When News and Education Meet

Today marks the 147th anniversary of the 1870 Education Act, which established compulsory schooling in England and Wales for children between the ages of 5 and 12. A recent special issue of Victorian Periodicals Review took a look at the relationship between periodical culture and the changes in educational opportunities for men, women, and children. Guest editor Janice Schroeder, associate professor of English at Carleton University, joined us to talk about the issue and the connection between publications and education in the late 19th century.

How did this issue come about?

The history of education and schooling in 19th-century England and its colonies is a vast field of study that has received much attention from historians, literary critics, and education and child studies specialists. At the same time, the study of the Victorian periodical and newspaper press attracts researchers from a range of disciplines. I pitched a special issue on education to the editor of Victorian Periodicals Review because I was interested in both Victorian schooling and 19th-century newspapers and magazines, but hadn’t seen a great deal of attention in the journal to the way the “Education Question,” as it was called, was handled by the Victorian press, or to the growing professional teachers’ press. The changing forms and availability of non-elite education in 19th-century England and its colonies touched the lives of most people, and the press played a key role in shaping and reflecting education debates, instructing readers, and providing a record of school life.

How groundbreaking was the 1870 Education Act?

There is some debate about this among historians. What the Act did was to ensure state provision of universal primary education, so in that sense it was an important acknowledgment that the state had a responsibility to ensure a basic level of education for all. England was far behind other industrialized nations in this respect, and historians have identified several reasons for that. They include sectarian turf wars between the Anglican Church and other religious denominations for control of education, the need for labouring-class children to contribute to their families’ income, lack of qualified teachers, and the reluctance to tax citizens for the provision of education for working-class children. It is a mistake to assume that the Act changed people’s access to formal schooling overnight. It took another couple of decades at least before a basic education in board schools was available to most of the population. In addition, literacy rates had already been increasing throughout the century, so it is also a mistake to link the rise of print literacy too closely with the passage of the Education Act. Nevertheless, with only one-seventh of the population able to afford to send their children to school at mid-century, the Education Act of 1870 was an important, if belated component in the creation of the modern welfare state in England. For most children throughout much of the century, especially girls, access to education had been scattershot to non-existent, and of dubious quality.

How important was the intersection between this new educational system and the vibrant press of the time?

The press hosted debate and deliberation on major legislative and policy developments in all aspects of education, not just the 1870 Education Act. It provided regular coverage of the establishment of new initiatives and educational institutions, such as the board schools created by the Act. The press also functioned as a space of encounter and information exchange for the growing teaching profession. Schools and colleges all had their own internal magazines featuring student contributions. Periodical culture informed school culture, and even the format of teaching materials. As new cultural identities connected with school life began to emerge, the press offered an important space for making sense of these shifts. The classroom and the press were crucial to the growth of English democracy and to its imperial dominance, and the articles in the issue convey a strong sense of their interdependence.

What did you learn in the process of putting this together?

I was surprised by the rich variety of responses I received to my initial call for papers. I learned about school magazines for primary schools in Australia as it began to assert resistance to the one-way flow of educational material from England. I learned about the importance of the press in debates about spelling reform. I learned about attitudes to higher education in a student paper called the Mason College Magazine, which was run by and for students at an adult education institute before it was absorbed by the University of Birmingham in 1900. I learned about how periodicals aimed at girls in the 1880s and 90s tread a line between promoting new opportunities in higher education (often characterized as “self interest”) and endorsing girls’ “natural” duties to home and family. But beyond these specific examples, I think one of the conclusions I came to is that the press wasn’t just a neutral holding tank for debates about education, but that its formats really helped shape how those debates played out—their outcomes. Classrooms and periodicals are both multi-voiced, collectively produced sites of citizen engagement structured along temporal and spatial horizons. They have shared histories.

What other research avenues do you hope this issue has opened up for others?

I was really hoping to get a submission about magazines aimed at teachers and the growing teaching profession, but I didn’t receive any. I ended up addressing this very briefly in my Introduction to the issue. I hope that the issue will spur more work in that area. Another ongoing area of investigation for researchers is the alliance between the press as a tool of global communication and the export of British and European educational models and curricula. There’s been a lot of exciting work in that area, with so much more remaining to be done.