What a person achieves through their own efforts they most value.  Where individuals, through the nature of the economic system in which they live, cannot earn sufficient to provide for the proper education of their own children, then the future well-being of that society, as well as that of their children in particular, will be put at risk.  Where a benefactor through a sense of personal responsibility, or a government wishing to ensure the future skill level of its young people, subsidises the education of that child, how can this be done in ways which do not undermine the parent’s own, direct responsibility?


The Victorians were great philanthropists; they built hospitals, schools, libraries and public baths, they laid out city parks, established zoos and founded universities1.  As the century wore on so their philanthropy followed the Empire — there were missionaries to support, more churches and cathedrals to be built, hospitals to be equipped, orphanages to be set-up and more universities to be founded2.  It is hard for us with our more self-centred lives and encased in a ‘welfare state’, to understand the enormous scale of all this.  It’s especially hard to appreciate just why our Victorian ancestors were so anxious to hold on to the concept of personal charity as being a better use of their money than raising the funds through taxation for a third party to spend on their behalf3.  As in all things the Victorians wanted to be personally involved, and Forster understood this perfectly.  As a Liberal he was more amenable to the state taking the lead than were the Tories, but he had absolutely no intention of undermining the role of ‘benevolent men’ in solving the nation’s problems.


Even if it were still appropriate for the churches to do so, there could be no denying that they simply lacked the capacity to extend their role in the provision of elementary schools from two-thirds of the child population to cover every child.  Try running two-thirds of today’s primary schools on the proceeds of the church collection plate!4  Not even central government wanted to take up the challenge.  The national Educational League5, an organisation much backed by business leaders in the cities, vigorously urged the setting-up of entirely secular elementary schools funded, not through charity, but through levying a local rate on householders.


Forster compromised.  Firstly he reassured parliament that, “If we are to hold our position among the nations of the world, we will have to make up for the smallness of our numbers by increasing the intellectual force of the individual”6.  That sounded just fine.  Then he unpacked his solution.  “Our object is to complete the present voluntary system, to fill up the gaps, sparing the public money where it can be done without, procuring as much as we can with the assistance of parents, and welcoming the cooperation of those benevolent men who desire to assist their neighbours”7.  Here was no grand, revolutionary plan; Forster looked to retain the philanthropic traditions of Victorian society and combined these with the levying of a direct rate to be applied by representatives of the communities involved.


The Education Act of 18708 required every borough or parish in the country to immediately identify where there were gaps in the current provision of schools.  Forster then gave the churches six months, and the inducement of significant grants from parliament, to establish more schools.  Where this was not done by the end of that year, arrangements would be made to establish locally elected School Boards.  Both the church schools, and the new Board Schools would continue to charge fees (which amounted to about one-third of the total cost) and both would be required to follow a curriculum set out by the Office of Education9.  The possibility of non-church controlled education quickly caught the attention of secular reformists.


Here was the problem that Forster had failed to see, and which was to increase with every passing year.  In comparison with many of the church schools that were seventy or more years old, these Board Schools were modern, larger, often better built, properly equipped, and able to pay their teachers higher salaries (sixty to eighty pounds per annum).  Compulsory taxation, the churches were forced to admit, was a better and more assured way of raising money than passing around a collection plate10.  This was to cause enormous antagonism as some church members found themselves paying twice over ─ through the Church collection plate and through a compulsory rate for the local board schools.


No one expressed this tension more forcefully than Edward Thring, the highly successful and pace-setting headmaster of Uppingham.  A personally generous man to the causes he approved of, his reluctant attitude towards being compulsorily required to pay a tax for the Board Schools says much, perhaps too much, about the Victorian establishment’s dismissal of the needs of the working classes.  “You can’t break the laws of nature”, he wrote, “which have made the work and powers of men vary in value.  This is what I mean when I ask, why should I maintain my neighbour’s illegitimate child?  I mean by illegitimate every child brought into the world who demands more than his parents can give him, or to whom the government make a present of money.  The school boards are promising to be an excellent example of public robbery11.”


Thesis 50:     31st August 2006