In the 1860s the annual funding allocated for schools by Parliament exceeded £800,000. But there was growing pressure for the state to provide schools in areas where none existed. One of the chief stumbling blocks was the vested interests of religious societies. There was conflict of opinion over whether the state should pay for schools run by particular religious denominations, or whether schools should have no association with any denomination.
National Education League
Matters began to move forward, however, in 1869 when the recently formed National Education League began its campaign for free, compulsory and non-religious education for all children.
The views expressed by industrialists that mass education was vital to the nation’s ability to maintain its lead in manufacture carried considerable weight in Parliament. A Bill which met many, but not all, of the League’s wishes was drafted and introduced by W. E. Forster, and quickly passed.
1870 Education Act
The 1870 Education Act stands as the very first piece of legislation to deal specifically with the provision of education in Britain. Most importantly, it demonstrated a commitment to provision on a national scale.
The Act allowed voluntary schools to carry on unchanged, but established a system of ‘school boards’ to build and manage schools in areas where they were needed. The boards were locally elected bodies which drew their funding from the local rates. Unlike the voluntary schools, religious teaching in the board schools was to be ‘non-denominational’. A separate Act extended similar provisions to Scotland in 1872.
More Education Acts
The issue of making education compulsory for children had not been settled by the Act. The 1876 Royal Commission on the Factory Acts recommended that education be made compulsory in order to stop child labour. In 1880 a further Education Act finally made school attendance compulsory between the ages of five and ten, though by the early 1890s attendance within this age group was falling short at 82 per cent.
Many children worked outside school hours – in 1901 the figure was put at 300,000 – and truancy was a major problem due to the fact that parents could not afford to give up income earned by their children.
Fees were also payable until a change in the law in 1891. Further legislation in 1893 extended the age of compulsory attendance to 11, and in 1899 to 12.
Compulsory education was also extended to blind and deaf children under the Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act of 1893, which established special schools. Similar provision was made for physically-impaired children in the Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act of 1899.