Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Lessons of the 1880 Education Act

It is hard when one is actually living through dramatic changes which affect an entire way of life, to be objective about those changes.It is a racing certainty that when the Queen gives her speech to parliament tomorrow, a committment will be made to tighten up the law on home education. On the HE-UK and EO lists there will be protests that this is designed to interfere in matters which are more properly the concern of the family rather than the state, that a parent's right to decide what is best for her child is being eroded or even scrapped entirely. There is no doubt at all that feelings will be running high. And yet....... I have a suspicion that certainly in a century and probably in as little as a decade, people will ask themselves what all the fuss was about.

In 1880, an act was passed by parliament which made school compulsory for all children aged between five and ten. There was a huge amount of opposition to this new law. It took away the rights of parents, it was striking at family life, the government was disregarding the views of many citizens, it was for parents to decide how their children should be educated. In short, many people were saying much the same sort of thing that home educating parents will be saying on Wednessday evening. The parallels between the two cases are uncannily similar, if not precise.

The fact is, none of us willingly embrace change. We are generally comfortable with the way things have been running along up until now with the legal situation and ask only that there be no change. However, times do change. The current law on home education is based upon the form of words contained in the 1944 education Act. This act was passed at a time when home education was virtually unheard of in this country. That is to say home education of children by their own parents. There were plenty of governesses and tutors and it was to exempt families who could afford these that the 1944 Act included those fateful words, "By regular attendance at school or otherwise."

It is manifestly absurd that with perhaps as many as eighty thousand children being educated at home, we are still relying upon a legal situation which was established when there were no home eduating parents. That a new law should be debated and perhaps altered to take into account the fears and worries of home educators is reasonable. That we should do nothing and continue to rely upon laws framed before there was any such thing as home education would be a mistake. There will be opposition to a new law, just as there was after the 1880 education Act. After that law was passed, so many parents refused to co-operate, that prosecutions for the non-attendance of children at school were running at over a hundred thousand a year. It was the second commonest offence prosecuted in the 1880s, exceeded only by drunkenness

History judges that those parents who so vehemently disagreed with the Education Act in 1880 were wrong. I suspect that history will subsequently judge that those who were against a new law which was intended to make the duties and responsibilities of parents and local authorities clearer as regards home education were also wrong. They will be seen as reactionaries who preferred to cling to outdated laws, rather than to consider and help shape the future.


  1. A factor that you have overlooked, Simon,is that much of the outcry against making education compulsory in 1880 was because many families relied on their children's income from working and school hours precluded work. Many children were in fact educated by relatives or acquaintances and in neighbourhood private schools, but at the times that suited them. There were also significant problems with cruelty in schools.

    The reason that over time, increasing numbers of parents sent their children to school, was because the gradual reduction of poverty reduced the need for children to work, and because school education became more child-friendly.

    In 1944, child labour was still an issue (this was pre-welfare state after all) - hence, I suspect, the 'full-time' clause. What was also an issue was that at the time, the UK was under threat from two totalitarian regimes, both of which had used state education as a propaganda tool, and both of which had sought to take over the upbringing of children. The 1944 Act put the responsibility for the content of a child's education firmly in the hands of parents/guardians and teachers - for good reason.

    I can't see much difference between a parent educating a child and a tutor doing so. As far as I am aware, in the 1940s anybody could decide to become a tutor - it would be up to the parent to decide whether the tutor was up to the task. So the same criteria of quality of education apply.

    Between the 1890s and the 1990s, responsibility for the content of education has been dispersed throughout the community, negotiated between parents, teachers, school boards/governors, local authorities and government (indirectly). The system has not been problem-free, but the shared responsibility has meant that there has been some protection from the whole system going disastrously wrong. There are many reasons why state control of education is a Really Bad Thing. The behaviour of Prussia is one. State control caused immense problems in the UK in the final decades of the 19th century, immense problems in Europe in the 1930s onwards and it's caused immense problems 100 years later.

    As you will be aware, some of the proposals to 'tighten up' regulation of HE involve allowing local government officials access to the home and to the child, even in the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing. This is not just an erosion of the liberty of home educators, it abrogates an important principle of UK legislation. This is much bigger than people objecting to change.

  2. I'm not sure what you mean when you say that child labour was an issue in 1944. The school leaving age was only raised from 14 to 15. Parents educating their own children were not envisaged by the 1944 Education Act; the "or otherwise" referred to governesses and tutors which is why Joy Baker had so much trouble! I am well aware of the reason for the great opposition to the 1880 Act and you are right in saying that case was quite different from today, which is why I said that the comparison was similar but not precisely the same. What is the same is that in both cases the people opposing the new legislation are reactionaries; those who oppose change simply because it is change. Many people wish to maintain the status quo because that is what they are used to. It is the same now. The law covering home education is hopeless outdated and although the basis is now the 1996 Education Act, it is still based upon the 1944 Act. As I say, this was framed without any thought of home education as we know it, that is to say by parents. It is time for a new law which recognises the new reality, that scores of thousands of children are now taught out of school.

  3. My husband was doing PGCE in Cambridge in the early sixties, (when the course was the most boring and irrelevant ever, but that is another story). When studying the 1944 education act he was told that the original proposal was compulsory school, until someone realised that this would make the Royal Family law breakers - hence the otherwise phrase.
    Anyway... today is finally here - and I suppose at least it will put speculation to an end to actually know the proposals.

  4. I don't know on what grounds you are saying that the people who are opposing the new legislation because they don't like change. *Some* people might be reactionaries, certainly, but in both scenarios, clear reasons for opposition have been given. In the 1880s, the predominant reason was that families were reliant on the income of the child to maintain their standard of living - which in many cases wasn't very high. Currently, objections are on the grounds of the state attempting to share legal responsibility for parenting - not only is this demonstrably unwise (there are plenty of horrible historical examples), it also opens a legal and constitutional can of worms.

  5. "it also opens a legal and constitutional can of worms."

    Now you have my attention !!

    Can you fill me in on the details, because the Italian constitution is very similar to the "otherwise" provision in the UK but the most recent legislation to clarify the details is far more restrictive that anything set out in the UK proposals so far.

    I'm not sure I am in the mood to go on a one woman crusade right at this moment, but at least if I have ammunition to chunter about it will keep me happy in the interim.

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