Truancy is not a new problem. In the pages of the Thames Police court in the late 1880s huge numbers of parents appear to answer charges of not sending their children to school. Most are fined small amounts and dismissed. It is rare to know why children were not attending school or whether a brush with the law meant that future attendance improved.
In late October 1880 Mr Paget was sitting in judgment at Hammersmith Police court as a number of summonses for truancy were presented to him. They were brought by a superintendent of schools, Mr Cook, who had the power (should the magistrate require it) to place children in Truant Schools for a period of weeks or months. It was generally thought that this (presumably harsher) environment encouraged children to go to normal day schools thereafter.
Of course while it is often assumed that kids play truant because they don’t like school (for all sorts of reasons we better understand today) it was often the parents that kept their offspring at home. Children could help with domestic duties, with the care of younger siblings or elderly or sick relatives, freeing parents to go to work. Children also worked, especially when that was piece work (like making matchboxes or mending shoes or clothes). In short for many poor families children from about 10 were useful in the family economy and weighed against the opportunities presented by a basic education (which were, let’s face it, few) having them at home was probably better.
One mother told the justice that her truant daughter was 12 and had secured a position as a servant, which was why she wasn’t at school. She appeared in court with her youngest child in her arms, as if to emphasize the necessity of moving her children on to make space for the new ones. Another explained that her son had not been to school for nine months because he was needed to take lunch to his father who worked in a brickfield.
In one case the magistrate wanted to know why it was the mother in court when the summons had required the presence of her husband. He could read she said. Nor could she, or her truant son. Mr Paget declared that ‘it was a great pity they did not go to school’ but adjourned the hearing so the summons could be read and the father given time to attend.
In the end many cases were similarly adjourned while enquires were made into the reasons given (ill-health, lack of money or shoes) for truancy. Mr Cook the schools superintendent said he would try to find places in Truant Schools but few were available. He wanted the parish to build a second one. That would cost money, and money was probably at the root of the problem.
The Victorian state wanted the children of the poor to be educated, up to a point. They wanted them to be better-educated factory hands, soldiers and servants, not educated so they challenged their place in society. This was often moral education that shaped a nation rather than improved the lot of its poorest.
Thankfully (I say, tongue firmly in cheek) we’ve left all that behind…
[from The Standard, Thursday, October 28, 1880]