Gove and 19th Century British Education Provision

The Conservative Party Annual Conference

Michael Gove contemplating the government’s destruction of British state education

Unreasoning nostalgia is a British disease,

– Jon Downes and the Amphibians from Outer Space

Earlier this week the NUT staged a one-day strike against the government’s reforms of British schools. As with the rest of Conservative policy, this essentially consists in preparing the system for further privatisation and lowering wages and conditions. They also have their sights set on lowering standards as well. Taking their cue from the assumption of ignorant bar-room bores everywhere, the Tories have the attitude that just about anyone, or almost anyone, can teach without actually needing to be taught how. They are therefore trying to pass legislation to allow graduates to teach in schools without needing to have a teaching qualification first.

I did my first degree at a teacher-training college that also took ordinary degree students. The trainee teachers I knew were conscientious and worked extremely hard, both academically on their specialist subjects, and in the class-room during teaching practice. Often they were put in front of classes that could be difficult, stopping fights between pupils and sometimes with the threat of violence from parents. While there’s a lot of debate just how much of the theory of teaching and child development is relevant – the theories of Piaget have been extensively critiqued and rejected – it is nevertheless not an easy profession by any means. Teachers certainly need good training in how to teach, as well as what. All this will be undermined by Gove’s reforms.

Modern Conservatism is based on the view that laissez-faire, private industry is always best, and so looks back with nostalgia on the 19th century, when Britain dominated the world, we had an empire and industry was expanding. It was also an age of poverty, hunger, disease and overcrowding. And rather than being great, Britain in this respect had one of the worst education systems in western Europe.


In France, plans had been drawn up for a national system of primary, secondary and university education as long ago as 1806 under Napoleon. In practice, the regime got only as far as founding the lycees, the boarding schools for the elite. Under the education act of !833 drawn up by the French minister, Guizot, an impressive system of primary education was established. All communes were required to set up schools, which would provide education for local boys free of charge. The communes that could not afford to do so were to be given funding from their department, or, failing, that an annual grant from the Ministry of Public Instruction. As a result, in the thirteen years from 1834 to 1847 the number of primary schools in La Patrie increased from 33,695 to 43,514. By 1849 there were 3 1/2 million children attending primary school. Girl’s schools received much less funding, but nevertheless a law 1836 extended the 1933 Act to provide for schools for girls.

The French educational system was further reformed in 1863 under Napoleon’s minister for public instruction, Victor Duruy. Duruy was the Republican son of a worker in the Gobelins tapestry factory. He proposed to Napoleon III a system for the effective abolition of illiteracy, funding increases for secondary education, and increases in teachers’ salaries. Primary education was made compulsory, and a broader curriculum introduced for secondary schools. In 1866 nearly 66,000 pupils attended secondary school. The state also spent large sums on teachers’ salaries and in establishing good school libraries. In Matthew Arnold’s words, the French education system after Guizot had

given to the lower classes, to the body of the common people, a self-respect, an enlargement of spirit, a consciousness of counting for something in their country’s action, which has raised them in the scale of humanity.


Prussia had a ministry of public instruction and a system of local school boards from 1817 onwards. By the mid-19th century throughout all the German states primary education was compulsory. In Saxony, Wurttemberg, Bavaria, Baden and Prussia after 1857 parents had to send their children to the local state school. The age when children started school varied from state to state from five to eight years. In some parts of Germany school attendance was compulsory for a further eight years, so that the school leaving age was the same a century later. Unfortunately, education suffered through the use of child labour and widespread poverty, which took children out of the class room.

By 1837 Prussia already had a system of 50 gymnasia, set up to teach the children of the elite from 16 to 19. The curriculum was broader than that in France, and included philosophy, history, geography, arithmetic and geometry, as well as drawing and playing a musical instrument.


Under the liberal prime minister Auersperg in 1869 education became compulsory for all children from six to fourteen years of age. It has been seen by Harry Hearder, in his Europe in the 19th Century, 1830-1880, as more advanced than the British educational system introduced a year later. (p. 386). The parts of Italy under Austrian rule also benefited from this increase in education. In 1856 Lombardy possessed 4, 427 primary schools.

Switzerland and the Netherlands

The best schools in Europe were those in Switzerland and the Netherlands. Primary education had been made compulsory in most Swiss cantons in the 1830s, and Matthew Arnold considered Swiss schools superior to the French, with the schools in Aargau the very best in Europe.

In the Netherlands a system of state supervision of education had been established in 1806. Dutch schools were hygienic, with well-trained teachers, industrious and happy children, complete religious toleration and no corporal punishment.


There were a number of schools giving some form of education. These included the Dame Schools, in which an old woman kept a class of children quiet while their parents worked and the charity and Sunday schools. These were essentially religious in nature, and although there were 1 1/2 million pupils in Sunday schools in the 1830s, their pupils were not taught to write or do sums. There result was that there were high rates of illiteracy. By 1851 the literacy rate for men was about 69.3 per cent, and for women 51 per cent.

Under Dr James Kay-Shuttleworth in 1840 schools receiving state grants were obliged to adhere to certain standards, and in 1856 the Department of Education was set up. Nevertheless, a national system of education did not exist until the education act of 1870.

The children of the upper classes attended the grammar and public schools. There was, however, no national system of universal secondary education until 1880, or really, before the 20th century.

University Attendance in England, France, Germany and German Austria

The English universities were intended to produce a small, educated elite, unlike those in France, Italy, German Austria and Germany, which aimed at producing a larger cultured or professional class. As a result, in the 19th century far fewer people in England had the benefit of a university education. In France 1 in 1,900 citizens attended uni. In Italy, this was 1 in 2,200. In Germany and German-speaking Austria, it was 1 in 2,600. In Britain less than half as many had a university education one in 5,800 men.

British Education Dominated by Conservative Aristocratic Bias

Hearder therefore says of the British education system that it suffered from a narrowly aristocratic attitude. If the English upper class was as well educated as that of any other in Europe, the rest of the population remained wretchedly ignorant and neglected. (p. 388).

This attitude still persists in contemporary Tory attitude to education. Cameron, Osborne and Clegg are Toffs, who seem intent on pricing higher education out of the grasp of the lower middle and working classes with their raising of tuition fees. The educational reforms seem designed to wreck state education, leaving it purely run for the profit of private companies and unable to compete with the private schools. This seems partly intended to allow the wealthy to continue to the enjoy their educational and social privileges without having to worry about competition from the poorer children of the state sector.

And supporting this assault on state education is the popular belief, at least amongst some of the electorate, that this must raise standards because private is automatically better, as demonstrated by British imperial and industrial greatness during the 19th century. Britain, however, does not compare well in the sphere of mass education during the 19th century. The state systems of many nations, especially France, appear far better. If we genuinely care about giving a good education to our children, we should be looking to them, not back to a mythical age of imperial glory that promotes an attitude of indifference or active hostility to genuine, popular, state education.

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10 Responses to “Gove and 19th Century British Education Provision”

  1. Mike Sivier Says:

    Reblogged this on Vox Political.

  2. jess Says:

    You overlook the major element that brought ‘state’ education to the industrial poor.

    Drawing on the traditions of Spenceanism and Unitarianism, both Owenites and Chartists (followed by Secularists and Socialists) organised their own schools.

    These were the subject of bitter attacks by the church and its powerful friends, who were determined to wrest the control of ‘literacy’ back from social movements

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for telling me about these, Jess – I really don’t know anything about radical working class educational movements, either in the 19th or 20th centuries. I should say here that I went to a church school, and really enjoyed it, though I’ve met a lot of other people whose experiences have not been so positive. So, I’m not an opponent of the churches providing education per se. But you’re right: there was a lot of establishment opposition in the 19th century to working class education as it was felt that it would give them ideas above their station.

      The point I was trying to make was that, regardless of the great efforts to increase education by particular groups, movements and religious denominations during the 19th century – the Nonconformist Christians, like the Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists also had their own schools, as did the Spiritualists – formal British educational provision lagged far behind some of the continental countries, like France, Germany and German-speaking Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Belgium. Far from being the golden age the Tories constantly hark back to, the 19th century was instead an era in which the government’s laissez-faire attitude ensure that British people in generally were less educated than the other nations, to whom the British generally see themselves as superior.

  3. amnesiaclinic Says:

    Quite tragic. In the 1960’s there was a brilliant report on primary education, The Plowden Report, that really introduced child-centred education and opened up primary education to the being the best in the world. Then came the Tory Black Papers which had a hugely detrimental effect on educational thinking. Of course there were teachers who did not understand what they were doing and gave a bad name to all those doing an incredible job.
    Sadly, the rot has already started with teachers from other countries being paid as unqualified and therefore much cheaper. With money being so tight there is no place for people with real experience. Having gone back in to teaching after a very long break I noticed that there was very little understanding of child development and the ability to observe children totally lacking.

    • beastrabban Says:

      That’s interesting, Amnesiaclinic. It struck me from your description of the lack of interest in child development and actually observing them that some of this attitude comes from the fact that so much of the policies formulated by successive governments and applied to the state sector are taken from business, and frequently those, which have absolutely nothing to do with the new sectors in which they’re applied.

      For example, books and libraries are one of the fundamental pillars of literate civilisation. However, one of the local authorities put a businessman in charge of their libraries, who had a background in catering. The attitudes and experience he brought to his new role came from a very different background, and arguably was inappropriate to his new role. Similarly, Private Eye weren’t impressed when one of the bookstores took on as one of their directors a businessman from outside publishing or selling, who simply regarded books, not as the very building blocks of culture, but simply as ‘product’.

      Reading your comments it appears to me that the government have essentially applied an extremely simplistic approach based on commercial business to education: produce a cheap, standardised product, which is applied everywhere, regardless of the particular educational needs of the pupils. Child development is of little interest to this scheme, as what is important is that the product itself is kept as cheap as possible, and so must be roughly uniform and standardised so as not to produce an expensive complications.

  4. Colin M. Taylor Says:

    It’s interesting that there was a report last week that children from the State Sector tend to achieve better Degrees than those from the Private sector -rather disproves the ‘Public Bad, Private Good’ argument doesn’t it.?
    Having studied for a PGCE, even though I failed my second Placement, I have developed a far greater respect for the Teaching profession. They are greatly undervalued for the 60+ hour week they put in.If Gove wants to improve the standard of Education, he should rescind all his ‘improvements’, then resign.

    • beastrabban Says:

      I noticed that report in the paper too, Colin – it’s very interesting. Unfortunately, despite their educational failings, the public school children will still dominate society and industry through the ‘old boy’ and now also ‘old girl’ networks.

      As for your experience trying teaching as a profession, one of my friends also tried it. He did some teaching experience at a school in his home county. He said it was immensely rewarding, but was really too much for him.

      I think part of the problem is that most people don’t realise that teachers work a 60 plus hour week. My mother used to be a teacher, and much of her time after school was spent marking and preparing lessons for the following day. One of her complaints is that as a rule most members of the public simply believe they work short hours – 9 to 4, with long holidays, and so it doesn’t really count as hard work. There have been attempts by the profession to correct this. I remember a few years ago when TV launched a series of programmes to try and raise the profession’s status and encourage more people to enter it. There was an annual awards ceremony for the best teachers – the National Teaching Awards, if I remember correctly, and programmes and newspaper articles with titles such as ‘Chalkface’. I think this one is still running in the Guardian. But there’s still a lot of prejudice against teaching and teachers, and the Tories are drawing on it to attack state education.

  5. Stephen Bunting Says:

    What’s going on here is part of the endless privatisation agenda – if you want your child to have an education, you pay for it – otherwise it is state school underachievement …

    • beastrabban Says:

      Absolutely. And really, they don’t want state schools to succeed, no matter what they say to the contrary.

  6. Gove and 19th Century British Education Provisi... Says:

    […] Michael Gove contemplating the government's destruction of British state education Unreasoning nostalgia is a British disease, – Jon Downes and the Amphibians from Outer Space Earlier this week the…  […]

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