Edwin West
Education and the Industrial Revolution

Even his figures conceded that three-quarters of all children were already in school. And Forster himself would have been the first to stress to a twentieth-century audience that his Act of 1870 was intended primarily not to create education from scratch but simply to augment it. As he told Parliament, the object was to complete the existing voluntary system by filling up the gaps. His ideal was an heterogeneous national system.

Today, a century later, the situation is reversed. State schools provide most of the education whilst private provision fills the gaps. How do we cxplain the rapidity of the transformation? One answer lies in the type of administrative machinery that Forster set up, a machinery which seems to have gathered its own momentum and to have developed far beyond his original aspirations. Forster intended simply that the Government should make strict enquiries into educational needs in each area and only set up school boards in those areas where a significant deficiency was proved.

As it happened many officials were often over-ambitious in their reports of these needs. Gladstone himself could not stop them. He protested in 1873 that four-fifths of the children in his own constituency were already provided for and that for the remainder further provision in three additional infant schools was being organized. Why set up a school board, he protested, which in comparison with voluntary arrangements already being made was of necessity cumbrous and costly?

At a time of rising population, the question soon arose on who should provide the schooling for the net increase in children, the new school boards or the voluntary system? Soon alter 1870 the Education Department (not Parliament) took upon itself to establish the rule that where school boards existed, however small, they had the first right to supply the new deficiency. Even Forster, the author of the 1870 Act, could not stop this administrative horse from galloping. He protested, at a meeting in 1878, that those who ought to decide on new schools were those who were willing to build them. The Education Department, Forster proclaimed: 'would find that they had engaged in a most obnoxious business which they could only transact with odium if they tried to take upon themselves to decide whether any fresh call was necessary or not.' But now out of office Forster was powerless. New board schools appeared with increasing momentum throughout the country. Where excess board school capacity was created, the boards were able to reduce their fees and to drive out many private establishments. Many private schools indeed were forced into take-overs by the board school system and swelled the number of board schools that the 1870 Act was subsequently claimed to have 'created.'

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.