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  • Writer's pictureDeerness Valley Nursery

Thoughts on Children and Childhood - Part 1: Where do we come from?

In order to properly explore education today, we need to place it within an understanding of what education used to be like in our country. So, let me take you back in time to explore the beginnings of our school education system.

In 598 Augustine established a church which included a school for studying religious texts. This school still exists today in Kent and is widely held to be the oldest continuously operating school in the world.

For a long period of time schooling was related to the church, and focussed on teaching Latin, choral singing, and preparing sons of aristocracy for priesthood or monastic work.

There were also other schools calling themselves “public schools” to denote that they were open to all, not only those from Christian families or those bound for ministry; and charity schools or “blue coat schools” for educating poor children in reading and writing. To add to this list of other schools we should also mention grammar schools, academies for religious dissenters, dame schools, informal village schools, industrial schools, local board schools, ragged schools, reformatory schools, and Sunday schools.

Another aspect of education were apprenticeships where young men entered into training for a profession alongside experienced men. These also included parish apprenticeships for occupations like household service and bricklaying.

However, many children did not go to school at all, or at least not regularly, as their families needed everyone who was able to work.

In 1876 the Elementary Education Act was passed that said

“It shall be the duty of the parent of every child to cause such child to receive efficient elementary instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic, and if such parent fail to perform such duty, he shall be liable to such orders and penalties as are provided by this Act.”

The subsequent 1880 Elementary Education Act effectively made school education compulsory for 5 to 10 year olds.

Since then there have been many changes to the school systems in England, but the trend has been towards providing free compulsory education for children from the age of 5.

Provision in the 1870 Elementary Education Act was made for children to receive education outside the schooling systems, eg at home, and continues to be in place today.

“In this Part, “appropriate full-time education or training”, in relation to a person, means full-time education or training which is suitable for the person, having regard— (a) to the person’s age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any learning difficulty which the person may have, and is provided at a school, at a college of further education, at an institution within the higher education sector or otherwise.”

So, now we have children actually being educated rather than working or helping in the home, what and how were they being taught?

Firstly, it’s important to imagine the classrooms. Bare walls, high windows (to discourage looking out), rows of desks or tables, and inner-city schools had 60 to 80 children in a class. At the front would be a large blackboard. Think about the schoolhouse at Beamish Museum and you’ll get the picture.

Education focussed on the “three Rs” ie reading, writing and arithmetic. Some schools also taught Science, Classics, and Latin, and practical skills such as sewing, printing, or shoemaking, and some included physical education or “drills”.

Teachers mainly stood at the front and taught from the “chalk-face” with children sitting in rows. One source details the daily routine as,

“The timetable was quite a strict one, the children rose at 6.00am and went to bed at 7.00pm. During the day there were set times for schooling, learning trades, housework, religion in the form of family worship, meal times and there was also a short time for play three times a day. The boys learned trades such as gardening, tailoring and shoemaking; the girls learned knitting, sewing, housework and washing.”

The Revised Code of Regulations, 1872, lists six standards that children needed to meet in order to leave school early to go to work, and upon which schools were inspected, and frankly it is very likely that teachers “taught to the test”.

A very interesting paper by Florence S Boos talks about learning being entirely by rote using chanting, copying from the board and repetition, and says

“Pay for teachers was set each year on the basis of examinations chiefly in reading, writing and arithmetic (though foreign languages, science, geography, history, and needlework were later added as supplementary options). According to Purvis, this curriculum may have led to the teaching of arithmetic to girls for the first time (93), but also ensured that writing from dictation, oral reading of short passages, and simple arithmetic would constitute most of the curriculum (cmp. “teaching to the test”). Observers noted that children were seldom encouraged to formulate judgments or relate what they learned to their own experience.”

Teachers held the knowledge, such as they had, and their role was to disseminate it to the children. They did use older pupils to help them, but there were no requirements for qualified teacher status, degrees or postgraduate qualifications until the 1960s.

Add into this the lack of understanding of different educational needs, and the frightening acceptability of corporal punishment and it all paints a pretty grim picture. It’s no wonder that literacy levels continued to be so low.

Since the late 1800s there have been many changes to the national education system, likely all with the motivation of increasing levels of literacy and numeracy across the country.

However, while the efficacy of these changes is a subject for much debate, it is clear that they often disregard the research into children, childhood, learning, teaching, and pedagogy.

In further posts I hope to explain some of the great researchers into pedagogy whom I admire, including John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Lev Vygotsky, and Loris Malaguzzi.


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