Factory-farmed Learning

In ‘The Wealth of Nations’ (1776) Adam Smith wrote in support of popular education as being essential for the labour force and to expand productivity, while others, such as the social reforming Benthamites in the 18th Century called for education which was less dominated by religion, and for more accessibility to literature to enable ‘the poor to work intelligently and the middle classes to govern intelligently.’

Radical new thoughts on mass education thrived during this period in history and into the early 19th Century when The Chartist movement was established by William Lovett for the working classes.

Chartism proposed that there should be common schools for infants aged 3 to 6 years, followed by preparatory schools up to the age of 9 years and then high schools. The free colleges would deal with higher education and the general colleges would train teachers. The purpose of this radical reform was to release children from factories and into schools and reduce the working day for the common man. These ideals were not taken seriously or implemented until after 1870 when primary education became free and compulsory, and state secondary schools came into existence under greater government control. It was progress, but still flawed nonetheless.

The controversial Revised Code of 1862 introduced testing in Reading, Writing and Arithmetic with payment on results for these three subjects only. Such a rigid system deterred all consideration of individual ability and discouraged the introduction of other subjects. It relied on factory-farmed learning by rote, drilling and learning text off by heart with the sole aim of passing an examination rather than instilling a love of knowledge, thereby allowing schools to access the new government grants.

By the turn of the 20th Century, this rigid, stifling and monetary-driven system was abandoned.

In 1869 the formation of the National Educational League led to radical changes:

  1. To ensure children were removed from factories and off the streets, education was to be made compulsory.
  2. To remove the stranglehold and influence of religion, education was to be secularised.
  3. To ensure parents could not object to their children’s education as it took them away from labouring, it would be made free.

These changes were met with dissension by factories, churches and those who believed in maintaining the status quo, as their control and influence was being eroded by the new legislation, despite the desperate poverty, child neglect and indoctrination which was widespread during this period. But the government steadfastly took up responsibility for educating its youngest citizens from 1870 and the process took 20 years to come to fruition. The National Union of Teachers (NUT) founded in 1870 also campaigned against the ‘payment by results’ system until it was abandoned in 1890.

Further improvements were made regarding the age of employment for children who, although permitted schooling for half days, still worked in factories for the second half of the day. This half-time system was eventually abolished by the ‘1918 Education Act.’

The employment age rose incrementally to 11 in 1893, and 12 in 1899 and, owing to the interruption of World War II, it wasn’t until 1947 when the age finally rose to 15.

The new conditions prevailed and education became transformed as a system to which everyone had access. It was indeed a revolutionary time in the history of Education which began to acknowledge the benefits in putting all children at the heart of education to improve their future prospects, rather than religious doctrine, government grants or family background at its core.

In our next blog, we will move into the 20th Century when the general standard of school life in Britain improved dramatically with the advent of technology and the first attempts to understand the mental health of children, leading in the second half of the century to the development of tests and treatments for those with disabilities.


Gillard D (2018) Education in England: a history www.educationengland.org.uk/history