The State of Education

Text writer and editor

Life at School

With so many types of schooling available, the offer could be very different from one school to another. Generally though, lessons were taught through repetition. Students learned either by copying writing from the blackboard onto slate tablets with slate pencils, or verbally repeating the instructor’s words.

The three Rs and more

While the lessons and subjects varied, with some schools offering more variety or speciality than others, education was focused primarily on the three Rs: Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic. These were thought to be the main pillars needed to be productive in society. Other subjects were often tailored to both the type of school, with some being more vocationally minded than academic, and gender with girls learning more domestic skills such as sewing while boys learned more technical skills and sciences. Physical instruction also became a popular subject in an effort to improve the health of students.

Healthy children make for healthy minds

Just as with lesson plans, the conditions in schools varied greatly. Despite efforts to improve housing and public health in the late 19th century, some children were not receiving the nutrition they needed, partly due to their poor backgrounds and lack of information on healthy diets. In 1890 the London School Board appointed medical officers and later school medical examinations were ordered to catch ill children early. In 1899 the London School Board addressed concerns about the “necessitous condition of the children due to want of proper nourishment” and began to offer cheap or free school meals.

Life at School panel


Initially teachers were not necessarily trained, but could be individuals simply with the ability to read and write. Eventually though, as it became more recognised that a universal standard should be met in schools and pupil numbers increased, training became more essential. In 1834 training schools were established for teachers in elementary schools. The main components of the curriculum included English grammar, good handwriting, geography, history and arithmetic; reflecting the subjects taught to pupils.

Records of inspectorate reviews as well as the reminiscences of former pupils offer a glimpse of how local teachers were viewed, both professionally and personally. 

Miss Margaret Whyte was the first headmistress of Sutton High School, a private institution, which opened its doors to 80 pupils in 1884. A pioneer in the organisation of the education of girls, she was highly thought of by former pupils as “a very vigourous woman of outstanding personality. Her features were strong and rugged, her handwriting was large and bold and in all her ways, likes and dislikes, there was nothing petty.”

However, a 1905 inspectors summary report for New Town Boys School in Sutton did not look so favourably upon teachers there. It was noted that “discipline is very lax in the third and fourth standards, and the teacher of the third standard is weak in both discipline and teaching power. There is need of firmer control, better teaching methods, and closer supervision before the school can rise to a higher level.”

Teachers and pupil-teachers panel


Even with trained teachers, the numbers of students attending n was so great that additional assistance was needed in the classroom. Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth, Secretary of the PCCE, was responsible for introducing a new system of pupil-teachers, more advanced students who could instruct others, within schools. He had witnessed a thirteen year old boy taking over a class at a workhouse when the schoolmaster was sick and in 1838 sent a report on The Training of Pauper Children recommending the adoption of the formal pupil-teacher scheme. 

In 1846, the scheme was launched with thirteen to eighteen year olds becoming apprenticed to the headmaster for five years and examined annually by Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) on a graded syllabus. 

HMI Burn inspected New Town Boys School in 1892 and reported that pupil-teacher, Charles Way, “passed fairly but he should attend to Geography, Euclid and Algebra.” Pupils like Charles  were paid and learnt from observation and practical application, so their knowledge in specific subjects was reliant on the headmasters that mentored them.

After the Elementary Education Act 1870 training took place in separate establishments, called pupil-teacher centres, which later converted to secondary schools. Pupil-teachers were instructed both in the subjects and effective ways of teaching them to others.

© Sophia Marion Patel