I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the architecture of the London School Board. The Board provided elementary schooling for London’s children after 1870 until 1904.  Today I want to look more at what went on inside those schools.

The headquarters of the London School Board on Victoria Embankment, 1873: since demolished

The first elections to the London Board took place in November 1870.  These were the first large-scale polls to be conducted by secret ballot and women were permitted to stand and to vote – as property-holders – on the same terms of men. 

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, 1860s © Wikimedia Commons

Garrett Anderson

Emily Davies


Two women were elected – Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, the physician, and Emily Davies, founder of Girton. In all, 29 women served during its lifetime.

One working man was returned – Benjamin Lucraft, a former Chartist and one-time chair of the First International, elected in Finsbury. 

If we focus on these harbingers of change, we should acknowledge that the white, upper-class males who dominated the Board were – in their own terms – a pretty impressive bunch.  They included, as the Board’s first chairman, Lord Lawrence, a recent Viceroy of India, and the Conservative  MP WH Smith (yes, that one) and the Liberal Samuel Morley. 

The prestige accorded the Board was a sign of the significance given to its mission.  As The Times thundered: (1)

No equally powerful body will exist in England outside Parliament, if power is measured by influence for good or evil over masses of human beings.

The 1870 election results established the broad division between Progressives and conservative members allied with the established Church which was to typify the Board.  Religious controversy – between these advocating non-denominational Christian teaching and those favouring official Anglican doctrine – would dog the Board but we’ll focus here on its overall politics which were, for the most part, broadly Progressive.

The London Board’s choice of curriculum made this clear early on.  The government’s Board of Education had issued a curriculum focused narrowly on the Three R’s and would fund locally only those elements included in this Educational Code. 

Conversely, the London Board adopted ‘a liberal standard of education…from the beginning’.  It opted to teach beyond the Code and its curriculum – devised by the biologist TH Huxley, then a Board member, and adopted in 1871 – included: (3)

morality and religion, reading, writing, arithmetic, English grammar, elementary physical science , English history, elementary social economy, drawing, singing, mensuration [geometry] (in boys’ schools), needlework (in girls’ schools) and physical exercises.

Additional ‘discretionary subjects’ including algebra, geometry and domestic science (for girls) were recommended where resources allowed.

Mixed maths class, Cable Street School

Mixed maths class, Cable Street School

Mixed nature class, Cable Street School

Mixed nature class, Cable Street School

Initially, this programme of studies was little more than ‘a confession of faith’, obviously overambitious given the unschooled nature of the system’s early students.  But it laid down the benchmark of what should be taught.  After ten years of operations, it was said the practice began to approximate to the ideal.

Further evidence of the Board’s ambition to extend working-class education came, after 1887, in its development of higher grade schools.  These were local centres teaching higher level studies – effectively embryonic secondary schools.  When in 1900 the state Board of Education belatedly proposed grants for higher grade schools, the London Board applied on behalf of 79 schools under its control. 

Standard VII science class, Cable Street School

Standard VII science class, Cable Street School

But the Board of Education’s vision was far more modest than that of the London School Board.  The former proposed a competitive entrance examination at 11 and a definite end to schooling at 15. Whereas the London system held the promise of an educational ladder to the highest levels for all, the national government chose to introduce the class-based and selective system which would blight English education for decades.

We might expect the teaching to be old-fashioned but even the Board’s pedagogy seems progressive for its time.  Hugh Philpott asserted:

It is real education – the drawing out of the child’s intelligence – not mere cramming for which the Board School stands.  The  wooden ways of teaching – the arithmetic by rule of thumb, the history that consists in learning strings of dates, the geography lesson that is a mere matter of memorising – all these have passed into the limbo of things superannuated and discredited.

Whether Mr Gove’s new History curriculum is an advance on this, you can judge.

The London Board also deplored the ‘payment by results’ method of early state funding.  Philpott again:

When every child was a potential earner of so many shillings for his teacher, it is not surprising if the teacher’s main concern was to see that the child earned those shillings…The teacher was not paid to educate but to cram; therefore he crammed.

Perhaps the London Board would also have deplored the ‘teaching to the test’ which results from today’s focus on league tables and exam results.



In other respects, of course, we look back at a traditional system. Corporal punishment was permitted.  But even it – occasional horror stories notwithstanding – was strictly regulated and ‘its frequent use [viewed] as a mark of incompetency on the part of the teacher’.

Attitudes towards gender were also traditional.  Boys did woodwork and metalwork, girls did domestic science, laundry and needlework.  Lucraft feared that girls were being trained up to solve the middle classes’ ‘domestic servant problem’.  The Board denied this and it did, at least, take girls’ schooling seriously.

Of course, this was not overall ‘teaching as a subversive activity’ (the title of a key text in my own teacher training).  The system was designed to improve the morals and manners of a class believed inadequately socialised and feared by some as potentially dangerous.

The Liberal MP, Robert Lowe, advocating the 1870 Act which established school boards, stated: (4)

The lower classes should be educated to discharge the duties cast upon them. They should also be educated that they may appreciate and defer to a higher culture when they meet it.

In more down-to-earth fashion, a School Board officer observed that ‘as the arab class come under kind and firm discipline, they acquire in time the habits of punctuality and regularity’.  The same source went on to claim ‘it is undoubted that a good, all-round, popular education will, in the long run, reduce the public outlay in prisons, poorhouses, and the like’. (6)  

Old Castle Street School

Old Castle Street School

Site of first London Board School, Old Castle Street, Whitechapel

Site of first London Board School, Old Castle Street, Whitechapel

Not an objectionable goal, of course, and such new-found working-class ‘respectability’ wasn’t only an aspiration of the elites.  George Potter, a trades unionist and School Board member for nine years from 1873, argued: (7)

George PotterThe children who go back to the slums from the Board Schools are themselves accomplishing more than Acts of Parliament, missions, and philanthropic crusades can ever hope to do.  Already the young race of mother, the girls who have had the benefit of the Education Act, are tidy in their persons, clean in their homes and decent in their language.

And if all this seems a little too close to inculcating conformity and deference, don’t forget those opponents of the Board who condemned this ‘over-education’ of the working classes and the ‘extravagant’ expenditure it entailed.   Even the great educator Matthew Arnold criticised the London Board’s spending, pointing out that London spent 53s 5d (£2.67) a year per pupil compared to the national average of 35s 3d (£1.76).

Attendance medal, 1895, reverse

Attendance medal, 1895, obverse

By the early 1900s, education was also becoming linked to the ‘national efficiency’ arguments of the day.  These were rooted in fear of rising German competition and concerns – both nationalistic and philanthropic – about the poor moral and physical condition of the working class.  Schooling was seen as a vital means of ‘making the most of the capacities of the whole population…as truly part of our national resources as our iron and coal’.(8)

In this context, the Fabian socialist, Sydney Webb could assert that the 500 schools built by the London Board:

erected at a cost of fourteen millions sterling, constitute by far the greatest of our municipal assets.

Without the bombast, we could choose to agree.


(1) The Times, 29 November 1870, quoted in Stuart Maclure, A History of Education in London 1870-1990 (1990)

(2) School Board for London, Thirty Years of Hard Labour. The London School Board and its Work

(3) Hugh B Philpott, London at School. The Story of the School Board, 1870-1904 (1904)

(4) Quoted in Deborah Weiner, Architecture and Social Reform in Late-Victorian London (1994)

(5) Quoted in The London School Board Policy Defence Committee, Statement made by Sir Charles Reed [chairman of London School Board], 27 September 1876

(6) School Board for London, Thirty Years of Hard Labour. The London School Board and its Work, ND

(7) George Potter, The London School Board and the Coming Election (ND abt 1888)

(8) Sidney Webb, London Education (1904), quoted in Deborah Weiner, Architecture and Social Reform in Late-Victorian London (1994)

Contemporary pamphlets relating to the Board were found in the George Howell collection of the Bishopsgate Institute.  My thanks to them for their assistance.

I’m grateful also to Philip and Harold Mernick for making their extensive collection of London School Board memorabilia (and much else) available online. Images of medals and certificates are taken from this site.

The Cable Street School photographs are taken from the very informative historical pages of the St George in the East Church website.  They date from 1908 – four years after the abolition of the London Board but too good to miss.