Early Teaching and Learning

on Tuesday, 19 May 2015. Posted in Schools

Some surprising facts emerged when I compiled a forthcoming talk at the History Centre on early education in Wiltshire. Although most Saxons were illiterate the most educated of all Saxon kings, Alfred (who had many Wiltshire associations), translated Latin books into English and from the latter years of his reign vernacular education for both laymen and clergy greatly increased. Teaching was in English until the Norman Conquest after which only Latin was used until at least 1300. During this time Oxford became a great educational centre in Western Europe but in 1238 there was a migration of students from Oxford to Salisbury and Northampton; Salisbury was an active centre of the liberal arts and theology well into the 14th century and De Vaux College (1262 – 1542) was a university college without a university.

Most educated men were trilingual – in Latin, French and English – but learning was only for the favoured few. Boys started school aged 7 and went to university at 14; children were regarded as imperfect adults and from the age of 7 were treated as adults at work, play, and by the law – as late as 1708 a 7 year old was hanged in King’s Lynn and they could also be married. Nunneries educated their own novices and many also boarded and educated other children, including small boys, in the search for additional income. For some centuries rural education was in the hands of the parish clerk while the priest had occasional gatherings of children in the church porch for religious instruction, while from 1529 boys were to be taught the alphabet, reading, singing or grammar. ABC schools had lay teachers and taught reading and spelling from a horn book or primer to girls as well as boys.

Technical education in towns was by apprenticeships – 7 years from age 14 to 21 – and craftsmen also needed basic reading and writing to keep accounts and make out bills. From the later 16th century petty schools were for children of the poor and were attended by both girls and boys, although normally only boys attended grammar schools for 7 or 8 hours a day starting at 6.00 a.m. in summer and 7.00 a.m. in winter.

Between 1699 and 1730 the SPCK was opening charity schools for the very poorest children, teaching reading and writing, with accounts for boys and sewing for girls, as well as moral and religious discipline. In the 18th century common schools were teaching the 3Rs – reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic – in towns while in the country dame schools taught reading knitting and sewing. Teaching was mainly a casual or part time occupation and teachers were ill regarded. As school fees (abolished much later in 1891) were charged, except for some charity scholars, you took a risk sending a child to school; often only 50% survived into adulthood and you could lose income from their labour whilst paying for fruitless education.

Michael Marshman, County Local Studies Librarian

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