Posts Tagged ‘Dame Schools’

Nietzsche, Academy Schools, and Elitism in Education

March 30, 2016

Mike and a number of other bloggers have wondered recently if the Tories’ own enthusiasm for privatising education and turning all schools into Academies aren’t a deliberate attempt to ‘dumb down’ education. Despite all the hype, and mendacious graphs in the Torygraph to the contrary, privately run Academies actually perform worse than state schools managed by the local authorities. Mike speculated that the Tories wanted the children of the hoi polloi – the working and lower middle classes – have an inferior education as they were afraid that the masses were becoming too bright, too well-education, and they didn’t want the competition. After all, they could hardly retain their places as the leaders of society, thanks to their extremely moneyed parents sending them to Eton and the other public and fee-paying schools, if a bunch of comprehensive school oiks actually were demonstrably more intelligent and better educated than they were.

And there is certainly some evidence that the latter is true. A year ago, the Independent and the I ran a story that students from state schools actually did better at uni than those from the private schools. How ghastly! Especially as the introduction of tuition fees and their increase to truly extortionate levels really does seem to suggest that there is a section of right-wing opinion that believes higher education should be the exclusive preserve of the wealthy few.

The German philosopher Nietzsche also took this view. He was afraid that if the masses became too well-educated, it would lead to a decline in cultural standards. The historian Gordon A. Craig describes his elitist view of education, and that of his successors in Germany: 1866 – 1945 (Oxford: OUP 1978). He wrote

(A)nd some widely read publicists expressed the view that the emphasis placed on the education of the masses was dangerous because it could not avoid diluting the quality of German education in general. This was the view of Friedrich Nietzsche, who in a remarkable series of lectures, ‘On the Future of our Education Institutions’, delivered in Basle in 1872, stated that ‘not the education of the masses can be our goal but the education of individually selected people, armed for great and permanent achievements’ and went on to charge that those who argued for a further extension of Volksbildung were seeking to destroy ‘the natural order of rank in the kingdom of the intellect’. Nietzsche’s views were repeated with variations by Paul de Lagarde, an embittered eccentric who saw German culture imperilled by the advance of barbarism and blamed this on the educational system, and Julius Langbehn, the author of the extremely popular Rembrandt als Erzieher (1890), whose insistence upon the necessity of training a racially pure elite was later to take more extreme forms in the educational practices of Heinrich Himmler.

De Lagarde and Langbehn were two of the 19th century intellectual precursors of the Nazis. The German elementary schools were called Volksschulen – People’s Schools. The Germans had had an excellent school system of primary education from the 18th century onwards. If children couldn’t go to church schools, then they had to go to state schools. As a result, illiteracy in Germany by the end of the 19th century was very, very low – about 0.05%, compared with 3-4% in England and France.

Nietzsche’s ideas might have been a novelty for Germany, but until comparatively late in the 19th century they were common amongst the British ruling class. There was some education available for the working classes in the Sunday and Dame schools, but these were by no means widespread, and standards could be very poor. The dame schools have been criticised as essentially a place where parents could send their children while they were at work trying to make a living. As a whole, the education system was geared to training an aristocratic elite for careers in government. It looks very much like this is what the Tories intend now in their eagerness to privatise schools and so create an education system that will leave children worse educated, not better.

Cameron, Osbo, Thicky Nikki and the rest of the Tory party are either aristos, or very middle class. It really does look like they are trying to drag Britain back into the 19th century, where the workers were given just enough education to satisfy the requirements of industry, while a good education, and the career opportunities that went with it, were the exclusive prerogative of the middle and upper classes. This was challenged by the Labour party, who wanted the education reformed and expanded so that more people from the lower middle and working classes had the opportunity to acquire it and so enjoy the same career opportunities and social privileges as the wealthy. It can be seen in chapter IX of G.D.H. Cole’s book, Britain in the Post-War World – ‘Education for Democracy’, for example. It’s the reason Anthony Crossland set up and championed comprehensive schools, because the existing system of grammar and secondary modern schools were elitist, and kept the working class in their place in the manual trades.

And so far from striking a blow for meritocracy, it increasingly seems to me that the privatisation of the education system begun nearly thirty years ago by Thatcher really is indeed to keep the masses in their place, and make sure that only the elite can afford an educational standard that will guarantee them their place of leadership in society. All under the guise of delivering quality, which can only be provided by private industry, of course.


Gove and 19th Century British Education Provision

March 29, 2014

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.