Having just dealt with two gentlemen who had been found drunk and drawing a crowd around them near Cremorne Gardens, Mr Arnold’s Westminster Police court was now filled with a motely collection of working class men and women. They answered summons for not sending their children to school. The cases were brought by the Chelsea School Board in the person of Mr Cook the board officer.
In most of the cases the magistrate agreed that their had been neglect of duty on the part of the parents, and he fined them small amounts and extracted promises that in future they would ensure their children went to school. In one case however, he had to take a different line. This involved a very poor woman who said that despite her best efforts her son kept playing truant and there was nothing she could do about it. Her husband left for work very early in the morning and she too worked, so she could not make sure that when he set off for school he didn’t sneak back later on while his parents were out.
Mr Arnold was sympathetic and called the boy to the dock to explain himself. The lad said he was sent to school but didn’t go. The justice now ‘explained to the little fellow the advantages of going to school’.
He added that ‘poor people who had to work hard for their living could not be expected to to take their children to school and sit on a door-step to see that they remained there; and in cases where the parents did their utmost to comply with the law he should not convict them, because their children were rebellious’.
He went on to say that in some instances ‘those children were proper subjects for an industrial school’, where education would be combined with more severe discipline. This might have been a veiled threat to the boy to not play truant again but he wrapped it up in a wider warning to parents that thought sending their offspring away was an easy solution to avoiding prosecution and a convenient means of having them educated and cared for at the state’s expense.
Parents of children sent to industrial schools (or reformatories) were expected to contribute to their upkeep he reminded the court (and the reading public of course). For ‘those children ought not to be easily got rid of by their parents and become a burden to the ratepayers’ and he instructed Mr Cook to make his views clearly known to the School Board. The reporter finished his account by stating that:
‘The system of parents getting rid of their children by complaining that they are beyond their control is becoming very prevalent’.
The education offered to working-class children in the second half of the nineteenth century was basic and not designed to lift them up above their social status. Children were taught to read and write but also not to challenge their superiors and to learn to accept ‘their place’ in society. It has taken a very long time for this to change in Britain, arguably it is only from the 1960s or later that education has really affected the status quo, and some might reasonably suggest the effect is limited at best.
Education – and the encouragement of independent thinking – is crucial if society is to develop and not simply replicate the traditional hierocracies of the past. It is not an accident that public (private) schools are given charitable status to enable them to prosper, or are excluded from the national curriculum taught to most children. It is no accident either that the children of the wealthy and ennobled are much more likely to go to our top universities, while children from disadvantaged communities – notably BAME ones – are largely excluded.
Education is political – it always has been – and it probably suits the ruling elite for the majority of the population to be under education, to believe what the tabloids tell them, not to challenge the words of their ‘superiors’. There has been a clear move to silence the voices of ‘experts’ in political debate recently – on climate change, on political democracy, and on brexit most notably.
‘Ignorance is bliss’ some say; I would say it is dangerous and plays into the hands of those that rule us, those – if you but scratch the surface – who went to private schools like Eton, Harrow and Westminster, before finishing their studies at Oxford and Cambridge, before proceeding into positions of wealth and privilege because their parents were rich and powerful already. The attack on the Westminster bubble by disenchanted members of the public is misplaced in my opinion. Today the ‘old school tie brigade’ is ripping up democracy in front of our very eyes to serve the old order’s desire for continued wealth and privilege. If you see the proroguing of our sovereign elected parliament by an unelected cabal of unrepresentative privileged individuals as anything other than a coup in all but name, then I respectfully suggest you look beyond the tabloids and read a little more history.
[from The Morning Post, Friday, August 29, 1873]