Two cultures

The Prussian threat has gone: so, too, should state schools

By Terence Kealey

THE scholarly paper of the week is Class, Gender and English Women's Sport 1890-1914 (PDF). This study by Dr Kathleen McCrone of the University of Windsor, Canada, explores the history of schoolgirls' sports.

The paper is important because it provides the only readily available description of how the schools were nationalised. Dr McCrone thus explains why, this week, too many children will return to state schools that are bog standard.

State schools sink for the same reasons all nationalised industries sink: they are deprived of autonomy, of competitive pressures and of investment. But people will not privatise them. Most industries improve for being privatised, but people fear that the private sector would fail the poor, so they believe the schools must remain nationalised.

Yet systematic education was introduced into England by the Church, not the state. And the education was indeed systematic, with each parish having access to a church school. There were more than 12,000 elementary church schools by 1891, and the Church's enterprise in mass education was so successful that, throughout the 19th century, British literacy rates exceeded those on the Continent.

But the church schools had their enemies. The Liberals resented the Church as the "Tory Party at Prayer", and introduced successive state education Bills in the Commons. Swayed by the bishops who sat there, though, the Lords vetoed every Bill. Only in 1870 did the Lords pass the famous Act to create state schools.

Between 1870 and 1891, the state and church schools competed levelly - and the state schools lost: practically nobody attended them, and their over-provision created more than a million empty school places.

It was the Conservatives under Lord Salisbury who nationalised the church schools. The Tories, worried by the German threat, wanted the schools to teach military drill, but the church schools refused to become Prussian academies. So, in 1891, Salisbury made the state schools an offer: he would abolish their fees if they taught military drill.

Fees were then 10 shillings a year (except for the children of the poor who, at both state and church schools, were educated free) but, Salisbury suggested, if their fees were abolished, the state schools might attract pupils. To pay for the "free" state schools, Salisbury did not double the income tax of the rich; instead he doubled the domestic rates, the tax that preferentially hit ordinary people.

Under this double whammy of targeted taxes and "free" schools, a third of all parents had, by 1902, transferred their children from church to state schools. The church schools thus found their margins so squeezed that they had to apply for government grants - which were provided only if they accepted local authority control and if they introduced . . . military drill.

The story is unexpected, because most people assume that a Left-wing government introduced free schools to educate the poor. As a result, it is almost impossible to persuade people of its veracity, particularly as the facts are available only in specialised tomes. But Dr McCrone's scholarly paper is accessible on a Google web search.

The 1891 Elementary Education Act nationalised the church schools and saved the state schools, but only Dr McCrone's paper readily, if only in passing, shows why the money was provided - not to educate the poor, who were already being educated, but to bribe the schools into introducing military drill.

This week, millions of children will return to state establishments that were nationalised to provide the cannon fodder of Flanders. Every few years they get disrupted by White Papers that, like yesterday's, reverse earlier policies and introduce new, damaging contradictions and confusions. Let those schools now go the way of National Service.

The author is the vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham

(The above article originally appeared in the London "Daily Telegraph" of 06/09/2001)

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