What was school like 100 years ago?

In Edwardian England all children went to school but that didn’t mean things were fair

By the first decade of the 20th century a lot had changed for children in England and Wales. In 1880 the Elementary Education Act made school compulsory for every child aged between five and ten, with the leaving age rising to 12 in 1899. In 1902 – the year after Queen Victoria’s death – the Education Act gave local councils control of schools and another act in 1904 decided that secondary schools should teach the same core subjects. However, things were far from equal and in the early-20th century the job your parents did and how much money they made could determine the education you received.

The upper classes sent their children to private schools (also called public schools) that charged high fees but guaranteed their children would receive an education worthy of high society. Some schools even had their own cadet force to prepare the boys for careers as army officers. Meanwhile, public schools for girls trained them to become well-to-do wives and while the boys played rugby, their sisters would focus on how to be the perfect hostess.

Schools for the middle classes – the children of professionals and small businessmen – were similar, but the fees were lower and the school’s reputation rarely meant the pupils could attend the best universities. Meanwhile, the children of the average working-class family attended free schools where going to university wasn’t an option. Instead they learnt practical skills that would prepare the boys for manual work and the girls for housework.

Click the image to discover the clothes and kit of an Edwardian schoolmaster

Canings and birchings

Although corporal punishment is now illegal in British schools, in the 1910s children were punished by being struck on the bottom (for boys) or the hands (for girls). The number of painful ‘strikes’ would represent the seriousness of the behaviour, with the largest number reserved for bullying, cheating in exams or skipping school. The bamboo cane – usually about a centimetre (0.4 inches) thick and a metre (3.3 feet) long – is the best-known form of corporal punishment dished out by Edwardian teachers, although a bundle of birch twigs – sometimes confusingly referred to as a ‘birch rod’ – could also be used and a leather strap called a tawse was common in Scottish schools. Beatings weren’t the only punishment, as teachers often slapped children or threw books and ink wells at them, pulled their hair or forced them to stand for hours on end.

A cartoon from 1887 shows a teacher with a birch rod


This article originally appeared in How It Works issue 70, written by James Hoare

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