Whether education is primarily for personal gain, or for the benefit of the whole society, is a question to which the English invariably give ambiguous answers.  Our attitudes towards matters educational were, and continued to be in the early twenty-first century, rooted in our social assumptions.


By the late 1860s England seemed full of children; a quarter of the population was under the age of ten, and vast numbers were very poor.  Queen Victoria had nine children, while the average English household had just over six, and would have been higher had not 150,000 babies a year failed to survive until their first birthday1.  This was a country of extreme contrasts ─ the rich were getting ever richer, and the poor ever more numerous; but it was still a deeply religious society ─ “Whether he liked it or not every Englishman was moulded by Christianity to the depth of his being”, noted a French historian2.  Darwin’s Theory of Evolution had not yet started to undermine the ordinary Englishman’s belief in a divine ordering of society, and church attendance was at an all-time high.  What to do with the children ─ as either souls to be saved, or as future employees to be civilised ─ was an ever more pressing issue.


It was over the winter of 1869/70 that two separate events occurred which initiated so many of the tensions that still run with such devastation through the English education system more than a century later.  The first was the establishment of what was called at the time “a sort of club” of public school headmasters that evolved into today’s prestigious Head Master’s Conference3.  The second was the passing of the 1870 Education Act4 (called in its drafting stages “The Education of the Poor Act”), dealing exclusively with elementary education.  Both epitomised the Victorian elite’s determination to strengthen the social status quo.


Central to both issues were the plans being formulated by W. E. Forster5 who, with a new Liberal government, had just assumed parliamentary responsibility for education.  He had inherited two problems.  Firstly, he had to deal with the enthusiasm of the Commissioners to use some of the confiscated endowment funds from the old charity schools to establish a system of national examinations for pupils, and a certification system for teachers.  At a time when most Englishmen still thought that education (whether you had it, or ignored it) was a personal responsibility, these proposals incensed many of the old Tories, and infuriated the headmasters of the public schools.  Secondly, there was the increasing strain being felt by the churches as they struggled to maintain thousands of old schools, and build still more in a vain attempt to catch up with an ever increasing population, a third of whom still had no school to go to6.  The churches wanted an increased grant to enable them to expand a specifically Christian form of schooling, while increasing numbers of secular activists, especially in the cities, wanted a massive increase in schooling, but not controlled by the Church.  Forster tried hard to straddle both worlds7.  He was an honest man, but not a bold one, and his party was in difficulty: he was all set to compromise.


Having ridden out the reforms of the early 1860s the public school headmasters, ever more self-assured by the popularity of their schools amongst the emerging Victorian middle classes, saw in Forster’s support for a national examination system a threat to the very freedom which they had now come to assume was theirs to do with almost whatever they wished.  They bridled at the support they feared Forster was about to give to enthusiastic scientists, such as the biologist, T. H. Huxley8, an ardent supporter of Darwin and implacable critique of Establishment values, including the public schools’ dismissal of the teaching of science.  Huxley told the Commissioners that with a public school education, “You should not learn (there) one single thing of all those that you will want to know directly you leave school”.  Of all the headmasters it was Edward Thring who was particularly contemptuous of Forster’s proposal.  Over Christmas 1869 a dozen headmasters accepted Thring’s invitation to meet at Uppingham9.  They defied Forster to go any further with plans that might equate public schools and their pupils as being in any way co-equals with the staff and pupils of lesser schools.  By now the public schools had built up such an influential ‘old boys’ network’ that Forster was forced to back off.  The power of this self-appointed group of autocrats to develop the education of the upper middle-class elite totally separate to any national system of education was finally confirmed; there was to be neither a national system for examinations, nor of teacher certification10.


From 1870 onwards, with elementary headteachers seen as the social equivalent of a successful shopkeeper, public school headmasters, on the other hand, came to have social parity with cabinet ministers.  When six of them went on to become Archbishops of Canterbury they out-ranked even the prime minister ─ a trinity of church, state and public school was formed.  By 1913 it was claimed, “There is probably no position in English civil life where a single individual exercises such uncontrollable power over others as does the head of a successful public school”11.


Thesis 49:     24th August 2006