Education in Victorian England


The Victorian Era yielded great developments in terms of education, and this time period had distinct characteristics in regards to the educational system. Public education evolved significantly at this time primarily because of new laws that were developed to make education compulsory for a wider range of individuals. Though many advancements in the field of education came to fruition in Victorian England, there were still significant gaps between social classes and genders. As a result of all of these multi-faceted aspects of British education, literacy rates among the population increased dramatically by the end of the era.

  • History
  • Social Class and Education
  • Ragged and Dame Schools
  • Literacy Rates
  • Gender

History of Victorian Schooling

The development of public education in England changed drastically in the Victorian Era thanks to many legislative changes by Parliament. Wealthy parents sent their children to fee-paying schools or employed governess, but gender still affected those of high class: boys’ schooling was considered more important, and they were taught academic and functional skills while girls were taught sewing, needlework, drawing, and music. Teaching was mainly by rote, with children learning things by simply repeating and memorizing what was said by their teachers. There was little room for creativity or developing talents; an emphasis was placed on learning to read and write. (The Victorian School).

In 1833, Parliament authorized sums of money to be provided for the construction of schools for the poor children of England and Wales. A succession of acts that followed hoped to expand the scope of education, but, for the most part, there was no unified education system; it was still in the hands of churches and philanthropists. There was a constant battle between the aim of schools to teach and parents’ need to have their children home to help the family. Parents were often required to pay for their childrens’ school, or at the very least supply ink, paper, and other materials, which was a real barrier for poor students. Then, in 1844, Parliament passed a law requiring children working in factories to be given six-half-days schools every week. In 1870, the Forster Elementary Education Act established partially state-funded Board Schools to be set up to provide primary education in areas where existing provisions were inadequate, but they still charged a fee, which many poor families could not pay. For this there were certain makeshift schools started such as ragged and dame schools, which essentially ended up to be daycares (The Victorian School).

By 1880, additional legislation stated that compulsory attendance at school ceased to be a matter for local option and now had to attend school between the ages of 5 and 10, with some exceptions such as early leaving in agricultural areas. Parents of children who did not attend school could be fined. In 1891, the Free Education Act provided for the state payment of school fees up to ten shillings per week. This was to help poor children attend school. By 1893 the school leaving age was raised to 11 and schools were established for the deaf and blind. The age was later raised again to 13. In 1897, the Voluntary Schools Act provided grants to public elementary schools not funded by school boards, which were typically Church schools. (The Victorian School).

Social Class and Education

Education at this time varied greatly between both social classes and genders. In the upper class, when children were quite young, they were raised by a governess. After they reached the age of about ten, children would usually go to a public school. Public schools were selective and expensive institutions. The first of these types of schools was Winchester College, which was founded in 1382. Boys in the upper class had the best opportunities for a good education. This idea is evident through the fact that private schools were male-only and they cost money to attend, so poor families could not afford to send their children there. Public schools were essentially used to prepare boys to be gentlemen. There was not a strong emphasis on scholastics. Instead, the education at these schools was heavily focused on sportsmanship, religion, leadership, and even confidence, so the boys would have all of the necessary skills to eventually be legitimate members of the elite class in society.

Upper class girls, on the other hand, were not sent to public schools. They stayed at home and learned skills that would benefit them when they got married, because this was the most common path for women in Victorian England to take. It was imperative that girls knew how to sew, cook, sing, and play an instrument. These were all skills that could be used during a girl’s life, especially to help her husband or make him proud. Eventually, women’s colleges began to open and females had more opportunities for education as they got older.

Ragged and Dame Schools

“Ragged Schools” were set up to provide free basic education to orphans and very poor children. Ragged schools were developed in idea by John Pounds, a Portsmith shoemaker. In 1818, Pounds began teaching without charging fees so that poor children could also learn. Thomas Guthrie helped promote Pound’s idea of free schooling for working class children. Guthrie also started a ragged school in Edinburgh and Sheriff Watson started another in Aberdeen. These schools spread rapidly and there were 350 ragged schools by the time the 1870 Education Act was passed (The Victorian School).

The ragged schools were often run by churches and had a foundation of charity and religion. They were free to attend and many of the people that taught were actually volunteers. At ragged schools, kids had some typical school subjects, but they also learned skills such as knitting and gardening. This was done in order to ensure that children had knowledge about certain trades or types of housework that could be used outside of school and later in their lives.

“Dame Schools” were also set up by women who were most likely themselves poor and were more similar to babysitters than teachers. Oftentimes the school was run right out of the woman’s home, and it was typical for these children to be given household chores to complete. In fact, some dame schools were run by women who were illiterate; therefore they could not teach these young children much where academics were concerned. They looked after the children more than they taught them, but it was a place where poor parents could ensure their children were out of trouble while they made money for their family. While, “ragged schools” were required to be free, “dame schools” were not; this made them a form of a private school (BBC).

Literacy Rates Data
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At the beginning of the Victorian era, circa 1830’s, the literacy rate amongst Englishmen was hovering just above 60%. The literacy rate amongst women was roughly below half. Decades into the Victorian Era, in the 1860s, the literacy rate amongst women and men finally becomes equal at approximately 90% in 1870. There was a drastic increase in literacy rates during the 19th century. In 1820, the literacy rate was 53%. In 1870 it jumped to 76%. Women had historically high literacy rate spikes in the 19th century. The intense increase in literacy rates is arguably due to increased government involvement in schools and education. SOURCE?

The Enlightenment played a large role in the increase in literacy rates. Although the Enlightenment began to taper off a few years before the Victorian period began, the lasting residual effects of philosophical thinking and reliance on writings by philosophers like John Locke created a steady increase in literacy rates. Nearing the end of Victoria’s reign at the turn of the 20th ceuntry, the literacy rate amongst both men and women in Britain was nearly 100%.

Gender in Education

In Victorian England, women were believed to only need to be educated in “accomplishments” such as artistic talents (singing and dancing), and the languages, essentially anything that would allow them to earn a husband and become the “Angels of the House” (Hughes).

There were many doctors who believed that if women studied too much education, it would stunt their ability to reproduce. Therefore, when universities opened to females, a lot of families did not want to send their daughters for fear no one would want to marry them afterward. However, as time went on and more and more women’s colleges opened, more intelligent women attended to be educated in things other than “fashionable” subjects. In this way, knowledge is power and sparked the want for the right to vote and the creation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage in 1897, wish the Queen could not understand (Picard).

It was not until more than forty years after the Victorian Era began that the Education Act was passed in England in 1870, making it required that both females and males get an elementary education, while secondary education in even upper-class families was not a consideration for females until the 1890s (Demir).

Female teachers were permitted, however they had a much lower wage than male teachers and were required to choose either having a profession or marriage and therefore all female teachers were required to remain unmarried while male teachers were not (Demir).
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The Royal Holloway Academy was Britain’s largest all-female college at its time. Thomas Holloway, the school’s namesake, built it after his wife Jane suggested it in answer to his question “How best to spend a quarter of a million or more” (Picard). When it was added to the University of London, it raised graduation rates to 30 percent being women.


Bloy, M. (2014, July 28). Victorian Legislation: A Timeline. Retrieved November 18, 2016, from

Demir, Caglar. “THE ROLE OF WOMEN IN EDUCATION IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND.” N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Gender Roles in the 19th Century.” The British Library. The British Library, 2014. Web. 17 Nov. 2016

Picard, Liza. “Education in Victorian Britain.” The British Library. The British Library, 2014. Web. 15 Nov 2016.

The Victorian School. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.

“Victorian Britain: Children at School.” BBC, 2014,

“Victorian Era Children’s Education Facts: Schooling, Subjects, Girls, Boys, Rich, Poor.” N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Nov 2016.

“Victorian Era Ragged Schools for Poor Homeless Children.” N.p., 2016 Web. 15 Nov 2016.