British education, public and private, and the British Empire 1880-1930
Cowper, Henry Erskine
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The British Empire, which developed from the late sixteenth to the early twentieth century, has to be viewed as the result of a wide variety of circumstances rather than because of any consistent imperial policy. Britain acquired her Empire in a piecemeal, absent-minded way. In the last thirty years of the nineteenth century when the Victorian Empire expanded, the strong upsurge of imperialist sentiment which resulted had implications for British education. Until this time there was little attempt to define the aims or indeed the machinery on which the imperial system rested. After 1870, Britain entered into fierce economic competition with her continental neighbours with an artisan class the least trained and a middle class arguably the worst educated in Europe. Whilst the Education Act of 1870 did provide a stimulus to education in England and Wales, the first decade of state education was mostly given over to teaching the rudiments of reading and writing. Standards in the elementary schools were depressingly low and the provision of State secondary education virtually non-existent. In Scotland, by contrast, the provision was better. From the 1880s, Britain's educational system came under severe scrutiny as her Empire expanded and the needs of maintaining the Empire were measured against the quality of British education. Britain's development as an imperial power also had its educational counterpart in the need to provide clerical workers to staff the large insurance and banking concerns which were established in London and the Midlands in the years after 1880.