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Education Department are advising a more stringent application of compulsion. The law will break down under this strain. There are signs of a growing antagonism against the system amongst the poor, and compulsory education is in danger of being regarded by them as a tyranny.
In this paper it is proposed to show why many of the people think that the existing system is unjust and unequal in the incidence of cost, that it is opposed to true economy and efficiency, and that its social and moral tendency is harmful. A few words will be added on the extent and character of the problem to be solved in order to make elementary schools wholly free.
1. The experience of the last twelve years has brought into the light, though not for the first time, the patience, moderation, and forbearance of the English democracy. The law of 1870 was new to the people, was drastic and onerous. There can be no doubt of the real hardships the labouring classes have suffered under it. Its operation at once diminished their bread fund and called upon them for a new tax. They have been pinched both by hard times, by increased expenses, and by loss of wages.
The burden fell upon them at an unfortunate time, when the prosperity of the country began first to stagnate, and then to recede. It is doubtful whether the agitation begun by the National Education League in 1869 would have been received with so much enthusiasm by the working classes if it could have been foreseen where it would lead to. The authors of that movement, in advocating compulsory education, were charged with creating a new crime ;. but they never contemplated that it was to be a penal offence for a man to send his child to school without fees which possibly he had not got, and that he was to be liable to prosecution for no other reason than that he was penniless. It was foreseen that considerable inconvenience, and perhaps suffering, might be caused in the first instance by withdrawing the children from work; but it was not intended that, beyond this sacrifice of wages, the parents should be taxed, over and above other classes, to provide for a service which the State imposed upon them for the general advantage of the community. It was not imagined that, as a condition of education, parents would have to accept the stigma of pauperism, to submit to inquisitorial and offensive examinations into their household affairs, to expose their struggles and trials before school boards and guardians, to be hunted by attendance officers, relieving officers, and bailiffs, to have their homes broken up and to be themselves condemned to the treadmill, not for refusing to send their children to school, but because they had no money to send with them. It was not supposed that artificial distinctions would be created amongst the people, under which they would be divided into as many ranks as there are castes in a Hindoo
village; that they would be required to pay at different rates for the same education, and that some of them would be forced to pay for the instruction of their own children and to contribute to the free schooling of their neighbours' children, belonging to the same class, living in the same street, and working in the same factory. There can be no question about the practical grievance which exists. Parents in vast numbers have been punished for their poverty, and in thousands upon thousands of cases they have been called upon to make sacrifices where the alternative has been between bread on Sunday and school fees on Monday. Mr. Chamberlain might well say that he marvelled at the patience with which Englishmen have borne an infliction which burdens the poor “not in proportion to their means, but in proportion to their wants.”
The patience of the people is the more surprising when their power is taken into account, and the temptation they lie under to use it for their own benefit. As Mr. Lowe said, they are our masters.” They constitute the vast majority of the ratepayers. They can have school boards where they please, and can elect almost whom they like upon them. They are handicapped to a certain extent by the intricacies of the cumulative vote, but a little drilling and organization could get over that difficulty. As the first stepina free-school agitation, they might return everywhere majorities pledged to abolish school fees. It may be answered that this would not help them in the present state of the law, which requires the payment, and even the prepayment, of fees, and under which no fee can be fixed and no free school opened without the consent of the Education Department. This is true, and it is no small part of the hardship. A penny school cannot be opened even in such places as London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham without going to Whitehall for permission. As a matter of fact, the law is administered not in the interests of education, parents, children, or ratepayers, but in those of denominational schools. There is no disguise about the simplicity and partiality of the usual procedure. A school board determines on a penny fee, subject to the consent of "My Lords.” They refer the matter to Her Majesty's inspector of schools for the district. The inspector confers with the clergy, and sometimes with the minority of the board, and reports to the Department. In 90 per cent. of cases the recommendation is against a low fee, on the ground that some denominational school would be subjected to a disagreeable rivalry. For years the London School Board, and those of many large towns, have been in conflict with the inspectors and the Department as to the policy of opening penny schools. It is of no consequence what interests or what sufferings and trials call for the abolition of high fees.
Children may be half fed and clothed, parents may be struggling on the borderland
of pauperism, only anxious to live and die free of the parish ; the schools may be half empty, and their educational results miserable in the extreme; but all these considerations are made subservient to the supposed welfare and continued existence of some inefficient denominational school, frequently conducted in unsuitable, and sometimes in unwholesome, buildings. In pursuance of this departmental policy, free schools have been abolished and pay schools substituted for them. Such towns as Leeds, Leicester, and Norwich have been refused penny schools where the ratepayers and the school board have asked for them. But, obviously, the continued exercise of this centralized power is by sufferance of the people. They could, by a constitutional and perfectly legitimate agitation, bring the whole educational administration to a sudden halt. They mightin some cases they do—refuse to pay fees, and let the law take its course, as Dissenters refused to pay Church-rates. They would be justified and supported by public opinion in their opposition to a law which ignores the representative principle for the protection of sectional interests. Such an agitation would abruptly dispose of the pretensions and interference of “My Lords, and boards, and honourable gentlemen.” Compulsion could not be enforced and fees could not be collected in the face of an organized active, or even passive, resistance by the parents, who constitute the mass of the ratepayers. The universal provision of free schools is a question absolutely for their decision, at their own time and on their own terms.
That their interests are identical with such a provision is also clear. The usual answer to the argument for the abolition of fees is that the country cannot afford it; that we have been going ahead very fast, and that whereas we were spending under two millions ten years ago, we are now spending nearly six millions. But the cost would not be sensibly increased by making the schools free. There might be some additional expense in respect of the new scholars who would be brought in, but it would be trifling. We are already supposed to make provision for the instruction of all the children of the nation. We have erected the buildings and provided the staff. The doors of every school in England might be thrown open to-morrow free of toll without adding to the present outlay. It is a question of adjustment. At present those who use the schools, consisting generally of householders assessed at £20 and under, pay, during the years of their children's school-life, in addition to the school-rate and the usual taxes, a scholar's capitation tax in the shape of fees. It varies in amount in different places, and according to the number in family and other circumstances. In Birmingham it is equal, for an average family occupying a twenty-pound house, to a rate of about one shilling and fourpence, in Manchester and Sheffield to over two shillings, in Bradford to half-a-crown, in many places to five shillings. Now if the opposition to free schools is to be put on the ground of increased local rates, as it generally is, there can be no objection to arguing it from the point of view of the smaller ratepayers. Under any financial scheme that might be devised to replace the school fees, they would not pay as much as they do now. Whether the cost were transferred to the imperial exchequer or to the local rate, the rich would pay more, the poor less. In fact, the former would have to share the burden which the poor now sustain alone. The supporters of denominational schools might cease to subscribe, but would have to contribute in most instances a larger sum in rates or taxes. In Birmingham the parents now pay the school-rate of eightpence, and the fees, which are equal to a rate of one shilling and fourpence, or even to double that rate in the case of the smaller householders. But if every denominational school in the town were closed at once, if the whole education of the borough were put under the School Board, if the school fees were abolished, and if the extra cost were thrown entirely on the local funds, the charge would not amount to a rate of two shillings. Dr. John Watts estimates that a. rate of fourpence or fivepence would free all the schools in Manchester; but if the calculation were quadrupled, it would still be in the interests of the Manchester artisans to pay the rate rather than the present high fees. What is to prevent the smaller ratepayers from taking this view of the matter? The power is in their hands. As ratepayers, they are in the proportion of four to one. With few exceptions they have an urgent personal interest in abolishing the fees. Some of the "genteel poor,” who prefer academies, seminaries, and dame schools to board schools, might go over to the other side, and old bachelors and childless persons might get up a celibate agitation against the change, but that would not be very formidable. Under all the conditions the only wonder is that the people are so quiescent.
The principle of free education, that a duty imposed by the State for the common good should be provided for out of a common fund, is admitted by the arrangement which already throws three-fourths of the burden on the community at large. All that is in dispute is the justice and expediency of the extra tax on parents. The onus of showing that this irritating tax is justifiable lies on those who insist on keeping it. To make good their position, they would have to establish that the working classes do not otherwise contribute a fair proportion to the cost of State education, or that they derive some special advantages from it above their contributions as ordinary taxpayers and ratepayers. Beyond that, it is necessary to draw a ine above which it is proper that a man should pay fees for his own children and contribute towards the fees of others who belong to the same class. Without entering upon the vexed question of the incidence of taxation, it may be asserted that it would be impossible to
put the first proposition in such a light as to secure its general acceptance. It would not be easy to convince an intelligent workman, who frequents our free libraries, that he is quite fairly treated in this matter. Some forty millions of the revenue are still raised by indirect taxation, which bears with unequal incidence against the poor. While the wealthy are taxed out of a surplus of riches, the poor are taxed out of the necessaries of life. As a rule, any deduction from their narrow earnings encroaches on necessary food, clothing, and shelter. They are taxed to protect property which does not belong to them. They are taxed to provide military establishments which were formerly a charge upon the land, and were transferred to the general taxation by a Parliament of landowners. Nor is it to be forgotten that there still exist enormous endowments which were left for the education of the poor, the accumulated wealth of which has been for centuries appropriated for higher education. There are few school districts in which there are not some charities of this kind which have been diverted from their original channels. In Bedford, for example, the education endowments are worth £15,000 a year, nine-elevenths of which go to the higher schools, while poor parents are sent to the parish for their fees. I do not argue for the appropriation of these funds for primary education, but I say it is a confession of great meanness that they should be enjoyed by the sons of gentlemen, clergymen, merchants, and professional men, and that the poor, to whom they were given, should be obliged to sue for fees to the school board or the guardians, and be put upon strict proof of their qualification of poverty.
Then what are the special advantages which the poor derive from public education? If they are asked about it they will generally admit that the benefits can hardly be over-stated; but their conviction rests largely upon intuition and hope rather than upon experience. The advantages to them are prospective, and call for present sacrifice. But it is not upon any grounds of special class benefits that education is forced upon them; they derive no gain in which the whole nation does not participate, and where all are educated up to a certain standard they get no advantage over each other. The increased protection afforded to person and property affects them least of all. Their poverty and their general regard for law are their best protection. They participate in the general improvement in the social condition of an instructed population, but their share is not of a character to justify the imposition of a special tax. If we look back over the period during which increased popular intelligence and partial education have been making themselves felt in the industry, commerce, and productive power of the country, it is obvious that there has been a general improvement in the social condition of the people ; but there is high authority for saying that