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'Education for all' - but it was not always the case in Norfolk

PUBLISHED: 11:00 25 March 2011 | UPDATED: 15:34 25 March 2011

The Duke Street, Norwich building that became the city's first secondary school in the early 1900s.

The Duke Street, Norwich building that became the city's first secondary school in the early 1900s.

Education evolved from elitist to egalitarian, eventually opening up a world of opportunities to young people, regardless of their family fortune. Education correspondent STEVE DOWNES looks at what past censuses tell us about schooling in Norwich and Norfolk.

Guist School in the early 1950s.

If censuses paint a picture of how society has changed down the decades, there is no view more evocative than that showing the evolution of education.

At the first comprehensive census in 1841, the education of the nation was easy to assess, simply by studying the quality of the form-filling.

Then, 40pc of people in Norwich were illiterate. And the figure could well have been considerably higher across Norfolk, where schooling was more sporadic and jobs requiring literacy less common.

Blofield School in about 1920.

By the time of the 1881 census, just 13pc of Norwich citizens were illiterate, as the pressure for “education for all” grew, resulting in an explosion of new schools in the city and the county.

But before we get to that point, it’s worth reflecting on the parlous state of education in the mid-19th century.

Any of today’s children who are involved by their parents in filling out the 2011 form would not think twice about the questions about full-time education. For them, school might be a chore at times, but opting out is not an option.

But they would be amazed at the experiences of their distant relatives.

The 1841 census did not even record whether children were in education. That’s because many were not.

The lucky youngsters who were born into relative wealth might go to a grammar school like King Edward VI School in Norwich, or benefit from a private tutor.

There were also some 3,500 children from less privileged backgrounds who attended Norfolk’s then 100 endowed rural schools, which were set up with regularity in the 18th and 19th centuries by charitable people who left private endowments - often for a handful of poor local children, and often with strict instructions that schoolmasters should teach children the catechism or “useful work”.

According to Susanna Wade-Martins in “A History of Norfolk”, in 1816 26,000 Norfolk children attended school, with 8,500 going on Sundays only. That still left tens of thousands who were not being educated.

By the 1841 census, 64 new schools had been built and the number attending had doubled. Many of the schools were developed by the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor and the British and Foreign Bible Society.

But 147 Norfolk villages still had no school, and even many of the children who did attend were absent for months at a time when they were needed in fields or factories. By the age of nine, many left school.

However, the Victorian awakening and the age of the philanthropist had arrived. And in 1851 the census belatedly caught up by asking if children were in education.

Even so, 20 years later the 1871 census recorded that there were 10,644 five-13-year-olds in Norwich. Of them, 2,122 - or one in every five - were not at school.

The main reasons were the poverty of their parents, girls having to look after younger siblings and boys having to work.

Britain needed chimney sweeps and factory workers in cities and large towns, and agricultural labourers in the country. And parents needed as much money coming in as possible, to keep their family from the workhouse.

At the time, most schools cost money, even if just a few farthings. So it was hardly surprising that many mums and dads preferred to see their children in employment than in the classroom, which was still regarded as an outlandish idea for many of the working classes.

The forward thinking Norwich School Board seized on a non-compulsory power in the 1870 education act, which enabled boards to make education compulsory for all children if they wished.

It sought to make it affordable by setting a nominal fee of a farthing a week. That had to be upped to three pence after a dispute with the Education Department in London, but the Norwich Board continued to demonstrate its independent Norfolk streak by making little or no attempt to recover the fees.

The compulsory education edict went national in 1876, which triggered the spree of school building work that has left its mark on almost every Norfolk town and village.

“A History of Norfolk” records that, while schooling was compulsory, enforcement was difficult.

Today’s truancy officers will nod knowingly as they read that in October 1877, when an attendance officer visited North Elmham School, all the children he warned because of their irregular attendance stayed away with their brothers and sisters for the rest of the week.

And, in his book The Rabbit Skin Cap, George Baldry tells how he went to school for the first time in June 1871, when he was six-and-a-half, but the next summer he started work at a brick kiln.

By the end of the century, though, most children were at school until they were 12.

Bizarrely, at a time when you might have thought the government would be most interested in checking how many children were at school, the 1891 and 1901 censuses did not ask the question - except in Scotland.

In fact, the censuses provided little in the way of useful information about education until 1961, when the government realised the importance of knowing how well qualified the population was.

All of which leaves us to rely on history books to provide a snapshot of Norfolk and Norwich education in the first half of the 20th century.

They remind us that before 1914, most children went to elementary schools and left at 13. After the Great War, there was a drive to provide secondary education for all.

Thanks in part to the outbreak of the second world war, the secondary education revolution did not take hold physically until the 1940s-1960s.

In 1947, Norfolk (not including Norwich) had 15 secondary schools. By 1961, it had grown to 41 - most of which still stand and are in use in the county major settlements.

The next great building programme in Norfolk came in the last decade, as the Labour government threw money at capital projects that resulted in many new or improved buildings.

The evolution of education continues. And the censuses of the future will need to remain in step with the predicted changes.

In terms of the school leaving age, the 2011 census marks the end of an era.

While the current census will provide statistics on the number of young people who remain in education or training between 16-18, the goalposts will move in 2013, when the school leaving age will be raised to 18.

The staying on rate, which is currently around 80pc in Norfolk, will have to hit 100pc - at which point one could argue that there will be no need for a question about whether 18-and-unders are in full-time education.

Maybe removing that question will allow space for further expansion of the “qualifications” section, which is one of the most time-consuming in this year’s survey.

As Britain puts more and more focus on the need for high-level skills, the current questions about degree and level five qualifications will take on greater significance.

Governments will pore over the details - and compare them with the education statistics of other leading nations, including the emerging economies of China and India.

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