Education: Secondary Education, Female

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Secondary Education, Female

The last quarter of the nineteenth century witnessed what has been called a revolution in the education of Irish women. Though Irish girls were beneficiaries of the comprehensive, publicly funded, national elementary school system established earlier in the century (with the passage of Stanley's Education Act in 1831), their access to secondary and university education was a much later development, and its accomplishment was fraught with controversy.

Early Development

Whereas female secondary education was not unheard of before the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the availability of advanced instruction was rare, the quality of that instruction variable, and the distinction between elementary and secondary or higher education unclear. Census returns from 1871 show four national schools providing secondary education to Protestant and Catholic girls (though they numbered a mere twenty-four pupils). There were also some Catholic convent boarding schools (run by the Ursuline, Dominican, Loreto, Brigidine, and Saint Louis Sisters) that offered what was called "superior" education, distinguished by a curriculum that included foreign languages. For girls from families lacking the resources to pay the £40 annual fee required at such institutions, the Mercy and Presentation sisters (founded originally to work with the poor) developed the pension day school during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Located in the larger towns throughout the country, the schools offered both elementary and more advanced education to Catholic girls for one-tenth of the cost of a boarding school.

Despite the existence of schools offering what might be called secondary instruction to a limited number of Irish girls, both lack of access as well as the inferior quality of educational content drew criticism during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. Protestant educational reformers objected to curricula that emphasized the teaching of so-called accomplishments (singing, drawing, music, and needlework) at the expense of academic or technical subjects (languages and literature, higher mathematics, and physical sciences) that would better prepare women for employment or afford them the opportunity to know intellectual achievement.

In demanding female access to technical, classical, and professional education on the same terms as males, these women were players in larger social and cultural dramas. As elsewhere in the industrializing world, growing numbers of middle-class women in Ireland needed paid employment but could not secure it. Educational reformers like the Quaker Anne Jellicoe lobbied for female access to improved secondary and university education as a way for women to gain better, life-sustaining employment. Some proponents of expanded educational access, like the feminist Isabella Tod (again, part of a larger feminist movement that was organizing throughout the nineteenth-century industrializing world), called for expanded female educational access not only as a necessity but also, quite simply, as a right.

Consequently, in the late 1850s Protestant women began opening a series of new educational institutions for young women, providing both secondary and higher education. Margaret Byers (Ladies' Collegiate School, later Victoria College, 1859, Belfast), Anne Jellicoe (Queen's Institute, 1861; Alexandra College, 1866; and Alexandra School, 1873, all in Dublin), and Isabella Tod (Ladies' Institute, 1867, Belfast) were among the most prominent founders of more than seventy Protestant female secondary schools begun by the end of the nineteenth century. Run by a Protestant committee of both lay and clerical leaders (usually male), these schools prepared young women between the ages of fourteen and eighteen for jobs as governesses and teachers and eventually for university degrees and civil-service positions.

Although liberal Protestant reformers may have been critical of the traditional forms of female education, Catholic educational leaders, both men and women, were not. Their wealth, prominence, and nationalist aspirations flourishing at this time, Irish Catholics clung to their Catholicism and its traditions for reasons of both religious loyalty and political and cultural resistance. Liberal Protestant social critiques, in this case of female education, did not resonate with them. In their eyes female education was as it should be, training up religiously and morally upright women whose societal role was, and ought to be, centered on family life.

This is exactly what convent superior boarding schools did their best to accomplish. Curricula included not only English, French, Italian, history, geography, writing, and arithmetic, but also needlework, drawing, deportment, and conduct. End-of-term competitions meant prizes and marks for those girls deemed to be most refined in the art of politeness. Employment needs or aspirations, let alone intellectual pursuits, were believed to be not only frivolous but dangerous as well. Domestic accomplishments—be they those required by the wealthy, the middle ranks, or the lower classes—were the proper courses of study for Irish girls and women. Yet regardless of whether convent superiors approved of the new demands for female educational reform, change was on its way.

State Support of Secondary Education

After a decade of lobbying efforts by several reform movements aimed at winning publicly funded secondary education, the British government passed the Inter-mediate Education Act in 1878. The law provided limited state support for schools offering education beyond the primary level, and it included female secondary institutions. This act was followed by the creation of the Royal University of Ireland in 1879, which opened university exams to women (though they were still barred from attending classes or taking degrees at the country's universities). Taken together, these two pieces of legislation accelerated the reform of female education and helped to lay the groundwork for eventual access to full educational rights in the early twentieth century.

Beginning in the summer of 1879, schools throughout Ireland were invited to present advanced students for public examinations. Topics for the exams were set by a national examining board (consisting of both Protestants and Catholics), and students deemed by the examiners to have passed or excelled in the various subjects tested were given monetary awards and honors. In addition, schools received results fees that were determined by the success of their students. The system of public exams and prizes that was used to distribute state money—customary practice in Irish schools—was believed to be an effective means of raising educational standards. The major subject areas stressed were Latin, Greek, and English language, history, and literature; higher mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry); Irish (though Irish history was included later than was the Irish language) and French; and to a lesser extent, the sciences (botany and zoology). Schools did not have to present students in all subject areas but could compete in fields of their choosing. Convent schools, for example, competed regularly in English and French, but were slower than Protestant schools to begin teaching girls Latin.

Exams were held in forty cities and towns throughout the country at the end of the summer term and lasted for nearly two weeks. Though the system was criticized for encouraging a rigid educational curriculum (undermining intellectual pursuit and excellence in areas outside those tested) and also for leading to a "cramming" culture within the schools, those Protestant women who had led the push for expanded female education believed that the intermediate act had produced nothing short of a revolution in education for women in Ireland.

Catholic educators were not so impressed. Though some among the Catholic elite did desire a more academically challenging educational experience for their daughters, mother superiors were slow to back the secondary education system. They complained of the travel and long stays away from school necessitated by the examination system. They worried about their pupils being exposed to a range of influences not to their liking and outside their control. They questioned the long-term effects of an education that seemed to be of no great purpose and to devalue women's central domestic role.

Yet they faced a dilemma on several levels. Though they did not like the system of examinations or the curriculum being developed, still, they did not like turning away state money that could be put to good use. Also, convents possessed a competitive spirit—especially when the competition was with the Protestant community. It is no surprise, then, that convent superiors were loath to see Protestant girls' schools take top prizes year after year. Finally, growing numbers of young Catholic women themselves wanted secondary and university educations; the best among them began to attend the Protestant-managed Alexandra School and College in Dublin, which admitted students of all denominations. It was not until 1893, after Archbishop William Walsh of Dublin approved the foundation of Saint Mary's University College in response to this very issue that convents throughout the country felt free to take up the challenge. In 1892 twenty convent schools competed for prizes and results fees. In 1893 twenty-nine did so; and by 1898, forty-five convent schools (60 percent of Catholic girl's secondary schools) were among those on the results list. In 1899 the Saint Louis convent in Monaghan was the first Catholic school to place second in the country, and in 1901, the Eccles Street Dominican School in Dublin placed first. With the support of the Catholic hierarchy and their initial reservations now behind them, mother superiors never looked back. In the twentieth century they won accolades (from both the British and Irish governments and the church hierarchy) for their able, effective, and successful administration of female secondary education.

SEE ALSO Duffy, James; Education: Primary Public Education—National Schools from 1831; Education: Secondary Education, Male; Education: Women's Education; Literacy and Popular Culture; Religion: Since 1690; Roman Catholic Church: 1829 to 1891; Roman Catholic Church: Since 1891


Breathnach, Eibhlín. "Charting New Waters: Women's Experience in Higher Education, 1879–1908." In Girls Don't Do Honours: Irish Women in Education in the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Mary Cullen. 1987.

Luddy, Maria. "Isabella M. S. Tod." In Women, Power and Consciousness in 19th Century Ireland, edited by Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy. 1995.

Magray, Mary Peckham. The Transforming Power of the Nuns: Women, Religion, and Cultural Change in Ireland, 1750–1900. 1998.

McElligott, T. J. Secondary Education in Ireland, 1870–1921. 1981.

O'Connor, Anne V. "The Revolution in Girls' Secondary Education in Ireland, 1860–1910." In Girls Don't Do Honours: Irish Women in Education in the 19th and 20th Centuries, edited by Mary Cullen. 1987.

O'Connor, Anne V. "Anne Jellicoe." In Women, Power and Consciousness in 19th Century Ireland, edited by Mary Cullen and Maria Luddy. 1995.

Mary Peckham Magray

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Education: Secondary Education, Female

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Education: Secondary Education, Female