Education in Victorian Britain

During the years of Queen Victoria’s reign, attitudes towards children’s education changed dramatically and by the later Victorian years both boys and girls, no matter what their background, were able to go to school.

Early Victorian schooling

In early Victorian Britain, many children did not go to school as children do today. School had not yet become compulsory. Children from poorer families often worked in order to help their families who did not have much money. In fact, poorer families often relied on their children to bring in extra money that they needed to survive. Girls, whether rich or poor, tended not to go to school in early Victorian times. With the exception of a small number of very wealthy girls who attended boarding school, most girls either worked if they were poor or if they were wealthy were taught by a governess at home.


Improvements begin

Through the Victorian era, the government made gradual steps towards a more robust schooling system in Britain. In 1839, the first groups of school inspectors were employed to examine schools and assess how successful the schools were.
Families living in the big cities around Britain found it particularly difficult to send their children to school because of the fees they would have to pay as well as losing the income that their children would bring in if they were working. In the mid-1840s, the idea of Ragged Schools, a type of volunteer-led school, spread to London. They were the only possibility of education for those families who had been turned away from other charitable or church schools and who couldn’t pay for their children to learn. Children who went to Ragged Schools tended to be poor and commonly came from families where parents were abusive or drunks. Some pupils were orphaned and some pupils’ parents were in prison so they had taken to sleeping on the streets. The Ragged Schools gave free meals and clothing to their pupils and taught them a trade such as shoemaking or domestic skills.
In 1846 the government began to help pay for teacher training too, which would serve to help more teachers get the training they needed to successfully teach this generation of young people who were to, one day, lead the country to new heights.

More pupils arrive!

By the 1860s, more than 40,000 of London’s poorest children were taught at Ragged Schools and by 1861, there were lots more schools available for children to attend, generally set up by individuals or organisations, but most of them not free. Although there were no schools fully funded by the government yet, parliament was allocating more money than ever for education in the 1860s. The annual funding for schools at this time was more than £800,000. In 1862, parliament also made it compulsory for head teachers to keep daily and weekly records of what happened at their school in a log book. This was a good way to check that progress and attendance were being monitored. Head teachers were being made more responsible for the students under their care. However, with no laws still to make children attend, progress was difficult and was not helped by a continued lack of teaching resources and staff.


Harrow School
Artist unknown. Published in Trousset, Jules: Nouveau dictionnaire encyclopédique universel illustré, La Librairie Illustrée, Paris 1885-1891

More schools were needed!

By the late 1860s, lots more voluntary schools had been opened. Many working-class children now went to school for some of their childhood. Even though some children still did not attend school, this was now a minority. What did become clear was that more schools were needed. There was still an unacceptable amount of illiteracy in Britain and those children who lived in the urban slums and more remote areas still weren’t able to access a school. Britain was going through an amazing, prosperous period of industrialisation and the British Empire was growing. There was a serious need to educate all the British people to help drive Britain forward and be able to show off its citizens to the World. These young people were the future of Great Britain, the then capital of the World. The days were gone in which it was acceptable to worry that by letting poorer children go to school to learn they would become unhappy with their social standing.

Big changes to the law

Finally, in 1870, the government passed an Education Act to deal with the education of Britain’s young generation. It had been decided that it was crucial for the future of the country and its citizens that education be provided throughout the nation. Every child was to be given a place at school and school buildings had to be of a reasonable quality. Head teachers now had to be qualified too. Schools throughout the nation were inspected and checked to make sure that the education they were offering met the new standards. New rules now meant that school boards could make school compulsory for children between five and ten years old and later thirteen.
Over the next ten years, new schools were set up in areas where there had been none before making education accessible for everyone. School boards were set up to manage and build these.

School for all!

The next big step towards education becoming compulsory came in 1880 with the Elementary Education Act. Ten years had passed during which school boards had been given the choice over whether to make children go to school. Now, the government had taken the decision out of their hands: these new laws meant that every child had to attend school.
One of the most important Education Acts to be passed towards the end of the century was the 1891 Elementary Education Act. This established new rules declaring that elementary education was to be free for all and not just for those in severe poverty.

Schoolboy raising his cap
Artist: Horace Castelli. Published in Erwin, Emma d’: Heur et Malheur, Hachette, Paris 1877

School was still very different to today!

Unlike school today, as a Victorian child you could expect to be cold at school as there may not have been a fire to heat your room or school hall. If there was, you may have been sat so far away that the warmth didn’t reach you! Having most probably walked to school, you might spend much of your time in wet, cold clothes from your journey in depending on the time of year and you would certainly be tired – sometimes, children would have to walk a long way to school! When you got there, you would fully expect to be inspected by your teacher and would have to be smartly turned out. Respect for your teacher was very important and you would bow or curtsy to them during registration.
Lessons would be in the three ‘R’s: Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. Sometimes, schools would teach geography, history and ‘drill’, the Victorian equivalent of PE. You probably wouldn’t have had your own books; instead, they would be shared among the whole class and kept by the teacher on his or her desk, which would be at the front of the room. Depending on which school you went to, you may or may not have a break time! During lessons, you would be expected to pay attention and work to a high standard. If you made a mistake, such as a wrong spelling or even writing with your left hand, punishments would either be painful or humiliating and might be either a sharp rap across the knuckles with a cane or being sent to the corner to wear the dunce’s cap – often with your face to the wall in shame. If you accidentally fell asleep in class, you could expect to receive a nasty snap of the master’s ruler or perhaps even being woken up with some very cold water!

Opportunity within reach

Towards the end of the century, education was a very different animal to what it had been when Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837. Although there was still a huge difference between schools then and now, significant improvements had taken place in the space of sixty years. By the end of the 1800s many of the town schools even had libraries as well as pianos. As well as the three ‘R’s, subjects studied might include sport such as cricket, needlework, drawing and craft work, map drawing, geography, history, religion, gardening and music. Some schools had also begun to have special rooms for science and cookery. Schools were giving awards and prizes to encourage progress and hard work. Pupils were being closely monitored and a Queen Victoria Medal might be awarded to pupils with outstanding attendance in recognition of the importance of school and a pupil’s commitment. A very different story to the beginning of the century education, every child in Britain, rich or poor, now went to school and by 1900 there were 5.7 million pupils attending elementary classes. Opportunity to learn and progress was greater than ever…for everyone.

Who Me?

Latest posts by Kathryn Waite (see all)