Updated: Dec 11, 2022
We have an image that school days in Victorian Britain were strict and corporal punishment rife. Daily life in the elementary school, however, was often a battleground between idealistic educationalists, government interlopers, struggling parents and hard-pressed teachers. Not to mention the children.
A patchwork of school systems operated across the country. The experiences of learning in one classroom could be very different from the next. Those who could afford the small fee might attend local parish or church schools. An alternative, for those willing to embrace a more informal approach to education, were privately run ‘dame schools’ that operated out of local teacher’s homes.
Early in Queen Victoria’s reign (1837 to 1901), child labourers were supposed to receive schooling from their employers under the Factory Act, while those found homeless or begging might be sent to tough industrial schools to learn a trade.
Another option for those unable to fund their own education were schools established by charitable organisations. Most notable were the so-called ‘ragged schools’, formed in 1844 to offer free education to Britain’s poorest children. By 1870 there were around 350 such institutions across the country.
For many of these children just making it to school each morning was an achievement. A child attending school often meant the poorest families losing an income they simply could not live without. Records show that girls were more likely to miss school than their brothers. In families that could not cope, they would be the first to be hauled back home to help out. Truancy levels also rocketed when seasonal work was available.
By 1880 the Elementary Education Act had made school attendance compulsory, which meant that specially appointed officers could slap parents with fines and even threaten them with prosecution. Attendance and punctuality became central components of ‘good behaviour’. Efforts to encourage or ensure such good behaviour can still be seen in many schools today.
Those who did make it through the school gates each morning were not necessarily ready to learn. Many children were on the ‘half-time system’, which allowed them to fit schooling in alongside work. This relentless schedule undoubtedly took its toll on young learners, with teachers frequently recording concerns about children arriving already exhausted after a long shift at work.
Bells marking the beginning of the school day rang out at different times across Britain. With evening and weekend sessions employed to fit in with working hours, there was no universal starting time.
From an 1845 timetable each morning began with prayers and singing, followed by catechism with analysis and scripture proofs. Religion was a key element of every school day even though expectations of biblical knowledge were unreasonably high.
The classrooms in which lessons tool place varied as much as the schools themselves. In the early 19th century, many schools were run on a monitor system - in which all children were massed in one large hall, to be taught in small groups by older pupils. By the middle of the century classrooms similar to today’s began to emerge. Classes of up to 40 pupils were not uncommon, and sizes could stretch to 80 during staff shortages. As there were no set ages for entering or leaving the education system, classes would be organised according to ability rather than age, in a system known as ‘standards’. Wherever possible boys and girls were separated (gendered entrances were a common feature in purpose-built schools), but resources often simply did not extend far enough.
With schools generally placed in the centre of communities, pupils would usually be given a long lunch break (up to two hours) to head home for food. Free lunches would not be provided on a national scale until the 20th century, but sometimes food was donated by charitable organisations, or even the teachers themselves. This demonstrates the important welfare role that a school could play in a poor community.
After lunch a monotonous afternoon of vocational subjects awaited pupils of industrial schools. These would often be divided by gender - while girls studied sewing and later cooking, boys might be offered commercially orientated drawing or woodwork.
Alongside religious studies, the three ‘Rs’ were the backbone of most school programmes. Pupils would typically find themselves ‘reading from miscellaneous books’, ‘writing on slates’, and performing ‘arithmetic from blackboard’.
One way to raise classroom standards was to enforce strict discipline. In popular culture, visions of Victorian corporal punishment are all too familiar. While the physical punishment of children was both legal and widely accepted at home and even in the street, the idea of schools terrorised by cane-wielding masters is not universally accurate. In fact, the overuse of corporal punishment was a sign of failing to maintain strict classroom control. From the 1890s it became standard practice to record all punishments in a book, to be checked by inspectors. Teachers noted that the most effective forms of punishment were often non-physical, especially those that involved an element of ‘naming and shaming’ - whether that meant a child wearing a dunce’s hat or a sign around their neck.
By the 1890s reforms to the restrictive ‘payment by [examination] results’ system meant that those wishing to broaden the minds of their young charges could increasingly afford to venture into subjects such as geography, science and history. Whether those lessons would inspire fascination or boredom was largely down to the teacher.