Although schools have always been around it wasn’t until the Victorian era that these were improved considerably and available for all children rich and poor. In 1870 a law was passed which made it mandatory for all children aged between 5-10 in Britain to attend school. This was similar to the system we use today of Monday-Friday however the leaving age was far lower.
The leaving age was then increased to 11 in 1893 however parents and employers of working children still prevented some of them from going to school as they were making money in the workplace and this is what they wanted.
Who went to school?
When Queen Victoria initially came to the throne schools were for the rich. Children of the wealthy would go to fee paying schools where they would learn classical subjects such as Latin and Greek, study classical history such as Greek mythology and classical literature about Roman Gods and Goddesses.
Most children never went to school and struggled to read or write. Children from rich families were typically taught at home by governess until the age of 10 years old. Wealthy boys from the age of 10 would then go to Public schools such as Rugby. Girls on the other hand continued to be educated at home.
The poor were initially introduced to school thanks to the ‘Sunday school’ introduction by Robert Raikes with about 1,250,000 children gaining an education with this method by 1831.
This was all turned on its head however in 1870 with the passing of the law and schools began to cater for the rich and poor alike. Various names were given to the schools including the British schools and the Ragged schools; the latter getting the name from the poor children attending the school.
An education system had started and what a stark contrast it was to the one we have today.
What were schools like?
Schools were certainly different to the schools we have of today. Within poor inner city areas there could be anywhere between 70 and 80 pupils in one class!
The schools were imposing buildings with high up windows to prevent children from seeing out of. Furthermore the walls of the schools lacked creativity and were often bare or had merely text for the children to look at.
Village schools typically had smaller classes however the age groups would be varied. It wasn’t uncommon to see a 6-year-old child working in the same classroom as a 10-year-old! Due to the size of the school classrooms it became regimented and adopted a significant amount of repetition. Usually this would consist of the classroom teacher writing on the chalkboard and the children copying this down. Teaching lacked creativity and it was a strict, uncomfortable place for children to begin their life education.
Typical Victorian Teacher:
In Victorian schools there were more female teachers than male ones with women occupying the majority of teaching roles. These women were often very strict and scary. The majority of female teachers were unmarried ladies and they were to be called ‘Miss’ at all times. The reason teaching consisted of mostly ladies was due to the pay scale. The salaries were poor and men could be earning more money elsewhere so this was left to the women. The rationale behind it been mostly unmarried women was that once married the women was expected to take care of the family.
The large majority of teachers did not have a college education. The role of teaching was something they picked up while on the job and every new lesson would be a challenge for them too.
The teaching was also passed on to some of the brightest children in some schools known as ‘Monitors’ where they would be taught by the Headmaster and would then pass this onto small groups of children as another way of educating. The Victorian teaching system was much different to the one we have today.
Victorian Punishment on children in school:
Discipline was huge in the Victorian times and this was no different in schools. It wasn’t uncommon for children to be beat by canes made from birch wood. Boys were typically caned on their backsides whereas Girls would take the punishment on their legs or hands.
The reasons ranged from truancy right through to laziness in the classroom. The punishments were usually harsh and painful for children aged jus between 5-10.
Children who were slower than the rest within lessons were made to wear the shameful dunce hats and sit in the corner for over an hour. This was not only humiliating for the child but also not helping them get up to speed with the rest of the class. At the time there was no concept of children with learning difficulties and the uneducated classroom teachers would assume it was purely down to the laziness or lack of effort.
Amazingly children were reprimanded for using their left hand to write! This was seen as a punishable offence and they were made write with their right hand!
In terms of lessons they were basic but focused on the 3 R’s of Reading, wRiting & aRtmetic (Maths) with the introduction of religion to make this the not so fantastic four. The intiial three were seen as the most important areas of education at the time and a vast majority of school time involved the learning of these.
The lessons were very different to lessons of today and usually involved copying down what the teacher wrote on the chalkboard. Furthermore children were expected to chant things out loud until they did so without mistakes. The times tables were commonly done in this way and children were expected to do this without any mistakes.
The importance of developing a fine hand in writing was high and alongside numbers this was seen as a crucial part of education.
The school days in Victorian times were structured slightly different to those of today with the morning introduction session consisting of prayers and religious instructions. This was commonly followed by morning lessons running from 9am until 12pm. Following this was a lunch period when children usually went home. Similar to fathers who went home from work within the Victorian period the children would do the same.
Afternoon classes began at approximately 2pm and finished at 5pm. The school day in Victorian times was in the mould of the modern day 9-5pm. Children of a very young age were expected to maintain their best attention at all times and adhere to the rules of the school.
Unlike today school equipment was very different in Victorian times. The most famous equipment from these times was how children were expected to write on slate instead of paper. The reason for this was simple; it was cost effective!
Paper was expensive so children used slates with slate pencils to complete their work. The letters were scratched into the slate with the pencil. This could be easily removed and usually was at the end of each lesson. It was standard procedure for the teacher to walk around the classroom checking the work of the pupils.
Once this was checked off they cleared their slate for the next lesson. No work was saved and children were expected to memorise the information they had taken in.
Before using slate boards the youngest children would practice writing letters in sand trays. This was a common activity for those in the 5-6 years old age bracket before they were ready to hold a slate pencil and write on a slate board.
For the teachers the most important equipment was the chalkboard and easel. The mainstay of any lesson was for children to copy information from the chalkboard onto slate board. The older children would begin to write in a book using a dip pen with black ink from an inkwell. There was a designated ‘Ink monitor’ whose job was to fill the inkwells each and every morning.
Victorians used a device called an Abacus for arithmetic which was their version of the modern day calculator. This enabled the children to conduct sums quickly and effectively.
Although Victorian schools are different in many ways to today’s classrooms some of the methods used help shape our education system today. Victorian schools are still used throughout Britain and remain an important part of history.