The 150-year battle to improve Britain’s schools

Chris Bowlby takes a look at changes to the school system in history

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Illustration by Femke de Jong

Recent governments have tried to outdo each other in telling us they are shaking up the education system, weeding out poor teaching, rewarding successful schools and ensuring that pupils have a solid grounding in the three Rs. A preoccupation of the last two or three decades, you might think? In fact, as historian Dr John Howlett of Keele University points out, this year marks the 150th anniversary of the first concerted attempt by government in London to test pupils, pay teachers according to results and assert the government’s will systematically over the education system.

It is the anniversary of what was called the Revised Code of 1862, which set out how school education was to be funded, with regular tests of how well pupils and teachers were doing. This was introduced following an investigation by the Newcastle Commission, set up, says Howlett, to discover “what was going on in voluntary schools”. Governments had previously adopted a “broadly laissez faire” attitude towards elementary education. But what the commission found was “pretty horrific” – with church and voluntary schooling failing to keep pace with population growth. In some places only 10 per cent of children were being educated.

There were broader reasons too for this new educational agenda. Government realised uneasily that impressive new industrial and military competitors – notably Prussia – were forging ahead with high-quality education. And politically, as Britain moved towards the Reform Act of 1867 and an extension of the franchise, there was a lofty sense among the elite, says Howlett, that new voters should be better educated.

So the Revised Code aimed to create the framework for the extension of effective and affordable elementary education for all social classes. It established a system of payment by results, whereby schools could claim four shillings annually for pupils who attended regularly, and eight shillings if pupils passed specified tests in reading, writing and arithmetic.

Conversely, poor results meant schools lost part of their grants. Such a system, argues Howlett, was seen as the “most efficient way of saving money” as education expanded.
But then, as now, a centrally devised system of testing pupils and teachers, and allocating funding, attracted fierce criticism.

Teachers, says Howlett, “resented that their salaries depended on results” and said the tests were haphazard, failed to allow for variation in how children developed and “did not reflect how well they had been teaching”. Another criticism with a distinctly modern ring was that the system discouraged breadth of education, as teachers felt forced to concentrate on the three Rs to the exclusion of other subjects.

The system of payment by results only lasted until the beginning of the 20th century, when a more decentralised and variable public educational system took hold, run mainly by local education authorities. And a broader curriculum, including subjects such as geography and history, had become more widespread, leaving the narrower focus on core subjects behind.

There was much educational reorganisation in the 20th century, especially of secondary schools as the leaving age rose. But it was not until the 1970s, points out Howlett, that the alarm over educational standards at all levels was sounded again – this time by prime minister James Callaghan. In a famous speech in Oxford in 1976, he raised “the strong case for the so-called ‘core curriculum’ of basic knowledge” and asked, “What is the proper way of monitoring the use of resources in order to maintain a proper national standard of performance?” Successive governments since have followed this agenda and intervened with modern versions of curriculum reform, testing and ranking of pupils and schools, and changes in educational financing.

And so this deep-rooted education debate continues, as does the tension between those stressing competence in the three Rs and vocational skills versus advocates of a broader approach to what and how children are taught. The current education secretary, Michael Gove, is keen both on school reform and more rigorous teaching of national history. He might find the 1862 Revised Code and what followed to be an illuminating special subject.


Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history

This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org

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