Elementary Education Act 1870

The Elementary Education Act 1870,[1] commonly known as Forster's Education Act, set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 12 in England and Wales.[2] It established local education authorities with defined powers, authorized public money to improve existing schools, and tried to frame conditions attached to this aid so as to earn the goodwill of managers. It has long been seen as a milestone in educational development, but recent commentators have stressed that it brought neither free nor compulsory education, and its importance has thus tended to be diminished rather than increased.[3]

Elementary Education Act 1870
Long titleAn Act to provide for public Elementary Education in England and Wales
Citation33 & 34 Vict. c. 75
Introduced byWilliam Forster (Commons)
Territorial extentEngland and Wales
Royal assent9 August 1870
Text of statute as originally enacted

The law was drafted by William Forster, a Liberal MP, and it was introduced on 17 February 1870 after campaigning by the National Education League, although not entirely to their requirements. In Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain, not yet a Member of Parliament, was a prominent campaigner on the issue. However, like many grassroots Liberals, he opposed the bill because it was open to the possibility of subsidising Church of England schools with local ratepayers' money.[4]

It was one of the Elementary Education Acts 1870 to 1893.[3][4]


The Act was passed partly in response to political factors (such as the need to educate the citizens recently enfranchised by the Reform Act 1867 to vote wisely). It also came about due to demands for reform from industrialists, who feared Britain's competitive status in world trade, manufacture and improvement was being threatened by the lack of an effective education system.[citation needed]

There were objections to the concept of universal education. One was because many people remained hostile to the idea of mass education. They claimed it would make labouring classes 'think' and that these classes would think of their lives as dissatisfying and possibly encourage them to revolt.[5] Others feared that handing children to a central authority could lead to indoctrination.[6] Some poor people feared that mass education would equip people to defraud or mislead those without an education.[citation needed] Another reason was the vested interests of the Church and other social groups. The churches were funded by the state with public money to provide education for the poor and these churches did not want to lose that influence on youth.[citation needed]

It had been deduced from census data that out of 4.3 million children of primary school age in England & Wales, 1 million were in purely voluntary (ie. church) schools and 1.3 million were in state aided voluntary schools, but 2 million had no access to schools whatsoever.[7]

Lord Ripon (Lord President of the Council) and W.E.Forster (Vice-President of the Council) were responsible for education in the Gladstone government of 1868-1874 and were keen to introduce a bill, as was Henry Bruce (Home Secretary).[7] Although Gladstone was sympathetic to the argument that better education had helped the Prussians to their unexpected victory over Austria in 1866 (as he remarked, "Undoubtedly, the conduct of the campaign, on the German side, has given a marked triumph to the cause of systematic popular education"), he was a devout Anglican and did not want to see the existing Church of England schools absorbed into any kind of National Education system. Education was not a legislative priority, after Irish Disestablishment and the First Irish Land Act. A bill was eventually introduced in the 1870 session, although Gladstone was at least as concerned about the abolition of University Tests at the same time.[7]


Under the 1870 Education Act:

Local authorities were required to make returns of the number of children in their area and existing educational provision. This was done by comparing the results of a census of existing school places with the number of children of school age recorded in the Census. If there was a shortfall, a school board for the district would be created.

These Boards were to provide elementary education for children aged 5–13 (inclusive).

Board Members were elected by the ratepayers under a system of cumulative voting. (The number of Board Members was determined by the size of the population of the district). Each voter could choose three (or more) Board Members from a list of candidates, and those with the highest number of votes were chosen for the existing number of seats available. A voter could cast all their votes for one person. This was known as 'plumping' and ensured that religious (and, later, political) minorities could ensure some representation on the Board. The franchise was different from national elections since female householders could vote and stand for office.

The Boards financed themselves by a precept (a requisition) added to either the local poor rate or the municipal rate. They were also eligible to apply for capital funding in the form of a government loan.

The Boards could make grants to existing Church Schools (this had been happening since the 1830s) and erect their own board schools or elementary schools.

Section 74 of the Act empowered boards to, if they deemed it necessary, create a by-law and table it before Parliament, to make attendance compulsory (unless there was an excuse, for example, sickness, or living more than three miles from a school, or unless they had been certified as reaching a certain standard of education – see below). In 1873, 40% of the population lived in compulsory attendance districts.

All schools would be inspected, making use of the existing regime. The individual schools continued to be eligible for an annual government grant calculated on the basis of the inspection ('payment by results').[8]

Contentious provisionsEdit

Two provisions of the Act became, for religious reasons, matters of contention within the governing Liberal Party.

Firstly, nonconformists objected to their children being taught Anglican doctrine. As a compromise, William Cowper-Temple (pronounced "Cooper-Temple"), a Liberal MP, proposed that religious teaching in the new state schools be non-denominational, ie. restricted in practice to learning the Bible and a few hymns. The Cabinet accepted the Cowper-Temple amendment on 14 June 1870 and Gladstone proposed it to the House of Commons two days later. It became the famous Cowper-Temple clause (Section 14 of the Act). HCG Matthew, editor of Gladstone’s diaries, believes that this compromise hurt Gladstone more deeply than any other which he had to make. However, on 30 June 1870, a stronger amendment by Jacob Bright (younger brother of John Bright), insisting that religious teaching neither be for nor against any denomination, was defeated by 251 votes to 130. The supporters of the amendment were all Liberals, and the government won only with Conservative support.[7]

Section 7 also gave parents the right to withdraw their children from any religious instruction provided in board schools, and to withdraw their children at any time to attend any other religious instruction of their choice.[7]

Secondly, parents still had to pay fees for their children to attend schools. Section 25 gave school boards the power to, if they chose, pay the fees of poor children, including those attending voluntary (ie. church) schools. Although few school boards actually did so, the provision caused great anger among nonconformists, who saw this as a new source of local ratepayers’ money being spent on Church of England schools. A large conference was held at Manchester in 1872 to lead resistance to the section, and one of the campaigners was the Birmingham politician Joseph Chamberlain, who emerged as a national figure for the first time.[7]

The resulting splits (some education campaigners, including Chamberlain, stood for Parliament as independent candidates) helped to cost the Liberals the 1874 election.[7]

Effects of the ActEdit

Between 1870 and 1880, 3,000–4,000 schools were started or taken over by school boards. Rural boards, run by parishes, had only one or two schools to manage, but industrial town and city boards had many. Rural boards favoured economy and the release of children for agricultural labour. Town boards tended to be more rigorous in their provisions, and by 1890 some had special facilities for gymnastics, art and crafts, and domestic science.

There were ongoing political clashes between the vested interests of Church, private schools and the National Education League followers. In some districts, the creation of boards was delayed by local vote. In others, church leaders managed to be voted onto boards and restrict the building of board schools, or divert the school rate funds into church schools.

Many factory owners feared the removal of children as a source of cheap labour. However, with the simple mathematics and English they were acquiring, factory owners now had workers who could read and make measurements.

In Wales, this act is widely believed to be one of the most damaging pieces of legislation in the social history of the Welsh language, as children in Wales who very often knew no English were taught in English only.

The Act established the foundations of English elementary education, although it was not taken up in all areas and would be more firmly enforced through later reforms. The state (Gladstonian Liberalism) became increasingly involved. Lord Sandon's Elementary Education Act 1876 gave parents a legal obligation to ensure that their children were educated. Following continued campaigning by the National Education League, the Elementary Education Act 1880 ("the Mundella Act") made attendance to age 10 compulsory everywhere in England and Wales, with various exemptions. In 1891, elementary schooling became free in both board and voluntary (church) schools.

Commercial consequencesEdit

As a direct response to this Education Act, the founding father of British popular journalism, George Newnes, began his career in publishing in 1881 when he founded Tit-Bits.[citation needed] This was a weekly magazine which took the form of a mini-encyclopedia of information to appeal to the new generations of young readers.

Tit-Bits reached a circulation of 700,000 by the end of the 19th century[9] and paved the way for popular journalism. Most significantly, the Daily Mail was founded by Alfred Harmsworth, a contributor to Tit-Bits, and the Daily Express was launched by Arthur Pearson, who worked at Tit-Bits for five years after winning a competition to get a job on the magazine.

End of school boardsEdit

The school boards were abolished by the Balfour Education Act 1902, which replaced them with around 300 local education authorities (LEAs), by which time there were 5,700 board schools (2.6 million pupils) and 14,000 voluntary schools (3 million pupils). The LEAs remit included secondary education for the first time.

Standards of educationEdit

In areas served by school boards that had implemented by-laws requiring attendance, compulsory attendance until age 13 was exempted if a child (being over age 10) had been certified by the inspector as satisfying the required standard for that board. The standards required varied between 4th Standard (example: Birmingham) and 6th Standard (example: Bolton).

The following are the six Standards of Education contained in the Revised code of Regulations, 1872
Reading One of the narratives next in order after monosyllables in an elementary reading book used in the school.
Writing Copy in manuscript character a line of print, and write from dictation a few common words.
Arithmetic Simple addition and subtraction of numbers of not more than four figures, and the multiplication table to multiplication by six.
Reading A short paragraph from an elementary reading book.
Writing A sentence from the same book, slowly read once, and then dictated in single words.
Arithmetic The multiplication table, and any simple rule as far as short division (inclusive).
Reading A short paragraph from a more advanced reading book.
Writing A sentence slowly dictated once by a few words at a time, from the same book.
Arithmetic Long division and compound rules (money).
Reading A few lines of poetry or prose, at the choice of the inspector.
Writing A sentence slowly dictated once, by a few words at a time, from a reading book, such as is used in the first class of the school.
Arithmetic Compound rules (common weights and measures).
Reading A short ordinary paragraph in a newspaper, or other modern narrative.
Writing Another short ordinary paragraph in a newspaper, or other modern narrative, slowly dictated once by a few words at a time.
Arithmetic Practice and bills of parcels.
Reading To read with fluency and expression.
Writing A short theme or letter, or an easy paraphrase.
Arithmetic Proportion and fractions (vulgar and decimal).


Although universal primary education had been established in Scotland by the Education Act of 1633, a similar act to the English Elementary Education Act was passed in 1872 for Scotland, the Education (Scotland) Act 1872. It required compulsory attendance from the start. It allowed post-elementary schools, but not public funding of them. There were around 1,000 boards in Scotland at the time they were eventually abolished.[10]

The 1872 Education Act brought in compulsory education for all children between 5 and 13, although fees still had to be paid until 1890. Teacher shortages continued and problems arose in areas where teachers who spoke no Gaelic attempted to teach children who had no English. Pupil-teachers could later qualify after attending Teacher Training College.

Local school boards made sure sufficient schools were built and that children attended them. After 1918, this became a county responsibility. State control increased the number of school inspectors after 1872. Medical and dental inspections were introduced after 1908, though reaching remote schools proved difficult. The leaving age was raised to 14 in 1883.

The new system was co-ordinated nationally by the Scotch Education Department with the curriculum emphasising the teaching of reading, writing, and arithmetic (the three ‘Rs’). The churches made a crucial contribution to the new system by handing over their schools without charge to the School Boards. At this time, the Free Church supported 548 schools across Scotland together with 584 teachers.


  1. ^ http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/acts/1870-elementary-education-act.html
  2. ^ Walter H.G. Armytage, "The 1870 education act." British Journal of Educational Studies 18#2 (1970): 121-133.
  3. ^ a b Nigel Middleton, "The Education Act of 1870 as the Start of the Modern Concept of the Child." British Journal of Educational Studies 18.2 (1970): 166-179.
  4. ^ a b Peter T. Marsh, Joseph Chamberlain (1994) pp 34-55
  5. ^ Gillard, Derek."Education in England: A Brief History", chapter 2. 2011. Web. http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter02.html
  6. ^ Gillard, Derek (2018). Education in England: A History. Retrieved 7 March 2020.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g Jenkins 2002, pp231-5
  8. ^ http://www.sagepub.com/upm-data/41969_9780857027382.pdf
  9. ^ Friederichs, Hulda (1911). George Newnes. London: Hodder & Stoughton (1911) Kessinger Publishing (2008). ISBN 978-0-548-88777-6. (republished 2008)
  10. ^ Handbook of the Education (Scotland) Act, 1872, 5th ed., by James Todd, published 1873, Edmonston and Douglas, Edinburgh

Further readingEdit

  • Armytage, Walter H. G. (1970). "The 1870 Education Act". British Journal of Educational Studies. 18 (2): 121–133. doi:10.1080/00071005.1970.9973277.
  • Briggs, Asa (1991). "Struggle: fighting for the Education Act, 1870". The Collected Essays of Asa Briggs. Volume 3: Serious Pursuits: Communications and Education. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf. pp. 246–83. ISBN 0710805365.
  • Heffer, Simon. High minds: the Victorians and the birth of modern Britain (2013) pp 412–69.
  • Jackson, Patrick. Education Act Forster: a political biography of WE Forster (1818-1886). (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 1997).
  • McCann, W. P. "Elementary Education in England and Wales on the Eve of the 1870 Education Act." Journal of Educational Administration and History 2.1 (1969): 20-29.
  • McCann, W. P. "Trade unionists, artisans and the 1870 education act." British Journal of Educational Studies 18.2 (1970): 134-150.
  • Marsh, Peter (1994). Joseph Chamberlain: entrepreneur in politics. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 34–55. ISBN 0300058012.
  • Stephens, W. B. (1998). Education in Britain, 1750–1914. Basingstoke: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-60511-X.
  • Sylvester, D. W. "Robert Lowe and the 1870 Education Act." History of Education 3.2 (1974): 16-26.

Primary sourcesEdit

External linksEdit