The Elementary Education Act of 1870 Introduction

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Introduction to The Elementary Education Act of 1870

And the Nineteenth-Century Foundations of Modern Schooling in Britain

The British Journal of Educational Studies is probably the best single journal-based source on the 1870 Elementary Education Act (EEA 1870), with a large number of key papers published in the Journal before and after the centenary of the Act in 1970.  These include three papers on Scottish education leading to the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872, by Stenhouse, Cruickshank and Scotland (ESA 1872).  A special issue of the Journal on the 1870 Act was published for the centenary (BJES, 18/2, 1970). 

The current collection brings key articles from the Journal together on the occasion of the sesquicentenary of the Act which is marked in 2020.  It also coincides with the SES colloquium held in September 2019 on ‘Educational legislation in a changing society’ and prepares the way for a special issue of the BJES based on this colloquium in 2020.

An earlier virtual issue of the Journal was on the theme of educational reform legislation in the 20th century, covering the Education Acts of 1902, 1944 and 1988.  This was published as Educational Reform Legislation in the 20th Century, edited by Gary McCulloch (McCulloch 2018).  The present collection complements this previous virtual issue / volume to form a complete set of classic articles on educational legislation in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The BJES’s special issue of 1970 was itself a strong contribution to the literature on the 1870 Act.  This was a characteristic achievement of the long-time Editor of the journal, the educational historian Arthur Beales.  A strong group of established authors was assembled for this purpose.  This was led by the eminent historian W.H.G. Armytage, who contributed a magisterial paper focusing on the 1870 Act (Armytage 1970). Other contributors explored aspects of the wider social and historical contexts of the Act, emphasising a number of positive trends in which the Act played a significant part.  W.P. McCann highlighted the active part played by trade unionists and artisans in the development of the Act, portraying this as the beginning a trade union and labour support for educational improvements over the following century (McCann 1970).  David Turner gave detailed attention to the spread of the infant school system over the previous half century and its incorporation in the 1870 Act, which produced according to Turner ‘a unique system of state provided obligatory education for a younger age group than anywhere else in the world’ (Turner 1970, p. 165). Nigel Middleton’s paper proposed that the 1870 Act marked the start of a new concept of the child, and indeed a new type of society which altered the child’s place in the community.  This included the provision of a school place for every child, ‘safeguarded by a framework which in ten years led to universal compulsory attendance’ (Middleton 1970, p. 173), as well as ultimately an acceptance that the State owed a duty of care to the children of the poor.  N.J. Richards showed how the 1870 Act introduced a viable compromise between the Established Church and Nonconformists in the financing and administration of a national system of elementary education (Richards 1970).  Finally, D.E. Selby’s paper stressed the significant role of Henry Edward Manning, the Archbishop of Westminster and Head of the Catholic Hierarchy, in promoting the Catholic cause and defending Catholicism in the formation of the Act (Selby 1970).

The centenary of the 1870 Act coincided with the culmination in Britain of a period of relative economic growth and social reform including education.  Since the 1950s, investment in educational growth had led to further development at all levels of education.  The gradual formation of a national system of education with its foundations traced to the nineteenth century could be widely observed and generally celebrated as a basis for further growth.  The substantial reports on different aspects of education that were published in the late 1950s and 1960s – the Crowther report 15 to 18 (Ministry of Education 1959), the Robbins report on higher education (Robbins 1963), the Newsom report Half our Future (Ministry of Education 1963), and the Plowden report on primary education (Department of Education and Science 1967) – could all provide a historical narrative of growth and progress in education.

This story of growth was also reflected in the many historical texts on education that were produced at this time.  The years preceding and immediately following the centenary  witnessed a range of historical contributions on the 1870 Act in a number of outlets.  One such source was a distinguished series of monographs and edited texts relating to the period under the imprimatur of Cambridge University Press.  These included John Roach’s work on public examinations in the second half of the nineteenth century (Roach 1971),  A.S. Bishop on the rise of a central authority in English education (Bishop 1971), David Sylvester on Robert Lowe and education (Sylvester 1974), and edited texts of Mathew Arnold (Smith and Summerfield 1969), Robert Owen (Silver 1969), James Mill (Burston 1973), Thomas Arnold (Bamford 1970), Thomas Huxley (Bibby 1971) and H.E. Armstrong (Brock 1973).  Several other extended studies of nineteenth century education that emphasised the emergence of a state system of elementary schools were also published at this time, such as the work of Mary Sturt (1967), John Hurt (1971) and Gillian Sutherland (1971; 1973).

The story of steady growth and consolidation that tended to come across in such works was not a fully agreed consensus even at this time.  Indeed, there were well established dissenting views based on rival political perspectives.  From the radical left, Brian Simon had championed the argument that 1870 Act was an expression of social class conflict in which a working class struggle for education was being thwarted by middle class interests (Simon 1960; see also e.g. McCulloch 2011, chapter 4).  Meanwhile, early indications of a neo-liberal reaction supporting a free market in education were articulated by Edwin West’s alternative analysis of the 1870 Act subverting market efficiencies (West 1965).  Furthermore, a counter-discourse emerging initially from international sources also helped to undermine the image of liberal progress in education.  Intellectually, the powerful critiques of the Brazilian Paulo Freire and the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich questioned the validity of modern schooling systems founded in the nineteenth century (Freire 1968/1970; Illich 1971).  From the United States, student protest over the Vietnam war and popular unrest with schooling such as was vented in the chart-topping song ‘School’s out!’ by Alice Cooper (1972) demonstrated that a century of schooling had not created social equality or cohesion.  This point was also raised with vigour at the same time by American radical revisionist educational historians such as Michael Katz (Katz 1968).

In Britain, educational growth faltered in the early 1970s with the rise of industrial conflict and the onset of deepening economic problems.  In these circumstances, education came to be seen in some quarters as the cause of such discontents rather than as a solution to the ills of society, leading to growing political turbulence, and a self-styled ‘Great Debate’ on education from 1976.  Again, these contemporary developments were reflected in changing historical perspectives.  A new social history which had emerged in the 1960s with a fresh focus on social class and popular culture began increasingly to influence writings in the history of education.  For example, Richard Johnson identified the role of schools in the imposition of ‘social control’ in the nineteenth century (Johnson 1970), Phillip McCann highlighted the importance of popular education for socialisation in the nineteenth century (McCann 1977), and the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham outlined the rise of what was described as ‘unpopular education’ since the Second World War (CCCS 1981).  The musical counterpoint to these political and historical changes was no doubt the rock band Pink Floyd with its self-conscious rendering of ‘We don’t need no education’, in their song ‘Another brick in the wall’, first performed in 1979 (see e.g. Beckett 2009 and Sandbrook 2012 for accounts of British society and politics in the 1970s).  The dominant refrain of gradual progress that had accompanied the centenary of the 1870 Act was largely dissipated by the time of the return of the Conservative Party to government, also in 1979, and the decade of educational reforms that followed (see e.g. McCulloch 1994).

The final decades of the twentieth century witnessed a sharp decline in historical interest in nineteenth century education in general, and in the 1870 Act in particular.  In part, this was foreshadowed in the professorial inaugural lecture of the educational historian Harold Silver, presented at Chelsea College, London, in 1977.  Silver’s insightful contribution pointed out that historical attention  had been mainly focused on the growth of the role of the State in elementary education, while other aspects of late nineteenth century education had been relatively neglected (Silver 1977/1980). In further work, Silver complained that while more had been researched and written about education in Victorian England than in any other period, with most of it being about popular education, nevertheless, ‘we have neglected it’ (Silver 1977/1990, p. 194).  As he noted, ‘The themes that have attracted the most attention in Victorian popular education have been those of policy formation and legislation, commissions and committees, the provision, control and administration of education, and the changing shape of different “levels” of education – elementary and technical, infant and adult, and “types” of education – board and voluntary.’ (Silver 1977/1990, p. 194).  Silver called instead for more work on areas such as the impact and ‘use’ of schooling, the relationship between schooling and literacy, the quality of educational experience, the role of the school in social relationships, and educational ideologies (Silver 1977/1990, pp. 199-200; see also Silver 1983).

Silver’s strictures were well directed and influential, and signalled the beginnings of new approaches being adopted in research in the history of education. In part, as Gordon and Szreter observed in their historiographical review of the field, this represented a swing away from a concentration on thinkers and writers about education; on educational legislation, the details of provision and the personalities involved in their promotion; and on educational institutions (Gordon and Szreter 1989, Introduction).  Indeed, such work could be dismissed as consisting mainly of ‘Acts and facts’.  Historical attention moved towards social issues and relationships, supported by the application of novel theories and methodologies (McCulloch 2011).  Nineteenth century legislation appeared less interesting by comparison, and relatively little fresh work was published in this area in the early years of the twenty-first century.  Between 2010 and 2019, the specialist journal History of Education published very few papers on the 1870 Act or more broadly on the nineteenth-century foundations of modern schooling in Britain.  In the British Journal of Educational Studies, once the unchallenged champion of such studies, there were none at all (for a detailed examination of the development of the topics covered by the BJES and changing approaches taken by the Journal since its foundation in 1952, see McCulloch and Cowan 2018, chapter 5).

The research published in the British Journal of Educational Studies around the centenary of the Elementary Education Act in the 1960s and 1970s therefore stands out collectively as a high water mark of historical engagement with this key legislation and the foundations of the modern schooling system in Britain.  The current collection includes sixteen papers from this vintage period. It begins with two papers exploring the background to the Scottish legislation of the late nineteenth century (1, Stenhouse; 2, Cruickshank). The next four articles survey the early development of support for a national system of elementary education in England and Wales (3, Farrar; 4, Duke; 5, Roper; 6, Eaglesham).  The process of producing the 1870 Act and the different political interests involved are the general theme of the next four papers (7, Marcham; 8, Roper; 9, Selby; 10, McCann).  The next three articles examine the implications of the legislation for infants and children (11, Szreter; 12, Turner; 13, Middleton).  Finally, the last three papers discuss the general significance of the new legislation for England, Wales and Scotland, with reflections on its importance over the longer term (14, Armytage; 15, Scotland; 16, Dent).

Overall, this classic work deserves recognition half a century later for its contribution to our educational and historical understanding, even as we await a new generation of research designed to reflect further on educational legislation in the context of a changing society at the sesquicentenary of the 1870 Act. 


Gary McCulloch
UCL Institute of Education

Gary McCulloch is the inaugural Brian Simon professor of the history of education at the UCL Institute of Education London.  He is the current Editor of the British Journal of Educational Studies and also immediate past-president (2017-2019) and current vice-president of the British Educational Research Association.


Armytage, W.H.G. (1970) ‘The 1870 Education Act’, BJES, 18/2 (1970), pp. 121-33

Bamford, T.W. (1970) Thomas Arnold on Education, CUP, Cambridge

Beckett, A. (2009) When the Lights went out:  What Really Happened to Britain in the Seventies, Faber and Faber, London

Bibby, C. (1971) T.H. Huxley on Education, CUP, Cambridge

Bishop, A.S. (1971) The Rise of a Central Authority for English Education, CUP, Cambridge

Brock, W.H. (ed) (1973) H.E. Armstrong and the Teaching of Science, CUP, Cambridge

Burston, W.H. (ed) (1973) James Mill on Philosophy and Education, CUP, Cambridge

British Journal of Educational Studies (1970) special issue on 1870 Elementary Education Act, 18/2

CCCS (1981) Unpopular Education, Hutchinson, London

EEA (1870)

ESA (1872)

Freire, P. (1968/1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Penguin, London

Gordon, P., Szreter, R. (eds) (1989) History of Education:  The Making of a Discipline, Woburn Press, London

Hurt, J. (1971) Education in Evolution:  Church, State, Society and Popular Education, 1800-1870, Rupert Hart-Davis, London

Illich, I. (1971) Deschooling Society, Penguin, London

Johnson, R. (1970) ‘Educational policy and social control in early Victorian England’, Past and Present, 49, pp. 96-119

Katz, M. (1968) The Irony of Early School Reform:  Educational Innovation in Mid-Nineteenth Century Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

McCann, W.P. (1970) ‘Trade unionists, artisans and the 1870 education act’, BJES, 18/2, pp. 134-50

McCann, W.P. (ed) (1977) Popular Education and Socialisation in the Nineteenth Century, Methuen, London

McCulloch, G. (1994) Educational Reconstruction:  The 1944 Education Act and the 21st Century, Woburn, London

McCulloch, G. (2011) The Struggle for the History of Education, Routledge, London

McCulloch G. (ed) (2018) Educational Reform Legislation in the 20th Century, Routledge, London

McCulloch, G., Cowan, S. (2018) A Social History of Educational Studies and Research, Routledge, London

Middleton, N. (1970) ‘The Education Act of 1870 and the start of the modern concept of the child’, BJES, 18/2, pp. 166-79

Ministry of Education (1959) 15 to 18 (Crowther Report), HMSO, London

Ministry of Education (1963) Half our Future (Newsom Report), HMSO, London

Ministry of Education (1967) Children and their Primary Schools (Plowden Report), HMSO, London

Richards, N.J. (1970) ‘Religious controversy and the school boards, 1870-1902’, BJES, 18/2, pp. 180-96

Roach, J. (1971) Public Examinations in England, 1850-1900, CUP, Cambridge

Robbins, L. (1963) Higher Education (Robbins Report), HMSO, London

Sandbrook, D. (2012) Seasons in the Sun:  The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979, Allen Lane, London

Selby, D.E. (1970) ‘Henry Edward Manning and the Education Bill of 1870’, BJES, 18/2, pp. 197-212

Silver, H. (ed) (1969) Robert Owen and Education, CUP, Cambridge

Silver, H. (1977/1980) ‘Nothing but the present, or nothing but the past?’, in P. Gordon (ed), The Study of Education, vol 2, The Last Decade, Woburn Press, London, pp. 265-84

Silver, H. (1977/1989) ‘Aspects of neglect:  the strange case of Victorian popular education’, in P. Gordon, R. Szreter (eds), History of Education:  The Making of a Discipline, Woburn Press, London, pp. 194-210

Silver, H. (1983) Education as History, Methuen, London

Simon, B. (1960) Studies in the History of Education, Lawrence and Wishart, London

Smith, P., Summerfield, G. (1969) Matthew Arnold and the Education of the New Order, CUP, Cambridge

Sturt, M. (1967) The Education of the People:  A History of Primary Education in England and Wales in the Nineteenth Century, RKP, London

Sutherland, G. (1971) Elementary Education in the Nineteenth Century, Historical Association, London

Sutherland, G. (1973) Policy Making in Elementary Education, 1870-1895, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Sylvester, D.W. (1974) Robert Lowe and Education, CUP, Cambridge

Turner, D. (1970) ‘1870:  the state and the infant school system’, BJES, 18/2, pp. 151-65

West, E.G. (1965) Education and the State:  A Study in Political Economy, Institute of Economic Affairs, London



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