Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831

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Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831

The national system of education established by the state in 1831 was the outstanding educational innovation in nineteenth-century Ireland. In the 1820s education at the elementary level was a major battleground between Protestant evangelicals and the Catholic Church. The foundation of the national school system came about because of Catholic opposition, led by Bishop James Doyle of Kildare and Leighlin, to the voluntary (though state-funded) Kildare Place Society, which operated on Protestant principles, as well as to other educational societies which had proselytizing aims.

Educational modernizers and the government hoped that the new national schools would replace the widespread "hedge schools" which were deemed to be unsatisfactory because of their primitive physical conditions, the poor quality of their teachers, and the antiquated curriculum that they taught. The new, well-built schools were to demonstrate best practice in education. Lancasterian methods were implemented, a system of inspection was established, and a teachertraining college was set up.

The new national education board, which administered the system, comprised seven members: three Anglicans, two Presbyterians, and two Catholics. Remarkably, the Catholic and Protestant archbishops of Dublin sat on the board. However, the representative composition of the board, inconsistent as it was with respect to the country's religious demography, would later become an issue.

The guiding principle of the system was outlined in 1831 by Chief Secretary Edward Stanley in his letter to the president of the new board, the duke of Leinster. It was to be "a system of education from which should be banished even the suspicion of proselytism, and which, admitting children of all religious persuasions, should not interfere with the peculiar tenets of any."

Combined literary and moral instruction was to be given on four or five days of the week. It could not be doctrinal or dogmatic. Separate religious instruction was to be given on the other days of the week or before or after the school day.

A sum of 30,000 pounds in public funds was withdrawn from the Kildare Place Society and put at the disposal of the Irish lord lieutenant for the board. Twothirds of the money required to build new national schools was available from the board, provided that one-third was raised locally. The board sought joint applications for aid to build schools from Catholic and Protestant ministers or from any combination of Catholics and Protestants.

The hope that clergy of all denominations would cooperate in managing local national schools was thwarted. Out of a total of 4,795 schools in 1852, only 175 were under joint management. The Anglican Church generally opposed the new system as an interference with its traditional prerogatives in elementary education. It was opposed to the rule that the Bible could not be used in national schools at any time during any day. Anglican opposition led to the formation of the Church Education Society in 1839.

Presbyterian opposition was based on similar grounds but was, if anything, more deeply felt, and resulted in attacks on and the destruction of some new national schools in Ulster in the mid-1830s. By 1840, however, the Presbyterian Synod of Ulster had secured modifications acceptable to it and had entered the system.

Changes made to suit Presbyterian objections led the Catholic archbishop of Tuam, John MacHale, to attack the system as no better than the proselytizing educational societies of the 1820s, even though his fellow archbishop, Daniel Murray of Dublin, sat on the board. A majority of bishops supported Murray. This dispute ended in 1841 when Rome decreed that each bishop in his own diocese should decide on the merits of the system.

Usually, where schools were mixed in the religious allegiance of students, the denominational numbers were very lopsided. In 1862, the first year for which this information is available, 53.6 percent of all national schools were mixed. This statistic hides the reality that normally there was an overwhelming majority of Catholics and only a few Protestants in mixed schools.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the Catholic Church sought to make what was already a de facto denominational education denominational in theory as well; this was achieved by 1900. Under the leadership of Archbishop Paul Cullen of Dublin, the Catholic Church in 1863 boycotted the twenty-six regional "model schools" that had been established for teachertraining purposes. Catholic children and student-teachers were ordered out of the model schools. One result of this was that the percentage of untrained teachers in Ireland was very high. The total number of trained teachers in 1874 was 3,842; the number untrained was 6,118. Sixty-six percent of teachers had not received formal training; only 27 percent of Catholics were trained, compared with 52 percent of Protestants. As a result of church pressure, denominational teachertraining colleges were sanctioned in 1883.

While there had been fears that the hedge schools had been academies of sedition, no such criticism was made of the national schools, where inculcation of loyalty to the established order and respect for authority were taught. Irish cultural identity was not on the agenda of the national schools. Irish language, history, heritage, and games did not find a place in the curriculum. The culture of the schools was more British than Irish. The textbooks produced by the national board were so successful that they were the best-selling books to elementary schools in England.

The number of schools and pupils went up from 789 with 107,000 children in 1833 to 4,321 schools with 481,000 children in 1849. By 1870 the number of schools had increased to 6,806 with 998,999 pupils. In 1871 there were still 2,661 schools with 125,000 children outside the national-school system. More than 1,100 of these were Church Education Society schools, though that body was in rapid decline because of financial pressure.

A majority of children remained in school only until they had attained functional literacy. To learn to read was the fundamental objective of schooling; writing was a secondary concern. Voluntary attendance had long been poor. In 1871 it averaged only 37 percent. In 1892, for the first time, education was made compulsory for children between ages six and fourteen, but the legislation was full of loopholes. Daily attendance was only 62 percent in 1900.

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Primary Education, or Powis Commission, reported in 1870 and followed English and Scottish commissions in recommending payment by results in order to improve standards in the national schools. The payment-by-results policy was introduced in 1872, but it was heavily criticized and abolished in 1899, also following the English and Scottish pattern.

The Commission on Manual and Practical Instruction, or Belmore Commission, reported in 1898. It was appointed to bring Ireland into line with educational thinking on the European continent. It concentrated on practical and child-centered education rather than the mere rote learning of the three Rs. Resident Commissioner William Starkie implemented the recommendations in the revised program for national schools in 1900.

The removal of illiteracy in English was a major achievement of the national-school system in the nineteenth century. In 1851, 47 percent of people 5 years old and older could neither read nor write in English; in 1871 the corresponding figure was 33 percent, and in 1901 it was 14 percent. From 1879 it became possible to teach Irish in national schools, though only outside school hours. Irish was not taught in national schools during school hours until 1900. In 1904, Irish, for the first time, became the main medium of instruction in national schools in Irish-speaking areas. Many within the Gaelic League (founded in 1893) believed that Irish had been lost because of an anglicizing policy in nineteenth-century national schools, and that it could be revived through a gaelicization policy in twentieth-century national schools. In the Irish Free State the argument that Irish had been lost in the national schools was used to attempt the restoration of the Irish language by placing the burden of learning it on primary-school pupils. Arguably, greater damage had been done to Irish in the hedge schools, which were primarily concerned with learning to read in English, in the century before 1831.

SEE ALSO Chapbooks and Popular Literature; Education: Primary Private Education—"Hedge Schools" and Other Schools; Education: Secondary Education, Female; Education: Secondary Education, Male; Language and Literacy: Decline of Irish Language; Kildare Place Society; Literacy and Popular Culture; Presbyterianism; Religion: Since 1690; Rice, Edmund; Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891


Akenson, D. H. The Irish Education Experiment: The National System of Education in the Nineteenth Century. 1970.

McGrath, Thomas. Politics, Interdenominational Relations, and Education in the Public Ministry of Bishop James Doyle of Kildare and Leighlin, 1786–1834. 1999.

Thomas McGrath

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Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831

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Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831