Why Must We Repeat The Mistakes of Education’s History? Edmond Holmes On The Revised Code of 1862

Below is an excerpt from the writings of Edmond Holmes a notable Irish educator and former Chief Inspector of Schools in England of a century or so ago. In What Is And What Might Be: A Study Of Education In General And Elementary Education In Particular, 1911, Holmes retells the story of the Revised Code of 1862 and its many adverse consequences. EducationState posts this here to illustrate how despite the salutary lessons of historical events regarding performance-related pay, high-stakes testing and ‘rigorous’ curriculum subjects, for example, and despite such lessons all being readily and publicly available to those who know where to look, policymakers across the globe and in some of the most advanced countries that exist today persist in thinking that this time, their time, it will be different.

mechanical drudgery

“[W]e must go back for half a century or so and trace the steps by which the ” Education Department” forced elementary education in England into the grooves in which, in many schools, it is still moving, and from which even the most enlightened and enterprising teachers find it difficult to escape.

In 1861 the Royal Commission (under the Duke of Newcastle as Chairman), which had been appointed in 1858 in order to inquire into “the state of popular education in England, and as to the measures required for the extension of sound and cheap elementary instruction to all classes of the people,” issued its report, in which it recommended inter alia that the Grants paid to elementary schools should be expressly apportioned on the examination of individual children. This recommendation was carried into effect in the Lowe Revised Code of 1862 ; and from that date till 1895 a considerable part of the Grant received by each school was paid on the results of a yearly examination held by H.M. Inspector on an elaborate syllabus, formulated by the Department and binding on all schools alike. On the official report which followed this examination depended the reputation and financial prosperity of the school, and the reputation and financial prosperity of the teacher. The consequent pressure on the teacher to exert himself was well-nigh irresistible ; and he had no choice but to transmit that pressure to his subordinates and his pupils. The result was that in those days the average school was a hive of industry.

But it was also a hive of misdirected energy. The State, in prescribing a syllabus which was to be followed, in all the subjects of instruction, by all the schools in the country, without regard to local or personal considerations, was guilty of one capital offence. It did all his thinking for the teacher. It told him in precise detail what he was to do each year in each “Standard,” how he was to handle each subject, and how far he was to go in it ; what width of ground he was to cover ; what amount of knowledge, what degree of accuracy was required for a “pass.” In other words it provided him with his ideals, his general conceptions, his more immediate aims, his schemes of work ; and if it did not control his methods in all their details, it gave him (by implication) hints and suggestions with regard to these on which he was not slow to act; for it told him that the work done in each class and each subject would be tested at the end of each year by a careful examination of each individual child ; and it was inevitable that in his endeavour to adapt his teaching to the type of question which his experience of the yearly examination led him to expect, he should gradually deliver himself, mind and soul, into the hands of the officials of the Department, the officials at Whitehall who framed the yearly syllabus, and the officials in the various districts who examined on it.

What the Department did to the teacher, it compelled him to do to the child. The teacher who is the slave of another’s will cannot carry out his instructions except by making his pupils the slaves of his own will. The teacher who has been deprived by his superiors of freedom, initiative, and responsibility, cannot carry out his instructions except by depriving his pupils of the same vital qualities. The teacher who, in response to the deadly pressure of a cast-iron system, has become a creature of habit and routine, cannot carry out his instructions except by making his pupils as helpless and as puppet-like as himself.

But it is not only because mechanical obedience is fatal, in the long run, to mental and spiritual growth, that the regulation of elementary or any other grade of education by a uniform syllabus is to be deprecated. It is also because a uniform syllabus is, in the nature of things, a bad syllabus, and because the degree of its badness varies directly with the area of the sphere of educational activity that comes under its control. It is easy for us of the Twentieth Century to laugh at the syllabuses which the Department issued, without misgiving, year after year, in the latter half of the Nineteenth.

We were all groping in the dark in those days ; and our whole attitude towards education was so fundamentally wrong that the absurdities of the yearly syllabus were merely so much by-play in the evolution of a drama which was a grotesque blend of tragedy and farce. But let us of the enlightened Twentieth Century try our hands at constructing a syllabus on which all the elementary schools of England are to be prepared for a yearly examination, and see if we can improve appreciably on the work of our predecessors. Some improvement there would certainly be, but it would not amount to very much. Were the “Board” to re-institute payment by results, and were they, with this end in view, to entrust the drafting of schemes of work in the various subjects to a committee of the wisest and most experienced educationalists in England, the resultant syllabus would be a dismal failure. For in framing their schemes these wise and experienced educationalists would find themselves compelled to take account of the lowest rather than of the highest level of actual educational achievement.

What is exceptional and experimental cannot possibly find a place in a syllabus which is to bind all schools and all teachers alike, and which must therefore be so framed that the least capable teacher, working under the least favourable conditions, may hope, when his pupils are examined on it, to achieve with decent industry a decent modicum of success. Under the control of a uniform syllabus, the schools which are now specialising and experimenting, and so giving a lead to the rest, would have to abandon whatever was interesting in their respective curricula, and fall into line with the average school ; while, with the consequent lowering of the current ideal of efficiency, the level of the average school would steadily fall. A uniform syllabus is a bad syllabus, for this if for no other reason, that it is compelled to idealise the average; and that, inasmuch as education, so far as it is a living system, grows by means of its “leaders,” the idealisation of the average is necessarily fatal to educational growth and therefore to educational life.

It was preordained, then, that the syllabuses which the Department issued, year by year, in the days of payment by results should have few merits and many defects. Yet even if, by an unimaginable miracle, they had all been educationally sound, the mere fact that all the teachers in England had to work by them would have made them potent agencies for evil. To be in bondage to a syllabus is a misfortune for a teacher, and a misfortune for the school that he teaches. To be in bondage to a syllabus which is binding on all schools alike, is a graver misfortune. To be in bondage to a bad syllabus which is binding on all schools alike, is of all misfortunes the gravest. Or if there is a graver, it is the fate that befell the teachers of England under the old regime, the fate of being in bondage to a syllabus which was bad both because it had to come down to the level of the least fortunate school and the least capable teacher, and also because it was the outcome of ignorance, inexperience, and bureaucratic self-satisfaction.

Of the evils that are inherent in the examination system as such of its tendency to arrest growth, to deaden life, to paralyse the higher faculties, to externalise what is inward, to materialise what is spiritual, to involve education in an atmosphere of unreality and self-deception I have already spoken at some length. In the days of payment by results various circumstances conspired to raise those evil tendencies to the highest imaginable “power.” When inspectors ceased to examine (in the stricter sense of the word) they realised what infinite mischief the yearly examination had done.

The children, the majority of whom were examined in reading and dictation out of their own reading books (two or three in number, as the case might be), were drilled in the contents of those books until they knew them almost by heart. In arithmetic they worked abstract sums, in obedience to formal rules, day after day, and month after month ; and they were put up to various tricks and dodges which would, it was hoped, enable them to know by what precise rules the various questions on the arithmetic cards were to be answered. They learned a few lines of poetry by heart, and committed all the “meanings and allusions” to memory, with the probable result so sickening must the process have been that they hated poetry for the rest of their lives. In geography, history, and grammar they were the victims of unintelligent oral cram, which they were compelled, under pains and penalties, to take in and retain till the examination day was over, their ability to disgorge it on occasion being periodically tested by the teacher. And so with the other subjects. Not a thought was given, except in a small minority of the schools, to the real training of the child, to the fostering of his mental (and other) growth. To get him through the yearly examination by hook or by crook was the one concern of the teacher. As profound distrust of the teacher was the basis of the policy of the Department, so profound distrust of the child was the basis of the policy of the teacher. To leave the child to find out anything for himself, to work out anything for himself, to think out anything for himself, would have been regarded as a proof of incapacity, not to say insanity, on the part of the teacher, and would have led to results which, from the “percentage” point of view, would probably have been disastrous.

There were few inspectors who were not duly impressed from 1895 onwards by the gravity of the evils that inspection, as distinguished from mere examination, revealed to them ; but it may be doubted if there were many inspectors who realised then, what some among them see clearly now, that the evils which distressed them were significant as symptoms even more than as sources of mischief, as symptoms of a deep-seated and insidious malady, of the gradual ossification of the spiritual and mental muscles of both the teacher and the child, of the gradual substitution in the elementary school of machinery for life.

For us of the Twentieth Century who know enough about education to be aware of the shallow-ness of our knowledge of it, and of the imperfection of the existing educational systems of our country, it may be difficult to realise that in the years when things were at their worst, at any rate in the field of elementary education, the Nation in general and the “Department” in particular were well content that things should remain as they were, well content that the elementary school should be, not a nursery of growing seedlings and saplings, but a decently efficient mill, and that year after year this mill should keep on grinding out its dreary and meaningless “results.” But in truth that ignorant optimism, that cheap content with the actual, was a sure proof that things were at their worst; for

” When we in our viciousness grow hard,
(O misery on’t) the wise gods seal our eyes
In our own filth ; drop our clear judgments ; make us
Adore our errors “;

and the multiform discontent with education in its present stage of development, which is characteristic of our own generation, and which is in some ways so confusing and disconcerting, and so unfavourable to the smooth working of our educational machinery, has the merit of being a healthy and hopeful symptom.

But bad as things were in those days, there was at least one redeeming feature. The children were compelled to work, to exert themselves, to “put their backs into it.” The need for this was obvious. The industry of the child meant so much professional reputation and, in the last resort, so much bread and butter to his teacher. It is true that the child was not allowed to do anything by or for himself; but it is equally true that he had to do pretty strenuously whatever task was set him. He had to get up his two (or three) ” Readers ” so thoroughly that he could be depended upon to pass both the reading and the dictation test with success. He had to work his abstract sums in arithmetic correctly. He had to take in and remember the historical and geographical information with which he had been crammed. And so forth. There must be no shirking, no slacking on his part. His teachers worked hard, though “not according to knowledge”; and he must do the same. Active, in the higher sense of the word, he was never allowed to be ; but he had to be actively receptive, strenuously automatic, or his teacher would know the reason why.

Such was the old regime. Its defects were so grave and so vital that, now that it has become discredited (in theory, if not in practice), we can but wonder how it endured for so long. As an ingenious instrument for arresting the mental growth of the child, and deadening all his higher faculties, it has never had, and I hope will never have, a rival. Far from fostering the growth of those great expansive instincts sympathetic, aesthetic, and scientific which Nature has implanted in every child, it set itself to extirpate them, one and all, with ruthless pertinacity. As a partial compensation for this work of wanton destruction, it made the child blindly obedient, mechanically industrious, and (within very narrow limits) accurate and thorough. I have described it at some length because I see clearly that no one who does not realise what the elementary school used to be, in the days of its sojourn in the Land of Bondage, can even begin to understand why it is what it is to-day.”


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