In the early 1800s a full education was only for the very rich. Most children never went to school at all and wouldn’t have been able to read or write.
Instead, most children worked to earn money for their families.
If they were lucky, a poorer child might have learned to read and write at Sunday school, or at a free charity school run by the church.
It was in fact the church which realised that it was important for all people to be able to read and write and so it began to set up National Schools teaching reading, writing, arithmetic and religion.
Despite this, most children still worked instead of attending school – there weren’t any rules to change things and their families needed the money.
In 1844 things began to change. The government said that all children in factories should be given six-half-days schooling every week.
‘Ragged Schools’ were set up to provide this free basic education. It’s not known exactly how many children regularly attended but it’s known that factory owners would often lie about the ages of their workers to avoid losing them to the classroom.
In some areas there still might not be a school nearby, even if the factory owners or children wanted one.
In 1870, Parliament passed the Forster’s Education Act, which meant every part of the country must to provide schools to children aged 5 to 12.
Schools were now more commonplace but still not all children would attend – why? In part because the children had to pay the ‘school’s pence’.
Not only did they have to lose the pennies from work to attend, but they had to pay for the privilege! No wonder many children stayed away.
It wasn’t until 1880 that schooling became mandatory until the age of 10 – that means every child had to attend by law.
In 1889, the school leaving age was raised to twelve, and in 1891, the school’s pence fee was abolished and schools became free.
Even with these changes parents and employers would still continue to employ children where they could – cheap labour for the factories and pennies for the family pot were too irresistible for some.
It wasn’t normal for communities to have all the children away from their families, instead of working alongside the adults and so people had to think differently about the way they thought about work and family life, and that’s something that can take even longer to change.
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