Nineteenth-Century Elementary Schools
At the start of the nineteenth century there were many schools in Devon towns and villages wholly or partly supported by endowments, patrons, subscriptions, or parish rate (or a combination), offering free or subsidised teaching to children whose parents could not meet the full cost. But their quality, and the use actually made of them, was another matter. Teachers in the more solid town schools might have served an apprenticeship by way of training, but in villages they often took on the work for lack of a more profitable alternative and were far from effective. Parish apprenticeship in rural areas took children from school at the age of nine; and before this their attendance was spasmodic, and the teaching usually confined to reading and catechism. For many children there was no chance of schooling, and its value to a future farm labourer was in any case minimal, apart from, perhaps, instilling some respect for religion and authority. But the better town schools went much further in teaching, kept their pupils longer, and had some relevance to future prospects in trade or industry.
Early in the century the ‘National Society’ (Church) and the ‘British Society’ (un‑denominational, and supported mainly by Dissenters who could not afford a separate school of their own) both pioneered the ‘monitorial’ system of teaching, by which a teacher could, after a fashion, instruct large numbers by using older pupils as intermediaries to pass on lessons to small groups. But this, while workable in large town schools, had little use in the countryside where there were, in any cases hardly any older pupils to take on the task.
Both societies began on a small scale the training of teachers to work the system, and to make small grants in aid of building costs; but their influence in Devon was at first limited, and that of the British Society never considerable outside the larger towns where there was money and influence behind the Dissenters.
Not till 1834 did the Government for the first time intervene to help, and then at first to a very small degree, by offering grants towards the cost of building, through the societies – originally without any guarantee that a school once built could be main-tamed. But 1839 saw two developments of great future importance: the establishment of the Committee of Council for Education and, on National Society initiative, of the Diocesan Board of Education. The latter was quick to establish the Diocesan Training School (later St Luke’s) in Exeter; and the former embarked on a series of fundamental reforms which were to have a great effect in improving the better schools (but which for many years left the poorly-supported untouched).
Further building grants were made subject to some assurance of future support for a school, and Inspectors were appointed with the duty of visiting those to which such grants had been made. Their reports quickly showed up the great deficiencies of many school, and led to moves for improvement.
1846 saw the introduction of pupil-teachers, serving a five-year apprenticeship in a school, and paid by Government a salary of ,(1O rising to f20, with a final examination leading to the award of a Queen’s Scholarship for entry to a Training College. The object was both to replace the now discredited monitors and to improve the quality of College entrants. At the same time came Certificate examinations for teachers, offering an addition to salary of £15-30 for men and £10-20 for women, according to grade of certificate, provided school managers paid at least double the amount. Some town schools, particularly the excellent ones in Tiverton under the patronage of the manufacturers Heathcoat and Brewin, were quick to follow up these offers and employ teachers with certificates and pupil-teachers; but in rural Devon the Inspector found only five schools suitable to take pupil-teachers without great improvement first. Next year, ten pence per head of average attendance was offered towards the cost of books and apparatus, if local managers raised twice as much. In 1853 an annual grant was made available to approved rural schools on the number of pupils present for at least 176 days in the year; and three years later this was extended to schools in towns.
All this was intended to aid self-help, and the benefits went consequnt1y only to schools already well-supported – particularly in , towns. The effect was to make good schools better, but to leave bad ones (particularly in villages) as bad as before. It also meant a great increase in national expenditure on education, and greatly complicated the work of the Committee of Council: and the result was the drastic cut-back of the 1863 Revised Code. This ended State salaries for pupil-teachers and payments to teachers with certificates, and reduced building grants. Henceforth there was to be only one annual payment, direct to the managers, and based on the number of passes in six Standards for reading, writing and arithmetic, plus a fiat rate for infants if approved. The immediate results were predictable: far fewer boys came forward as pupil-teachers, and those who completed their apprenticeship often took work outside teaching; the number of men entrants to Training Colleges fell nationally to under sixty per cent, and thenceforth more women were employed as teachers – having, unlike men, little alternative. The income of certificated teachers was at once cut, and, even after a general addition of a share of the earned grant, was lower than before; and remaining pupil-teachers, now paid direct by managers, received on average only about two-thirds of the previous salary.
The need to concentrate on the 3Rs meant the general abandonment of other subjects, and the need to examine each child individually reduced the work of the Inspector to a mechanical drudgery. In 1866 the average salary of masters appointed from St Luke’s was £60 plus a house-the lowest of all Training Colleges, and considerably less than before with the Government payment. A further result was a proliferation of 3R Night Schools, for adolescents whose day schooling had been inadequate, in the hope of supplementing a meagre salary with the grant so earned; but in rural areas this was often pathetically small.
Most rural schools, however, were still unaffected because they had never qualified for any form of grant; and an enquiry in 1870 found that Bideford and Holsworthy Unions had less than half the school places they required, and only eight per cent in grant-earning schools. Honiton had only three per cent in the latter category, and only in St Thomas and Tavistock was the I’igure over thirty per cent. The result was the famous 1870 Education Act, by which the State changed its policy from only helping better schools to requiring positive provision of places in ‘efficient’ schools for all of school age. All schools were to have certificated headteachers who could earn a grant. The sudden increase in the need for such teachers was to some extent met by allowing a ‘Provisional Certificate’ for approved former pupil-teachers who could take direct charge of a small school at the age of eighteen and continue, provided they got their certificate by examination by twenty-five. Certificates could also be given without examination to approved established headteachers. The Act also required sufficient school places to be provided, either by voluntary means, with the help of a building grant if needed, and by raising funds for maintenance by subscriptions or Voluntary Rate, or by a School Board which could raise a compulsory rate and borrow on mortgage from the Public Works Loan Commission for a new or extended building.
Outside towns, the effects were much slower than expected or intended, since parishes nearly all tried to remain ‘Voluntary’ to save expense, and four or fivç years elapsed before the Education Department lost patience with those who failed to deliver, and compelled a Board to be formed. Devon in fact had more compulsorily formed School Boards than any other county, and eventually there were 91 of them serving populations of under 1000, of which 39 were for places with fewer than 500, and 9 with fewer than 2501, In these, and particularly the last, it was often hard to find people with any interest in education to stand, and many rural Boards came to be dominated by farmers whose chief concern was to keep the rates low, and whose sympathy for the education of their future labourers was minimal.
In the towns it was very different, and most towns of any size, except Torquay (which was generously provided with Voluntary schools), soon formed a Board with a real concern for education. While the record of rural School Boards varied from the respectable to the abysmal, town Boards quickly fulfilled the aims of the Act and went further, earning a reputation as generous pioneers. The Plymouth and Devonport Boards both founded Higher Grade Schools, the former with a large science department; and the Exeter Board earned from HMI in 1894 the comment that it was ‘generous to its schools, keeps a good staff, rewards pupils with prizes, has established a small library for teachers, and has a system of personal visiting.
Tiverton Board was exceptionally generous to the several rural schools in its large area; and all enforced their attendance bye-laws -which rural Boards and Union Attendance Committees never did, largely because of the refusal of rural magistrates to convict. Plymouth set up a ‘Truants Industrial School’ to house and discipline those who wilfully evaded teaching, and offered places in it to other Boards, which some towns (but hardly any villages) made, use of. Plymouth, Devonport, Exeter and Barnstaple all set up Pupil-Teacher Centres, as did the Torbay towns, which were of great benefit to those within reach, but again left the rural pupil-teacher in isolation. Figures for 1900 show that in large Devon towns the Board schools were much better supported than surviving Voluntary ones, but the reverse applied in the countryside. In fact, in towns there was a demand for education as a way to better employment, while in villages the prospect for nearly all boys was still only farm-labouring, and for girls domestic service before marriage to a labourer.
Voluntary schools continued to be the majority in Devon as a whole, and in villages they were nearly all ‘Church’, since rural Nonconformity, however widespread, had little wealth to back it. These in turn varied greatly in local support and interest. Towards the end of the century, in 1897, the poorer ones were much helped by ‘New Aid Grant’, paid through the Societies for raising salaries, increasing staff, or for equipment. Some indeed were, by 1900, receiving more than ninety per cent of their total costs from various Government grants. These included the Fee Grant of ten shillings per head which replaced School Pence in 1891, ‘small population’ grant, grant for adequate staffing, besides earned grant – all, apart from Aid Grant, also available to Board schools.
The Code governing curriculum and grant, which had been designed with large town schools in mind where every Standard cold have a separate teacher, sat hard on rural schools where one teacher might have to take all the Standards-and sometimes the infants as well. In practice most rural children left school at the age of ten if they could scrape through Standard IV, which somewhat lessened the problem, and School Pence scales were often designed to force them out into the fields at that age. There was gradual liberalisation in the addition of grant for singing – compared by one North Devon HMI with the noise made by a distressed family begging in the street – and for ‘Class Subjects’ such as history, geography and grammar (which in fact were little more than rote-learning of little understood information). A seventh Standard – irrelevant in the rural school -was introduced in 1882; and in 1891 the 3R inspection was dropped, to the great relief of both teachers and Inspectors. Finally in 1900 the last vestige of ‘Payment by Results’ vanished with a single block-grant on average attendance.
By the end of the century the inadequacy of the rural parish – and particularly of the rural School Board – as a separate ‘education authority’ was obvious; and the Act of 1902 (effective in 1903) transferred responsibility for maintaining both Voluntary and Board schools (outside Plymouth—Devonport, Exeter, Torquay, Barnstaple and Tiverton) to the County Council which could draw on the rates of richer areas to lighten the burden on the poorer. But despite its rural limitations, much had been achieved since the 1870 Act.
For the great majority of country children the result was little more than some grounding in social discipline, the ability to read the less demanding newspapers, to write (if with a limited vocabulary), and to work simple sums: but this alone was a great advance. For a few, in the better schools, pupil-teacher apprenticeship offered a way into teaching. Otherwise, escape from wretchedly paid farm or domestic work was probably dependent on the chance of craft-apprenticeship or migration. There was more opportunity in country towns, with a wider variety of employment and less parental poverty to compel early leaving, and occasionally the chance of a scholarship to further education.