This month.....

From Sunday Schools to a State Education System

Well Happy New Year (again if you read December’s article)! Also, since we are in the Christmas season now, Happy Christmas. Yes, I know people have been wishing you Happy Christmas since probably late October but it’s actually here now!

Education is frequently in the news, well actually it always seems to be in the news but that might be a reflection from one who has spent more years as a school governor than he has in fulltime education.

The Church has a very long history of involvement in education. Most of our ancient public schools have their origins as church foundations and in the medieval period many monastic foundations also supported schools. But it was still rare for children to receive any formal education. In the 1780s the Sunday School movement was started by Robert Raikes who had become increasingly worried by the number of boys serving prison sentences. Raikes thought that prevention was better than cure and that improving boys’ prospects was what was needed. The Sunday School movement was his response.

Children, like adults, were working six days a week with the only free day being Sunday. So the schools met on Sundays and their primary aim was to teach boys to read and write. The most commonly available text was the Bible but the skills gained in learning to read and comprehend this text were always meant to be transferrable to secular study.

The first Sunday school started in July 1780 in Gloucester with just boys but soon girls were also allowed to attend and within a couple of years several other Sunday Schools had started around Gloucester funded by Raikes. The school day started at 10am till 12pm then started again at 1pm till 5pm.

The Sunday School movement soon spread throughout the country and by 1831 it was educating 1¼ million children. In 1811 the Anglican Church in England and Wales started the National Society to found schools to educate the poor. These Church Schools are still with us today and we have 4 in this benefice at All Cannings, Bishops Cannings, Chirton and Urchfont. Most of these schools were absorbed into the state system by the Butler act of 1944.

The proliferation of Church of England and Church of Wales schools inspired other denominations to start their own schools. The State got involved in education for the first time from 1833 granting sums of money to build schools for the poor with the condition that these schools should be inspected to make certain that they met a satisfactory standard, a ‘tradition’ that OFSTED continues today and for Church of England, Church of Wales and Methodist Schools they are additionally inspected under SIAMS (Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools).

By 1870 there were 4.3 million children of primary school age in England and Wales. 1 million attended voluntary schools, 1.3 million attended state schools but 2 million had no access to primary education. The 1870 Education Act set up Board Schools for these children and the previous grant scheme came to an end. Poor parents could be exempt fees, schools were all fee paying, and provision was made for local byelaws to make school attendance compulsory for children between 5 and 13 but if a child could prove that they had attained the standard expected at 13 they could leave school from the age of 10.

The Education Act of 1880 introduced compulsory education for children from 5 to 10.

The Elementary Education Act of 1891 introduced state funding of school fees up to ten shillings a child which effectively made primary education free.

In 1893 the Elementary Education Act increased the school leaving age to 11.

The Voluntary Schools Act of 1897 provided grants to elementary schools not funded by school boards, these were mainly Church Schools.

The 19th Century ended with the school leaving age having been raised in 1899 to 12.

So the origin of our present State Education system can find its roots back in the Sunday Schools of the 18th Century and the inspiration for the Churches to get involved with education came from the need that people saw for education for poor children. An important point is that Church Schools are not faith schools, they were set up to educate all children. The desire by various faith groups to have their own schools has grown considerably since the middle of the 20th Century and where such communities can support faith schools these have been established but they are all inspected by OFSTED to assure that the education offered meets the standards expected.

The movement to Academisation in recent years has reminded many Church Schools of their foundation. Most Church Schools were built on land owned by the Church, quite commonly the bottom of the vicarage garden or some glebe land. Schools often have to go back to their trust deeds to find out who owns the land they are built on. These trust deeds also state the conditions that the school has to fulfil to use the land. So foundation governors have been reminded of their particular role under charity law to make certain that this foundation is fulfilled by the school.

The Church’s involvement in Education is still very important. Church Schools are not about teaching the faith, they are about giving children the skills they will need in life. Yes this does include a knowledge of the beliefs of faith communities since that will be an important part of the context of their lives. The Church’s role is importantly expressed through foundation governors and with the increasing responsibilities that go with governance it is a challenge for all schools to fill their governing boards. Being a governor is a responsibility but it is also a joy and it’s a role that is worth thinking about taking on as we continue with the long history of educational development in our country.

For some school days are never fully behind us!

Richard Curtis