The Village School

Extract from p185,6 and 7 of “Rural Life in Victorian England” by G.E. Mingay, Futura Publications 1979. Copyright 1976 Land Humphries publishers Ltd.

Note: The following refers to village schooling between 1865 and 1905.

[p185] …there was a monitor who taught the infants their alphabet, and later on to say their tables. Noise was characteristic of school. All six standards were gathered together, infants chanted, several older children read aloud at once, teachers scolded. Occasionally the hubbub subsided when the master rang his bell, and then gradually the crescendo of din would mount again. Some children worked at sums on their slates, while others got restive waiting their turn to read while the poor readers stumbled painfully over every word. When the girls were engaged on sewing, the boys did extra sums or dictation. The master rapped with his stick at those who were idle or lost their place, and wrongdoers were kept in half an hour after school. Thrashings were commonplace.

Twice a year the inspector, a much feared and sometimes irascible gentleman, arrived to conduct examinations. This was a day of great import for on the results might depend the master’s reputation and salary, and on them too rested the question of which children would be allowed to leave school at eleven or twelve – a matter of large concern to their parents. That day saw the master in his best suit, calling out the children to be tested, and frowning anxiously when they hesitated or became confused.

[p186] In school the emphasis on the three R’s and on learning by rote certainly made for a narrow, dull, unimaginative kind of education. Nevertheless, the system had its merits. It has to be remembered that children of eleven were already near the end of their schooldays. They came from homes where there was rarely a book or any thoughtful conversation, and their parents might be almost, if not quite, illiterate.

[p187] One of the problems faced by teachers was poor attendance. There were some parents who firmly believed that education was the key to advancement, and sent their children to school regularly, even when they were ill and should have been in bed. But school log books tell of much absenteeism, the boys employed with their fathers at busy seasons, and girls kept at home to mind the baby or help with some plaiting, glove making, or other chore.

Poor parents badly missed their children’s earnings, and thought school an undue burden when children were old enough to work. They refused to purchase school books, and sometimes resisted the home lessons which children were supposed to learn in the evenings, ready for the next day.

The farmers were accomplices, readily employing children when they knew they should be at school. Farmers were generally unsympathetic to the whole idea of giving young farmworkers a good education, for fear they would become dissatisfied and go off to the towns. School boards and magistrates were often infected by the same prejudice, and as a result little attempt was made to help the teachers by enforc1ng attendance.

But there were other reasons for poor attendance. Children might be kept at home, especially in bad weather, because they had no sound boots, or their feet were too sore with chilblains to get their boots on. The children could not go to school barefoot, and parents might need a week or two to find the money for new shoes, Also, children often lacked proper clothing to keep out wind and weather.

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