Local Schools: Then and Now

Students’ names and initials carved into the wall of a schoolhouse in Grantham, Lincolnshire.  The building dates to the late fifteenth century. Photo by Carrie Euler.

Students’ names and initials carved into the wall of a schoolhouse in Grantham, Lincolnshire.  The building dates to the late fifteenth century. Photo by Carrie Euler.

By Carrie Euler

I have spent much of the summer writing a draft of what I hope will be the first peer-reviewed journal article to come out of my new project on local schools in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England.  It has led me to ponder some interesting similarities and differences between education then and now.

Some things have not changed.  Then as now, most people placed a high value in education and saw it as a path to upward mobility.  Most of these schools were founded on charitable endowments made by middle and upper-class men who wanted to give less fortunate children (mostly boys—more on that in a minute) in their hometowns the chance to obtain an education for free.  They would set aside money or land to support the salary of a schoolmaster and stipulate that the master was not to charge the students any fees.  This is why many schools in this period were referred to as “free schools.”  Then as now, most parents sent their children to these local schools, rather than to distant boarding schools, and most clearly paid attention to and cared about what their children learned.  In one case, parents complained about a certain schoolmaster and said their children were “losing their time” with him (i.e. wasting their time).  This reveals another similarity to the present day: an uneasy relationship between teachers and scholars, on the one hand, and the non-academics whose children they were teaching on the other.  In some cases, it is clear that the non-academics respected teachers and university scholars.  The founders of several schools stipulated that if the school trustees needed advice or somehow failed to appoint a schoolmaster when the position became vacant, the advice or appointment would be made by the fellows (professors) of a specific college at Oxford or Cambridge.  Nevertheless, documents relating to charitable donations to Oxford and Cambridge colleges themselves often reveal a belief among the donors (wealthy businessmen) that the fellows were lazy, ivory-tower types not to be trusted with money.  Also, like today, teachers were not paid very much compared to other professionals and often had to find second and third jobs to make ends meet.  Finally, another similarity that surprised me a little was the difficulties teachers had disciplining students.  The popular stereotype of pre-modern schools being institutions with fierce discipline because schoolmasters were allowed to inflict corporeal punishment seems to be overblown.  Yes, there was corporeal punishment at times, but it is clear that, just as teachers do today, masters often struggled to control students.  The most amusing example is that in several schools across the two English counties that I studied, it was apparently a tradition for the students to break all the schoolhouse windows on the last day before Christmas.

Of course, there are things about education that have changed a great deal since the seventeenth century, mostly for the better.  The most obvious is the increase in female students in the modern period.  Between approximately 1500 and 1650, girls would only have been present in the primary schools, up to about age eight.  After that, boys could move onto the secondary schools, known as “grammar schools” (because they taught mostly Latin grammar), where girls were not allowed.  Starting around 1650, though, there are a few secondary schools for girls only, and by the eighteenth century, a few that admit both.  Women were not allowed in universities, however, until the nineteenth century.  Another obvious difference is that there was no such thing as public education.  None of these schools was funded by the state, and there was no belief in education as a right.  Consequently, while the number of schools gradually increased over the entire period I am studying, a much smaller proportion of the population received an education and became literate than today.  Finally, while the low pay and little respect teachers received was arguably similar to today, schoolmasters four hundred years ago actually had it worse in many ways because their jobs were, for the most part, subject to the whims of the parents and boards of trustees set up by the charitable endowments.  There were no unions and no onsite administrators, like principles or counselors, to help the teachers in the case of crisis or corruption.  I did encounter one legal case in which a schoolmaster successfully sued the trustees for breach of contract, but this was pretty rare.

If there’s one thing that most historians can agree on, it’s that progress over time is not a given, but in the area of education, it appears that the modernity brought mostly positive changes.  I have learned a lot through this research and hope to continue to do so as I expand the project in the future.