Do I want a Victorian education?

Some of the more aggressive critics of this blog often make the case that I am arguing here for a ‘return’ to a ‘Victorian’ educational model, perhaps aspiring to re-create a ‘golden age’ in which education worked well and from which late-twentieth-century progressivism took us away. I want in this post to set out a few clarifiers.

First, there never was an educational golden age in which the kinds of things I argue for in this blog existed. I have absolutely no desire to return to the past, and indeed if I were to give an overall judgement for our system, I would say it is better than it has ever been in the past. Our education system is not ‘broken’, for this implies that it was once ‘not broken’. People disagree over our future trajectory and there are crucial debates to be had here which require lots of hard thought and not a few compromises, but I want to be clear that I in no way think that a ‘return to the past’ would be in the best interests of our society.

Part of this conclusion is that there are a number of educational practices in the past that I think are wrong. Some have very few supporters today, including corporal punishment, having a lower school leaving age and giving boys and girls different educations. For me, it is good that we no longer do these things. Schools in the past were in general less good at supporting children with special needs, nor did they have a sufficiently large role in protecting children from abuse outside of school. Selection based on intelligence at age ten is something else I am glad fell by the wayside and, although there are still people who support this policy, I do not. I also disagree with some of the assumptions people made about curriculum in the past. It is wrong, for example, that some children were put into particular ‘pathways’ based on their social class. I disagree with the presumption that ‘not academic’ is a synonym for ‘vocational’. There are still some people today who argue that ‘vocational’ routes are ‘more appropriate’ for children, but I would like us to treat this as a past relic that can also be put aside.

So do I want to recreate a Victorian or 1950s education system?


8 Comments on Do I want a Victorian education?

  1. I am reading Vision of the Annointed by Thomas Sowell – I think you would find it interesting in terms of how those who are not of the left are automatically of the right and how it is defined by those people in relation purely in terms of their own ideas even though those who oppose progressives can come from a range of different ways of thinking. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Michael–Thanks for your blog. I enjoy the perspectives of a fellow historian and educator. I’m working through Angela Duckworth’s Grit book, which despite the silly things some in education have done with it, is pretty good. Interestingly for me, I find that (apparently unkowingly) she follows Erasmus On the Education of Children. I also see much in her work that lends itself to the sort of education we profess–she makes the distinction between novices and experts, emphasizes practice, etc. Perhaps what we are espousing is a 16th century education….

  3. I always find it interesting how historians take such an unhistorical approach when they speak of the past in education. The assumption behind the ‘do you want a Victorian education?’ attack is that a Victorian education is a very bad thing that we certainly don’t want to revive. Now, if they mean, ‘Do you want to resurrect the past?’ then clearly the answer is no because the question is a stupid one to start with. But let’s give the Victorians their due. They were the first (in Britain) to take education under the wing of the state and to lay down national standards. They were the first to introduce a system of examinations and assessment to try to ensure some uniformity of educational standards. They undertook the first major reform of university education in this country as well as pioneering its spread. They introduced the first serious technological education colleges and the first teacher training colleges. They gave a priority to the basics – literacy and numeracy – that it wold take us until the 1990s to rediscover (and some would say we haven’t done so properly yet). If we look forward from the Victorian age, we find some surprisingly experimental, innovative and forward-looking teaching, particularly in history, in the 1920s. So, when people ask if you want a Victorian education, I think you can answer, “Innovative, groundbreaking, state-run, with the latest thinking on assessment and accountability – yup, count me in.”

  4. Tom Burkard // 31 December 2016 at 17:07 // Reply

    Comparing modern schools with Victorian schools is a pretty tricky business, not the least because Victoria reigned for over 63 years, and education evolved enormously during that era. Compared to the Victorian era, our schools are awash with cash and grossly over-staffed. Just as importantly, our schools are now designed to warehouse kids so their mothers can go to work, whereas in the Victorian era poor families couldn’t afford to feed half a dozen kids through secondary education, let alone pay their fees. And I don’t think we should forget Workers’ Education Associations and the Sunday School movement, both of which were grass-roots organisations that accomplished an amazing amount with very limited resources. If only we now had that thirst for knowledge!

    We should also bear in mind that secondary education was, in many respects, as rigorous as undgraduate education is now–the latter now has to teach a much bigger percentage of the population, this cannot be done without very serious dilution of the curriculum. The amount that the primary curriculum has been dumbed down even since the 1970s was brought home to me earlier this year when I studied the Lancashire primary maths curriculum in detail; arithmetic has been emasculated, and the mathematical reasoning strand is very little more than verbal and spatial reasoning with a few simple numbers added. Although even low ability kids can master arithmetic, I seriously doubt that many will benefit from the latter.

    I accept what you say about girls’ education and corporal punishment, but I couldn’t disagree more strongly with your comments about SEN, which in the great majority of cases is nothing more than making excuses for the failure to teach basic skills adequately. On of the strongest messages to come out of the 2006 Rose Review is that the kind of teaching that works best with ‘dyslexic’ children also works best with all children–they just need a lot more of it. Although there has been some improvement, most primary schools still teach children to ‘guess’ at words they can’t read. Now, we train Sencos to use unscientific checklists to ‘diagnose’ ASD and ADHD–and don’t get me started on ‘dyslexia’. While it is true that children with more severe disorders are at last getting decent help in our better special schools, in mainstream education the system serves mostly to demoralise kids and provide excuses for failure. And to provide more jobs pushing pointless bits of paper around, and more work for teachers who are supposed to personalise or at least differentiate lessons for the benefit of SEN pupils.

  5. I’m feeling bloody-minded, so I will question some of this.

    Corporal punishment, for example, must do less damage to a childs education, and therefore to their long term interests, than exclusion. So why is exclusion so much more acceptable than corporal punishment? It is because corporal punishment involves an adult physically hurting a child, and people don’t like being seen to do that. Excluding a child, or allowing one to attack or disrupt the learning of other children, does not bother them anything like as much. The feelings of adults, not the suffering of children, are what the ban on corporal punishment protects.

    And if we are so adverse to compulsion, why is everyone so happy with compulsory education to the ages of fourteen, then sixteen, then eighteen (and probably twenty-two in a generation or so if current trends continue)? I keep seeing arguments about the purpose of education, but no one ever seems to come up with a purpose of education that they think can be achieved with LESS time in school. Even the people who liken schools to prisons think children ought to be compelled to spend more time in them. A cynic might think the purpose of education is to maximise the number of inmates of the education system, and justify the careers and salaries of the people who run it…

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