an opportunity to show they were capable of public administration. In 1870, four women, Flora Stevenson, Lydia Becker, Emily Davies and Elizabeth Garrett were elected to local School Boards. Elizabeth Garrett, a popular local doctor, obtained more votes Marylebone than any other candidate in the country.

It was not until ten years later with the 1880 Education Act that the government decided there were enough schools to make attendance compulsory for children up to the age of 10. Education became a very political subject. On 24th March 1902, Arthur Balfour presented to the House of Commons an Education Bill that attempted to overturn the 1870 Education Act.

The new legislation abolished all 2,568 school boards and handed over their duties to local borough or county councils. These new Local Education Authorities (LEAs) were given powers to establish new secondary and technical schools as well as developing the existing system of elementary schools. At the time more than half the elementary pupils in England and Wales. For the first time, as a result of this legislation, church schools were to receive public funds. (48)

Nonconformists and supporters of the Liberal and Labour parties campaigned against the proposed act. David Lloyd George led the campaign in the House of Commons as he resented the idea that Nonconformists contributing to the upkeep of Anglican schools. It was also argued that school boards had introduced more progressive methods of education. "The school boards are to be destroyed because they stand for enlightenment and progress." (49)

The 1902 Education Act was one of the main reasons why the Liberal Party had a landslide victory in the 1906 General Election. The Liberal Party won 397 seats (48.9%) compared to the Conservative Party's 156 seats (43.4%). The Labour Party, led by Keir Hardie did well, increasing their seats from 2 to 29. Balfour lost his seat as did most of his cabinet ministers. Margot Asquith wrote: "When the final figures of the Elections were published everyone was stunned, and it certainly looks as if it were the end of the great Tory Party as we have known it." (50)

However, the Liberal Government did not bring back the idea of democratically run schools. In 1916 Herbert Fisher, was appointed as President of the Board of Education. Fisher, a historian, had strong views on education and was determined to improve the quality of teaching in British schools: "The young should not be trusted to the care of sad, melancholy, careworn teachers. The classroom should be a cheerful place." In an attempt to attract good teachers he doubled their pay and tripled the pension of every elementary school teacher. (51)

Fisher guided the 1918 Education Act through Parliament in the last months of the First World War. To ensure that "children and young persons shall not be debarred from receiving the benefits of any form of education by which they are capable of profiting through inability to pay." This made attendance at school compulsory for children up to the age of 14 and gave permission to local education authorities to extend it to fifteen. He also introduced the School Certificate to be taken at 14 and the Higher School Certificate at 18. Other features of the legalization included the provision of ancillary services (medical inspection, nursery schools, centres for pupils with special needs, etc.) "Fisher represented the progressive spirit which characterised Lloyd George before December, 1916." (52)

Both my parents were taught in the 1920s. They were both very intelligent and passed the School Certificate at 14. However, they came from working-class families and they could not afford them to stay on until 18 to take their Higher School Certificate. At this time it was virtually impossible for the working class to experience a university education.

In February, 1899, Charles A. Beard and Walter Vrooman, two Christian Socialists established Ruskin College, a free university offering evening and correspondence courses for working class people. By 1908 they had run out of money and it was taken over by Oxford University. The chancellor of the university, George Curzon, was the former Conservative Party MP and the Viceroy of India. His reactionary views were well-known and was the leader of the campaign to prevent women having the vote.

In February, 1909, Dennis Hird, the principal of Ruskin College, was investigated in order to discover if he had "deliberately identified the college with socialism". The sub-committee reported back that Hird was not guilty of this offence but did criticise Henry Sanderson Furniss for "bias and ignorance" and recommended the appointment of another lecturer in economics, more familiar with working class views. Hastings Lees-Smith and the executive committee rejected this suggestion and in March decided to dismiss Hird for "failing to maintain discipline". He was given six months' salary (£180) in lieu of notice, plus a pension of £150 a year for life. (53)

Later that year the Trade Union movement responded by establishing the Central Labour College (CLC). The students rented two houses in Bradmore Road in Oxford. It was decided that "two-thirds of representation on Board of Management shall be Labour organisations on the same lines as the Labour Party constitution, namely, Trade Unions, Socialist societies and Co-operative societies." Most of the original funding came from the South Wales Miners' Federation (SWMF) and the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR). (54)

By 1929 the mining industry was in severe decline due to the Great Depression. In April a conference of the South Wales Miners' Federation voted to discontinue funding of the college. (55) Jimmy Thomas, the General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, also withdrew his support of the CLC. By July it was clear that the college could not continue to operate, and it closed at the end of the month. (56)

During the 1930s writers such as Richard Tawney wrote about the waste of working-class talent. No changes took place until the Second World War. The Minister of Education, Rab Butler, in the coalition government formed by Winston Churchill in 1940 introduced the 1944 Education Act. This was to create the structure for the post-war British education system. The act raised the school-leaving age to 15 and provided universal free schooling in three different types of schools; grammar, secondary modern and technical. Butler hoped that these schools would cater for the different academic levels and other aptitudes of children. Entry to these schools was based on the 11+ examination.

It was not long before sociologists began to point out the flaws in the system. Junior schools in middle-class areas tended to train their pupils to pass the 11+ exam. This did not happen in working-class areas. For example, I lived in Dagenham, and at the time it was the largest council estate in Europe. Yet, Dagenham did not have one grammar school. The nearest one was in Barking. Research carried out in the 1950s and 1960s very few working-class children went to grammar schools. (57)

When working-class children did manage to pass the 11+ they found life very difficult. As Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden pointed out in their study of the education system in Huddersfield in the late 1950s: "The children who lasted the full grammar school course came largely from the upper strata of the working class. They came too from small families and lived in favourable, socially-mixed districts... It had meant a rejection at conscious or unconscious levels of the life of the neighbourhood. This mattered less for some than others. But when the new manners, new friends, new accents, new knowledge, heightened the adolescent tensions of home life, security and sense of purpose shifted from any wide emotional life and located itself narrowly in schoolwork, in certificates, in markability." (58)

Jackson and Marsden argued that the grammar/secondary modern school system was damaging the educational prospects of the majority of young people in the country. I was someone who failed my 11+ but obtained a degree at the Open University in 1976. In an article I wrote for the university magazine, Sesame, I explained what the education system had done for my schoolmates on our council estate: I know that I was no more intelligent than the rest of the kids at my school. Only unlike the others, I met a man who helped me obtain a desire for education. My case does not show how intelligence wins through. My case shows how, year after year, we allow the intellectual abilities of thousands upon thousands of children from the working class to go to waste." (59)

Sociologists discovered that working class pupils had several disadvantages to overcome. One of the major problems was that they tended not to know anyone that had been successful as a result of their education. This is important as schooling depends on individuals deferring gratification. This is far easier for middle-class children with family members who have benefited from passing school examinations. (60)

Comprehensive Schools were introduced in some areas. Inner London, Nottingham, Coventry, pioneered these schools. In 1965 Anthony Crosland, Secretary of State for Education, instruction to local education authorities to plan for conversion. In 1970 Margaret Thatcher, the Secretary of State for Education in the new Conservative government, ended the compulsion on local authorities to convert.

Most LEA wanted to convert and more comprehensive schools were established under Thatcher than any other education secretary. By 1975 the majority of local authorities in England and Wales had abandoned the 11-Plus examination and moved to a comprehensive system. However, they were not always true comprehensive schools. For example, I worked in a school in Brighton, whose head did not believe in comprehensive education. He therefore put the pupils in tutor groups in three streams when they entered the school at 11.

It became clear that with the introduction of comprehensive schools we needed to change the exam system. One of the strongest arguments in favour of the change was to cope with late developers. However, with the O/CSE exam system, the decision needed to be made at the age of 14. The GCSE exam that came into existence in 1984 was warmly welcomed by all teachers who were fully committed to making comprehensive education work. It was also a progressive measure in other ways. O level history had been about writing essays. GCSE history was about teaching the skills needed by the historian (evidence, interpretation and empathy). This was based on the way the subject had been taught in universities.

In 1987, the then Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, announced a statutory national curriculum in England and Wales. The legislation stated that students from 5 to 16 would study the same subjects and develop the same skills. The national curriculum set out what children should be taught, with the aim of ensuring each pupil was given the same standard of education. Most teachers welcomed the change however it was not long before the government gradually abandoned several of its major objectives. Some subjects such as history and geography became optional at primary school and could be dropped at the age of fourteen. It was completely undermined by allowing academies (state-funded schools in England outside local authority control) not to follow the national curriculum. (61)

It was Baker's next reform that heralded the decline in our education system. In 1988 the government brought in the idea of published league tables. This was followed by the 1990 Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) for students aged 7, 11 and 14. At the same time they introduced the idea of Ofsted inspectors to enforce these standards. Schools were now being forced to compete with each other. They were now being judged on the percentage of children who obtained 5 GSCE (A-C). Schools became exam factories. The teacher’s role was no longer to give a child a love of learning.

Labour Party had supported the trade unions in opposing these policies. This changed once elected in 1997 and the Tony Blair government intensified this programme of national assessment. At this point, many teachers, including myself, left the profession. It was claimed that this constant testing was was what business leaders wanted. However, The Confederation of British Industry, the employers' organisation, published a report in 2010 claiming that "secondary schools have become an exam factory". It added: "Qualifications are important, but we also need people who have self-discipline and serve customers well. As well as academic rigour, we need schools to produce rounded and grounded young people who have the skills and behaviours that businesses want." (62)

It could be all so different. Take the example of Finland. The education system in Finland consists of day care programmes (for babies and toddlers) and a one-year "pre-school" (or kindergarten for six-year-olds); a nine-year compulsory basic comprehensive school (starting at age seven and ending at the age of sixteen). At the age of 16 may choose to continue their secondary education in either an academic track or a vocational track, both of which usually take three years and give a qualification to continue to a university or technical education.

There is no national testing in Finnish schools. Teachers are trusted to do well without the motivation of competition. The Finnish strategy for achieving equality and excellence in education has been based on constructing a publicly funded comprehensive school system without selecting, tracking, or streaming students during their common basic education.

As Chris Weller recently pointed out in The Independent: "Finland has figured out that competition between schools doesn't get kids as far as cooperation between those schools. One reason for that is Finland has no private schools. Every academic institution in the country is funded through public dollars. Teachers are trained to issue their own tests instead of standardised tests... Finland's teachers are encouraged to create their own mini-laboratories for teaching styles, keeping what works and scrapping what doesn't.... For all the things Finnish schools offer kids, what they seem to lack is homework.... The philosophy stems from a mutual level of trust shared by the schools, teachers, and parents.... Parents assume teachers have covered most of what they need in the confines of the school day, and schools assume the same. Extra work is often deemed unnecessary by everyone involved. Time spent at home is reserved for family, where the only lessons kids learn are about life." (63)


(1) Patrick Wormald, Alfred the Great : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) John Assler, The Life of Alfred the Great (893)

(3) Patrick Wormald, Alfred the Great : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(4) Douglas Woodruff, Alfred the Great (1974) page 139

(5) John of Salisbury, letter (1159)

(6) John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle of Hastings: The Uncomfortable Truth (2012) page 22

(7) Ian Ousby, The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English (1988) page 1100

(8) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 48 of 2014 edition.

(9) Henry Knighton, Chronicles (1337-1391)

(10) Anne Hudson, John Wycliffe : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(11) Christopher Hampton, A Radical Reader: The Struggle for Change in England (1984) page 18

(12) Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (1978) page 287

(13) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 10

(14) Karl Kautsky, The Foundations of Christianity (1925)

(15) Andrew Prescott, John Ball : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) Reg Groves, The Peasants' Revolt 1381 (1950) page 70

(17) Mary R. Price, The Peasants' Revolt (1980) page 35

(18) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984) page 41

(19) Melvyn Bragg, The Daily Telegraph (6th June, 2013)

(20) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 4

(21) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 93 of 2014 edition.

(22) Melvyn Bragg, The Daily Telegraph (6th June, 2013)

(23) David Daniell, John Frith : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(24) David Daniell, John Rogers : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(25) Jasper Ridley, Bloody Mary's Martyrs (2002) page 7

(26) Lacey Baldwin Smith, Treason in Tudor England (2006) page 61

(27) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 64

(28) David Daniell, William Tyndale : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(29) John Foxe, Book of Martyrs (1563) page 94 of 2014 edition.

(30) Antonia Fraser, The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1992) page 294

(31) David Loades, Thomas Cromwell (2013) page 190

(32) John Schofield, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant (2011) page 227

(33) Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War: A People's History (2007) page 207

(34) John F. Harrison, The Common People (1984) page 198

(35) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 216

(36) Stanley Harrison, Poor Men's Guardians (1974) page 13

(37) W. H. Wickwar, The Struggles for the Freedom of the Press, 1819-1832 (1928) pages 26-27

(38) Tom Paine, The Rights of Man (1791) page 74

(39) Tom Paine, The Rights of Man (1791) page 169

(40) Harry Harmer, Tom Paine: The Life of a Revolutionary (2006) pages 71-72

(41) Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792)

(42) R. S. Fitton, The Arkwrights: Spinners of Fortune (1989) page 7

(43) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 492

(44) Gregory Claeys, Robert Owen : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(45) Annette Mayer, The Growth of Democracy in Britain (1999) page 48

(46) Paul Foot, The Vote (2005) page 161

(47) George M. Trevelyan, English Social History (1942) page 593

(48) Roy Hattersley, David Lloyd George (2010) page 148

(49) The Daily News (25th March, 1902)

(50) Margot Asquith, The Autobiography of Margot Asquith (1962) page 245

(51) John Grigg, War Leader: 1916-18 (2002) page 511

(52) Roy Hattersley, David Lloyd George (2010) page 479

(53) Bernard Jennings, Friends and Enemies of the WEA, included in Stephen K. Roberts, (editor), A Ministry of Enthusiasm (2003) pages 102-103

(54) Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People: Leaders and Lieutenants (1987) page 72

(55) The Times (16th April, 1929)

(56) The Times (27th July, 1929)

(57) John Simkin, Sesame (April 1976)

(58) Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden, Education and the Working Class (1962) pages 171-172

(59) John Simkin, Sesame (April 1976)

(60) Colin Lacey, Hightown Grammar (1970) page 189-193

(61) BBC News, How is the national curriculum changing? (1st September 2014)

(62) BBC News, CBI complains of 'exam factory' schools (19th November, 2010)

(63) Chris Weller, The Independent (8th January, 2018)


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