The pioneers of universal education in the 18th century aspired to change an education system that provided for only a tiny section of society.
Here I explore the people, institutions and buildings behind the struggle for education for all.
18th-century Sunday Schools
Our journey starts with the earliest attempts to move education from the elite to the working class, provided by non-conformist organisations in the form of Sunday Schools.
The most famous one, Robert Raikes’ school for chimney sweeps, was established in 1780. Based on the appropriately named Sooty Alley, it was typical of the time. Set in a modest building near Gloucester prison, it did not advertise its presence. The Cawsand Sunday School hid its intentions due to widespread hostility amongst conformist churches and the ruling class.
The hostility experienced by many pioneers was neatly expressed by Jacob More, a noted headmaster in Bristol, who was concerned that ‘too much learning rots female brains’. His attitude suggests that he would not have approved of his daughter, Hannah. She was the founder of many Sunday Schools in the area and an enthusiastic supporter of education for all.
Thanks to Raikes, More and others, Sunday Schools became a regular feature of towns and villages throughout the country.
Mechanics’ Institutes during the Industrial Revolution
Whilst Sunday Schools focused primarily on educating the young, the foundation of Mechanics’ Institutes during the industrial revolution moved education for all to adults, specifically working-class adults.
The Quaker doctor and educator George Birkbeck’s first attempt at teaching adults about the machines they were working with proved wildly popular. Soon Mechanics’ Institutes sprouted up throughout the country, often housed in ostentatious buildings such as the Mechanics’ Institute in the heart of the mill town of Burnley.
The unusual nature of the buildings could be viewed as an attempt at gaining respectability. Despite this, some still had concerns that education might give people ideas ‘above their station’. This was not dampened by the expansion of the curriculum to embrace general education rather than just industrial training.
Early education for Women
Although promoted to provide education for all, Mechanics’ Institutes focused primarily on educating men.
Deep into the late 19th century, women’s education was still rare. With complete emancipation of women not achieved until 1928, it was left to organisations such as Bedford College and Somerville College to promote women’s education.
Their limited success is illustrated by the fact that it took until the turn of the 20th century for degrees to be awarded to women passing university courses. Before this, they were only allowed to be awarded a Certificate of Proficiency.
By the start of the 20th century, the movement towards education had gathered pace, with libraries becoming a central feature of many towns. Often these buildings were visually arresting and designed to inspire those who entered them.
This inspiration extended to the wording placed on and in the libraries. Those funded by the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, such as the building at Accrington in Lancashire feature the phrase ‘Knowledge is Power’.
Universities and increased access to education
The call for ‘education for all’ in the Higher Education sector gathered momentum in the late 19th century with the foundation of Ruskin College.
This was an institution explicitly dedicated to the education of working-class males. Its founders strived to ensure that the people they believed would one day rule the country were given the skills needed to do so.
Whilst the idea of equipping the working class with the ability to lead proved hugely controversial, the establishment of The Open University in 1969 was a far more sedate affair. The purpose of the new university was to widen access. A series of innovative approaches, such as the extensive use of radio and television as part of the pedagogy, opened the door to university to many previously excluded.
In 1976, the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, proclaimed that the twin goals of education should be ‘to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive, place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work.’
For some, these twin aims remain at the heart of discussion about the purpose of education. The latter suggests that everyone is being prepared for an assigned place in society, whilst the former harks back to the words of one of the founders of Ruskin College, Walter Vrooman, who stated that ‘knowledge must be used to emancipate humanity’ – a true expression of ‘education for all’.