‘No equally powerful body will exist in England outside Parliament, if power is measured by influence for good or evil over masses of human beings’. The Times, 29 November 1870.*
The school holidays are over again and millions of children are returning to their classrooms. Since 1918 (and the controversial Fisher Act) secondary school education has been compulsory for all children in England and Wales, initially up to age 14 and now, effectively to 18. Parents that allow their children to miss school (to be truant) can be prosecuted, fined and even imprisoned in rare cases. In 2015 alone almost 20,000 parents were prosecuted for allowing their offspring to miss school and there has been the highly publicised case of Jon Platt who was fined £120 plus costs for choosing to take his children away on a family holiday to Florida. Mr Platt successfully appealed the decision to the High Court before it went on to a Supreme Court hearing which upheld the Isle of Wight council’s original decision.
The case turned on the rights of parents over the desire to protect children’s education. The law insists that children attend school regularly so that they can benefit from the free education system provided by the state. This has a long history in England with early attempts to provide schooling for the children of poor families (wealthy parents had long been able to educate their kids) going back to the eighteenth century. It was in 1833 that the state first became directly involved in school education with parliament voting money for the creation of schools for the poor.
Educating the poor was considered to be a crucial tool in fighting crime and poverty in the nineteenth century. Commentators from the end of the Napoleonic Wars onwards equated delinquency with a lack of formal education, moral guidance, and opportunities for gainful employment. If children could be taught to read and write, and learn to respect their ‘betters’ then society could go a long way toward eradicating the so-called ‘criminal class’ that Henry Mayhew and others wrote so much about.
In 1870 the Forster Act attempted to address the perennial problem of inadequate supply of schools for the children of the poor. It created board schools (fee paying but with fee waivers for the poorest families) for children aged 5-13 (or 10 if if the child could demonstrate they had reached a certain level of education by then). Attendance was compulsory on the basis that there would now be a school within range of the child’s home.
One of the consequences of creating a compulsory system of course was that the new School Boards had to enforce it. The parents of children that failed to send their youngsters to school would be prosecuted, and those prosecutions ended up before a Police Magistrate.
In some cases children were hard to police (just as they are today), parents may well have simply been unaware that their sons or daughters were playing truant. In other cases there was considerable complicity on the part of the adults; children were useful as helpmeets at home, or as extra hands at work. And inevitably poverty and illness took its toll. I have read cases of mothers not wishing to send their children to school without shoes, too poor were they to properly cloth them but too proud to ask for charity.
Given that many parents might well have had reasonable (or at least understandable) grounds for keeping children at home this report of cases before the Clerkenwell Police magistrate is instructive.
Mr Barstow presided over a series of School Board truancy cases heard in September 1874, just four years after Forster’s Act. He was pretty ruthless in upholding all the School Board officer’s complaints.
In one case a ‘poor woman’ told him that:
‘the small average attendance made by her two children was caused by the illness of her husband, which had extended over 14 weeks’. During that time, when he could not work she had gone out to earn enough to keep the home together. She had tried to send one child to school in the morning and one in the afternoon, so that he should never be left uncared for.
Mr Barstow fined her 2s 6s, plus 2s costs.
Next was another poor woman who carried a baby in her arms. She too had failed to make sure her other children attended school and was fined the same amount. Sadly she didn’t have 2s and sixpence so she was sent to the house of correction for five days. Presumably she took her children with her or they went tot he workhouse, there didn’t seem to be a husband at home to stand with her.
There were several parents prosecuted that morning, nearly all of them ‘of the poorest class’ and the magistrate fined them all without exception. His final case was a ‘respectably-dressed’ man however, who claimed that he had not sent his boy to the school as it wasn’t ‘very effective’. Mr Barstow asked him to provide proof of the inefficiency of the school in question which the man was unable to do. In future, Barstow said, he would need to see evidence of a school’s failings if he was to excuse any non-attendance.
The man was clearly frustrated at being dragged through the courts in this manner. He declared that he thought the act was designed to deal with ‘the “gutter” children and street Arabs’, not with respectable families such as his own. Mr Barstow paid him no heed and handed him the standard 2s 6s fine plus costs.
Men like Mr Barstow probably believed in the project of public education and were well placed to see the results of poverty, ignorance and crime on London’s population. Education then wasn’t about empowering children or providing them with an opportunity to develop and grow. Rather it was an exercise in social control and social engineering, churning out ‘good citizens’ who knew their place in the unequal hierarchy of Victorian society.
Plus ça change
[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 05, 1874]