‘Education is a word we hear over and over again. To get on in life our children and grandchildren must have paper qualifications to show that they have reached a certain standard of knowledge. We, in this country, have reached this stage from small beginnings many years ago, and I should like to take you back quite a long way and notice some of the great changes which have been accomplished’. (1)
Margaret paints a colourful picture of what attending a village state school in rural Victorian Britain was like. From what Margaret tells us, the funding her school received had a great affect on all aspects of her education. From teachers to books, all contributions to the school came from the parish, which meant that the school had limited resources. In Victorian society, ‘education was seen first and foremost as being the responsibility of churches and of parents, rather than of the state’ (Aldrich, 2011, xvi) because of the extent to which religious doctrinal values influenced societal norms, and apart from churches, the place where these norms were instilled into the consciousness of the masses was in schools. Good morality was considered to be linked to religious values, so because of this, it allowed for schools across the country to be the best place to instil these values into the next generation. The doctrinal values of Church of England (C of E) parishes can be identified in Margaret’s recollections of her time at school, the most prominent being the mode of teaching. Being a village school, the schoolhouses where children were taught did not need to accommodate as many students as city schools, so they were much smaller. However, teaching literature through chanting in a group was more likely the result of religious teachings than the limited space. Margaret recalls poetry being taught and learnt in a way that echoes religious teachings, ‘we learnt an awful amount by heart (…) by chanting them over and over’ (1) which proves how far religion extends itself to Victorian education.
The nineteenth century British educational experience was one of unity and morality. This is made evident by Margaret as she recalls how students were taught as one big collective, which reflects the style of religious teachings in churches which are still practised in contemporary society. By reflecting this type of teaching, the significance of the religious principles the children were taught is heightened because they are taught to a group. This means that the sense of unity the students may have already felt with their fellow students holds a greater significance to them when they are taught the impact of respect and care towards their neighbours.
What Margaret tells us about her schooling, was most likely not too dissimilar to what other children across the nation experienced around this time. At the turn of the nineteenth century, ‘education underwent a transformation from providing a means of educating the pauper to mass education in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England’ (Silver, 1965, c. by Iwashita, 2018, 2). This meant that education was beginning to be prioritised over industry, so more working-class children were granted the right to access education in the same way those born into middle-class families were. This historic transformation was the result of education finally becoming considered ‘a public matter’ (Iwashita, 2018, 2), which ultimately helped to deconstruct the issue of class in the education system, allowing for more children to possess the ability to read and write. By making education a part of the public sector it meant that the Church had less influence than they had previously, however Margaret’s memoir shows us how religious values still influential in British schooling nearly a century later during her childhood.
I sometimes wonder whether the smaller schools, with Heads who knew all about his or her pupils and had a personal interest in each one did not provide a fuller and more real education than in these enormous schools where the Head can scarcely know all his Staff, let alone his pupils. (2)
The image above supports what Margaret has told us about her school, which could make you question, would this make education worse? Well, not for Margaret. It appears that, if anything, her time at school was made better because there were less pupils and less teachers, so every year after the summer holidays it was like returning to one big family. The way in which Margaret fondly recalls her schooling, and how precise she is, prompts us to believe that she was a teacher, maintaining the sense of community that school provides for working-class communities through into her adulthood.
1:0886. Scutt, Margaret. (c.4,000 words). Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiography
Aldrich, Richard. School and Society in Victorian Britain : Joseph Payne and the New World of Education. Taylor & Francis Group. 2011.
Iwashita, Akira. ‘Politics, state and Church: forming the National Society 1805–c.1818’. History of Education. 47:1. 1-17. 2018.
Silver, Harold. The Concept of Popular Education. Routledge. 1965. ix–xx
Victorian classroom http://pikeslaneprimary.weebly.com/class-6mp/writing-homework-victorian-schools
The Village School. Work, Education and Religion for Children in the Countryside. Cambridge University Press. https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/childhood-in-modern-europe/work-education-and-religion-for-children-in-the-countryside/A1A677503F47EA6C9D72FA1228F78F89