Saturday, 22 January 2011

Victorian 'peasant boys' and the school leaving age

The final episode of Edwardian Farm this week. I’ve enjoyed it as much as, if not more than, Victorian Farm.

One thing that’s been made clear is the very high level of skill required of farm workers in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Someone attempting to acquire these skills in adulthood, as Alex, Peter and Ruth were, would find it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a high level of proficiency.

The programmes have made me rethink some of our assumptions about Victorian attitudes to social questions. For example, education.

Rev. James Fraser, giving evidence to the Newcastle Commission on Education, set up in 1858, said:

'Even if it were possible, I doubt whether it would be desirable, with a view to the real interests of the peasant boy, to keep him at school until he was 14 or 15 years of age.  But it is not possible. We must make up our minds to see the last of him, as far as day school is concerned, at 10 or 11. We must frame our system of education upon this hypothesis.'

Our immediate 21st century reaction is to say that of course it’s ’desirable’ to keep ‘peasant boys’ (a very outdated term, even in the 19th century) at school beyond the age of ten or eleven. Of course it would be in their interests. Mr Fraser‘s remarks, and other similar comments, suggest to us that country children were not thought worth educating.

But I wonder if we are perhaps misinterpreting them. It’s perhaps not that they didn’t consider schooling worthwhile for country boys and girls. Mr Fraser’s ‘as far as day school is concerned’ suggests that he did think the boy might continue his education at evening school or Sunday school.

Perhaps the Victorians considered other types of learning as important as, or more important than, ’book learning’. The Victorian country boy who left school at ten or eleven would start to learn the skills of a waggoner or a ploughman or a shepherd or a cow man. These skills took years to acquire. So too did the crafts such as lacemaking practised by girls and women. It was commonly believed that boys who had not begun to work on the farm by the age of ten or twelve would never ‘thoroughly learn their business’.

Agriculture was still the single biggest employer in the mid Victorian period. It produced the food essential to feed the populations of the fast growing towns and cities. Ensuring a supply of skilled labour was important.

The Victorians might perhaps have undervalued the benefits of formal schooling for some children. But we perhaps undervalue the things those children were learning instead of going to school.

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