We heard a lot about home schooling recently, when the political pressure was on to return to face-to-face teaching as soon as possible. Yet compulsory schooling for children of five to ten years old was only introduced in the UK in 1880, extending to 12 year olds by 1899. Before that educational provision was a largely hit and miss affair, a postcode lottery, if there’d been postcodes. Let’s take three Cornish parishes in 1818 and see what was on offer.
In the west, at Marazion, a charity school allowed a schoolmaster £1 a year (£86 in modern terms) for each boy taught. With this bounty he taught seven boys to ‘read, write and cipher’. Another charity for ‘the instruction of poor children of the parish’ had ‘come into the hands of the descendants’ of the donor and efforts to prise it from their grip were proving unsuccessful. In addition to the charity school there were three other small schools in the rural part of St Hilary parish teaching 54 children and three in Marazion with 187 children in attendance, plus three Sunday Schools.
More generally in Marazion and St Hilary, ’the poor have not sufficient means of education’ and over half the children ‘are totally uneducated … The poorer classes are not disposed to send their children to school or to church, unless they can dress them beyond their station’.
In mid-Cornwall Probus was fortunate in having two charity schools. At one, 40 boys were taught ‘by a dissenter’, who received £15 a year (£1,300 nowadays) for his work. Another school taught 30 girls. The schoolmistress was only paid £5 a year from the charity, or £430, which she had to supplement by ‘other small charges’. Although no mention was made of other schools, the clergyman who reported was sanguine: ‘the poor have sufficient means of education’, although he warned that ‘they are not instructed in the principles of the Established Church so generally as they might be’.
Finally, what of Thomasine Bonaventure’s home parish in the far east of Cornwall? At Week St Mary there were three schools. At one 20 boys and 15 girls were taught, at a second ten boys and eight girls and at a third six boys and ten girls. A dozen or so of the scholars had their fees paid by the local rector or farmers. The population of Week St Mary in 1821 was 782. Around 180 of these would have been aged 5-14. This suggests that between a third and a half of children were at school. The clergyman drily observed that ‘the poor have not sufficient means of education, nor are they very desirous of them’.
(Information from a report from a parliamentary select committee on the education of the poor in 1818.)