Education may be likened to a journey of discovery — to travel hopefully is often more rewarding than to arrive.  If children are given the idea that they need high-level skills only for work, then we’ve got it all wrong.  They’re going to need even higher level skills to perform every day in a democratic society.


Not everyone noticed the storm clouds gathering in the early 1900s.  A quarter of the population still lived a highly precarious existence as they drifted in and out of poverty.  The professional and middle-classes lived in reassuring comfort, while the affluent spent their weekends in lavish country house parties.  Like adolescents whose rapid physical growth leaves them emotionally exhausted, sometimes lost and frequently over-confident, so Britain was starting to pay the price for too much having happened to her too quickly1.  The country had simply outgrown her strength.  “England must wake up commercially”, the Prince of Wales told a surprised conference at the Guildhall in 1901, because we had become complacent.  Britain could no long afford merely to teach foreigners; we had to learn from them as well2.


That complacency took a hard knock when war broke out in South Africa between the British and the Boers3 over the ownership of the Transvaal gold fields in 1901.  Gold was of vital significance to Britain because our paper currency was guaranteed by the bullion held by the Bank of England, and the faster the economy grew the more gold the bank needed to hold.  Any weakening of sterling would undermine Britain’s dominance of world trade.  A mere 80,000 Boer farmers with ‘ancient theology and inconveniently modern rifles’4 (German Mausers, deadly at twelve hundred yards) held down, and very nearly overthrew, a British army of nearly half a million men.  For three years the result was in the balance.  Men raced to enlist in the army.


A country that had become soft and easy-going thought it had found in war a noble, patriotic cause to follow.  Emblems of soldiers and sailors appeared on everything from matchboxes to hatboxes, and to wear uniform was to demonstrate one’s patriotism.  Eton, under the headship of the appropriately named Dr. Warre, became the first to introduce military drill into the curriculum5.  Other public schools quickly followed.  Khaki uniform and burnished brass became symbols of manhood, proudly displayed in march pasts, and at Speech Days.  Forty-five of the three hundred former pupils of Clifton College6 who had joined the army, died from Boer bullets.  Yet, shockingly, three out of five possible recruits to the army passing through the Manchester recruiting office were rejected as being medically unfit7.  Nor were the officers entirely suitable; “More army officers of the studious type are needed”8, an official report stated, not simply those who see warfare as an extension of a game of football.


While privileged youth spent many an afternoon on the games field either playing football or learning military drill (subsequently mixing up the rules for each indiscriminately), most children still had little leisure.  Born in 1897, a miner’s son fondly recalled his father as saying, “I shall not leave you much money, but I will teach you how you can always get work, including how to get stone in the quarry and trim it to build stone walls, and how to put a roof upon a shed”9.  In the closeness of their everyday family lives children still learnt from their parents in ways identical to earlier days between master and apprentice10.  For children with active imaginations and the leisure to read there was an outpouring of children’s literature — Peter Pan in 1904, the Beatrix Potter stories from the early 1900s, Our Island Story in 1904, The Railway Children in 1906 and The Wind in the Willows in 190811.  Amazingly to a modern mind 80% of all five to fourteen-year-olds still attended Sunday School in the years immediately before World War I, and their annual treat was the Sunday school party most often provided by the charabanc belonging to the local garage.


Beyond these shores other nations increasingly began to recognise England’s vulnerability.  These over-populated islands at the heart of a worldwide empire were utterly dependent on maintaining “the freedom of the seas”12 if their ships were to take the products of her factories to distant markets and bring back, in addition to vast profits, these essential food stuffs without which we would starve in a matter of weeks.  So, progressively, Britain built up the world’s largest navy and was resolved to build even larger kinds of warships — ‘Dreadnoughts’, and ‘Invincibles’, whose very names were a challenge to weaker powers13.  The lesson was not lost on Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.  That country was already regretting that it had come late to the race of empire, but her industrial strength was continuously growing and Prussian militarism was looking to prove its prowess14.


The War Office, in open partnership with headmasters, readily agreed to redirect the energy of public schoolboys away from their infatuation with games, and provided funds to establish Officer Training Corps15 whereby boys, having done a certain amount of military drill in their schooldays, would automatically qualify as officers in the event of war.  The arms race that built up in 1913-14 had all the novel attraction of a game of monopoly to overgrown schoolboys, so the scene was set for a European war largely caused by colonial jealousy, dreams of economic imperialism, German bellicosity and English military naivety16.


Thesis 57:     24th August 2006