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Fings ain't what they used to be?

Written by Dr Robin Precey

I recently discovered this book that makes fascinating reading. We have progressed in many ways but some aspects of state education in 1927 almost 100 years ago are perhaps worthy of consideration today from a Human Scale perspective.

Prefaratory (Introduction) Note

The Board* aims to reaffirm the statement made in the original Prefaratory Memorandum

“Neither the present volume nor any developments or amendments of it are designed to impose any regulations supplementary to those in the Code. The only uniformity of practice that the Board of Education desire to see in teaching in Public Elementary Schools is that each teacher should think for himself and work out for himself such method of teaching as may use his powers to the best advantage and to be best suited to the particular needs and conditions of the school. Uniformity in details of practice (except in the mere routine of school management) is not desirable even if it were attainable. But freedom implies a corresponding responsibility in its use”.

It refers to “The need for a broad conception of the purpose of the school”

Interest and drudgery is a fascinating section in terms of preparing children for work and life after school (aged 14) and boredom.

There are some authoritative statements made such as:

“It should be a first principle that every headteacher himself do a regular amount of actual teaching”.

The training of Young Teachers” (both student teachers and pupil teachers) was a large part of the headteacher’s job.

In 1909, there were 969 grant-aided secondary schools in England, Wales, and Scotland, attended by a total of 172,000 pupils. On average, each of these schools had 179 pupils, and there was an average of 16 pupils per teacher. Education during that time was quite different from today, with fewer students advancing beyond grade school. In fact, only 11 percent of children aged fourteen to seventeen were enrolled in high school, and even fewer graduated. Many working-class parents did not see education beyond basic literacy and numeracy as relevant to their children's economic futures. A focus of concern among educationalists during this period was the idea that young boys leaving school were forsaking apprenticeships in exchange for "dead-end" jobs which were higher paid in the short term but had little opportunity for advancement. It was feared that these boys would become unemployable. There were also moralist concerns that children were gaining too much Independence from adult authority at too young an age.

Schools were divided into 4 stages:

1 nursery ages 3-5

2 Infants ages 5-7

3 Junior ages 7-11

4 Senior ages 11-14 

(with self-education the keynote of the older children’s curriculum)

The curriculum consisted of:

  • English

  • History

  • Geography

  • Arithmetic and Elementary Mathematics

  • The Study of Nature

  • Music

  • Drawing

  • Handwriting

  • Handwork – making things for boys –and older girls. 

  • Needlecraft - girls only

  • Housecraft – girls only

  • Gardening – boys and girls

  • Physical Training and Health Education 

Payment by Results

The policy “payment by results” was introduced in the 1860s. Its main purpose was to ensure that schools receiving government grants met minimum standards. Inspectors assessed schools on an annual basis, with payment of the grant determined in large part by the number of children in a school achieving the expected standard.

Matthew Arnold * warned of the dangers of setting floor targets:

“School grants earned by the scholar performing a certain minimum expressly laid down beforehand must inevitably concentrate the teacher’s attention on the means of producing this minimum and not simply on the good instruction of his school. The danger to be guarded against is the mistake of treating these two – producing of this minimum successfully and the good instruction of the school – as if they were identical” (MA 1869).

Arnold also commented on the constraining effects of results-related pay on creativity:

“The mode of teaching in schools has certainly fallen off in intelligence, spirit and inventiveness. It could not be otherwise. In a country where everyone is prone to rely too much on mechanical processes, and too little on intelligence, a change in the department’s regulations… inevitably gives a mechanical turn to the school teaching and a mechanical turn to the inspection, is and must be trying to the intellectual life of a school” (MA, 1867).

And finally, on teaching to the test:

“In the game of mechanical contrivances the teachers will in the end beat us . . . it is now found possible, by ingenious preparation, to get children through the revised code examination in reading, writing and ciphering, without their really knowing how to read, write or cipher”(MA, 1867).


These were internally set and marked  "a well conducted examination should show the headteacher and his staff how their schemes of instruction are working out in practice”.

The first regular examinations under examination boards took place for boys only in 1858 as a result of schools approaching Oxford and Cambridge universities for local means of assessment. Girls did not take school exams until 1867 monitored by Cambridge, and Oxford started from 1870.

Examinations were timetabled into blocks of six or seven consecutive days and held throughout the day, including in the evenings. The examination system was also a school inspection system, so that Cambridge Assessment inspected some schools.

National standards for examinations arrived in 1918 for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This was the beginning of the School Certificate, for 16 year olds, and the Higher School Certificate for 18 year olds. The emphasis remained on middle class pupils staying at school: thus most pupils (around 80%) continued to leave school without taking external exams.


From 1899 the Board of Education could inspect any school supplying secondary education that wanted to be inspected, including independent schools. In 1902 inspection was extended to state-aided secondary schools. For independent schools compulsory inspection was not fully effective until 1957.

So What?

Obviously, the world was very different almost a century ago but what are your thoughts. How much have we progressed?In terms of Human Scale Education there are lessons for:

  • The size of schools 

  • The appropriateness of the curriculum

  • The dangers of tying testing judgements 

  • Professionalism and trusting teachers 

Dr Robin Precey

Thanks to Colin Richards is emeritus professor of education, University of Cumbria

*Matthew Arnold (24 December 1822 – 15 April 1888) was an English poet and cultural critic. He was the son of Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School, and brother to both Tom Arnold, literary professor, and William Delafield Arnold, novelist and colonial administrator. He has been characterised as a sage writer, a type of writer who chastises and instructs the reader on contemporary social issues. He was also an inspector of schools for thirty-five years, and supported the concept of state-regulated secondary education.


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