Education for everyone

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Written by Dr Jack Binns

During the 1870s a revolution took place in English working-class society: for the first time in our history all children were required by the state to attend full-time schooling for a minimum of five years up to the age of 10.

Before 1870 Scarborough already had a rich variety of schools: fee-paying “academies” for parents who could afford their fees and religious day schools belonging to Anglican and Nonconformist voluntary societies.

Of the many private “schools for gentlemen”, William Merry’s at his home 5 King Street was typical of that time. In the words of his advertisement in the Scarborough Herald of July 1839:

“Mr Merry continues to receive into his house Young Gentlemen who are carefully instructed in English, Latin and French languages; the Mathematics, and all the detail of a Classical and commercial Education. The health, private comfort and correct deportment of the pupils receive diligent superintendence, and no pains are spared to ground them thoroughly in whatever is undertaken to be taught.”

Boarders aged 12 were charged 25 guineas a year and day boys only four guineas for tuition. Mr Merry offered mid-day dinners for all of his pupils, but laundry and French were each two guineas extra. Gentlemen boarders were given towels and a pair of sheets which had to be returned after use!

In 1867 Scarborough had no fewer than 30 establishments of this kind scattered across the town, day, boarding and mixed, for all ages and both sexes, and offering every subject from Greek to embroidery for the sons and daughters of professionals, successful traders and farmers.

For the children of Scarborough’s “deserving poor”, however, provision was of a very different order and quality. From as early as 1729 the Amicable Society had been clothing and educating little Anglicans in the four Rs – reading, writing, arithmetic and religion. After 1817 they were being taught in a new school built alongside Castle Road. Financed entirely by voluntary subscription of St Mary’s churchgoers, such was the prosperity of the town’s richest charity that in 1864 a fine new building was opened on the same site for 36 girls and 50 boys.

These were the fortunate few. The National School for girls (1836) on Limekiln Hill and that for boys (1837) at New Dyke were also Anglican and received small government grants from 1839, but they offered only a minimal grounding in literacy and numeracy and no clothing or shoes. A third National School, St Thomas’, next to the church of that name, began life in Tuthill in 1858: its purpose was to serve the basic educational needs of Sandside’s seafaring community.

After the school inspector had written of the two older National Schools in Scarborough that “130 ignorant boys [and girls] attend very irregularly”, they were both demolished and replaced in 1859 by a new St Mary’s on Castle Road for 140 boys and the same number of girls.

For non-Anglican children, by 1870 the Lancasterian school had new premises on St Mary’s Walk for 300 day boys and girls; the Wesleyan school in Friars’ Entry had 200 regular pupils on its register; and Scarborough’s growing Catholic population, most of it of Irish origin, had a small school at the top of Auborough Street near to St Peter’s church.

Yet, in 1870, in as many as 18 schools of very variable standards, only 2,370 of Scarborough’s children between the ages of five and 12 were registered as pupils. This meant that about 1,400 others had no formal schooling at all.

So the Education Act of that year, passed by Gladstone’s Liberal government, was intended to fill the gaps left by these voluntary, mainly religious, schools run by the church and chapels. The voluntary schools were still to receive grants from central government for attendance and efficiency, but in every locality short of places they would be supplemented by new elementary Board schools.

The Board schools were to be the responsibility of the elected representatives of ratepayers, financed by a local education rate and free of all denominational religious instruction. At Scarborough, there was a keenly-fought electoral contest for the nine places which were won by one each of Catholic, Methodist and Congregationalist representatives, two Anglicans and four others who described themselves as “unsectarian”.

The Lancasterian school in St Mary’s Walk was soon taken over by the Scarborough Board, but the Anglican Amicable and National schools and the Catholic St Peter’s remained independent. To accommodate 1,422 extra children not attending any schools, the Board built three new schools, one for infants at Falsgrave, a Central School for 800 boys and girls in the fields behind the borough gaol, and a third in Longwestgate. As early as 1875, there were already new places for 1,239 and the three Board schools had an average attendance of 75 per cent.

At first, attendance was not compulsory and the Board schools charged parents twopence a week; but during the 1880s and 1890s fees were abolished in both Board and voluntary classes and the Board’s “kidcatcher” had brought attendance up to 87 per cent by 1901. By that year Scarborough had two more Board schools, Gladstone Road and Friarage.

Yet members of the borough’s elected School Board, ably led by men such as William Rowntree and Meredith Whittaker, were not content to limit opportunities to children under 12. In 1897, they decided to give Scarborough a separate school “for upper standards” or “higher grades”, similar to those run by county borough councils at Manchester, Birmingham and London.

Since Scarborough and Falsgrave then had a total population of less than 34,000, many of their ratepayers considered such an ambitious programme as “a school too far”.