By the 1860s, Britain’s position as the workshop of the world was being challenged by Europe and North America. New industries were developing in Germany and the United States where working class children received a better education than in England.
Education was not compulsory and in the Potteries children as young as six worked alongside their parents in the pot banks. There were 28 Church of England, nine Methodist and six Roman Catholic schools in the district but most children left school hardly able to read and write when they were eight or nine years old.
Realising that factories with semi-illiterate workforces could not compete in world markets, Parliament passed the Education Act 1870 which created school boards to build elementary schools in industrial towns. School attendance was made compulsory in 1880 and parents were forced to send their children to school until they were ten years old. The school leaving age was raised to 11 in 1893 and to 12 in 1899.
When they first opened, the schools concentrated on teaching the three Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic. Pupils were frequently tested and placed in standards according to their academic ability. Standard VI was the level of attainment expected of a 12 year old who had stayed on at school. However, intelligent children could race through all the standards and reach that level when they were ten. In 1882 a new standard VII was introduced enabling them to pursue advanced level academic and technical studies and take external examinations.
Both the churches and the school boards provided advanced level courses in their schools. St. Mary’s School in Tunstall waived its fees for standard VII students and the school board in Burslem employed artists to teach art and design in its schools.
In 1893, Hanley’s school board opened a fee paying secondary school for boys and girls from middle class homes. Intended to compete with Newcastle High School and the Orme Girls’ School, the school was called Hanley Higher Grade Elementary School. Pupils in its junior and middle schools followed advanced level elementary courses while those in the upper school received a grammar school education preparing them for university or entry into the professions.
Longton’s school board placed emphasis on technical training. In 1898 it built a higher elementary school in Queensberry Road where 200 boys, aged between ten and fourteen, studied science and engineering. Ebenezer Last was the headmaster and in response to parental demand he introduced Latin into the school’s curriculum.
Shortly afterwards the High Court in London said it was illegal for school boards to provide secondary education. Parliament moved quickly to protect the higher grade schools. In 1902, it abolished school boards and replaced them with local education authorities which had the power to establish secondary schools.
(Betty Cooper – The Phoenix Trust)