Oh, dear. Are there any more depressing words in the English language? I haven’t been in school for decades now, but contemplating the end of summer vacation is still like fingernails on… well, you know. This year, returning to school is fraught with even more anxieties and uncertainties than ever. Let’s have a look at what this annual ordeal was like for Victorian schoolchildren in England.
Widespread education in England began in the 18th century with the advent of Sunday schools, which—unlike today—weren’t necessarily focused on catechism. Instead, they offered formal education to children who had to work in farm fields, mines, and factories the other six days of the week. Fees were paid either by the families themselves or more prosperous benefactors.
A series of Education Acts in the 19th century established compulsory education for children ages five to ten (later raised to 12). Children whose families couldn’t afford private education at home or boarding school went to local schools that charged a subscription fee (to recoup the cost to build the school). The poorest children—orphans, or those whose families could not afford even the smallest fees—could attend so-called “Ragged Schools.” It was not until 1891 that free elementary education was available to everyone. In addition to basic academic and religious lessons, schools for the working class taught vocational skills like metalwork and sewing, to prepare boys for a trade and girls for jobs as servants.
After the age of 10, the sons of more prosperous families could attend boarding schools, while their sisters were educated at home for most of the era.
Middle and upper-class households often employed a governess, especially to teach their younger children. Governesses were typically the well-educated daughters of prosperous families who may have fallen on hard times, and their position in a household could be awkward. Of the same social class as their employers, they were not quite family members, and not quite servants, fitting comfortably into neither group.
The demand for governesses dropped off by the end of the century, as better educational opportunities for girls arose. Both the students and potential governesses benefited, as new schools also needed new teachers and staff. Secondary school education (past the age of 10 or 12) became more common, with “day schools” (or high schools) opening up to teach middle class girls, and boarding schools offering more rigorous academic instruction alongside the social graces. A college education for young women was considered a novelty and a luxury for those who could afford it, after which they were expected to settle down and marry (although some students had other plans!). In contrast, the day schools prepared girls who would have to work for professional careers. Even so, by the end of the century, the vast majority of English girls received no formal secondary education.
A typical secondary education included coursework in Classics (Latin and Greek literature, history, and languages), French and German, the sciences (chemistry, physics, and natural history, or biology), mathematics, physical education, and optional classes in art, music, or technical skills like bookkeeping and shorthand.
While we have Victorian schools to thank (or blame) for our modern system of compulsory education, we can also thank them for another blissful concept: they invented summer vacation. So whether you’re picking up a slate or logging into Zoom this fall, spare a thought for the generations of schoolkids who’ve suffered just like you, with the end of the lazy days of summer break.