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Schooling and testing - a potted history

By Phil Cullen - posted Friday, 13 November 2009

It seems that the only thing we learn from history is that we don’t learn from history. The story behind the development of public schooling and the shape of its administration typifies the message behind this verisimilitude. Schooling is supposed to be attached to learning and teaching; and history has shown that the more we try to improve the circumstances of school learning and achievement by intrinsic means, the greater the opposition to it. Indeed, it seems that the more things change through school-level innovation, the greater the desire to go backwards with apoplectic haste.

An example is the fundamental belief in testing as a motivator for improvement. It has told its story for generations. We are yet to learn from its part in the history of schooling. It is not a pleasant story.

When public schooling started to gain attention during the economic disturbances of the Industrial Revolution, a style of schooling was developed in England that later spread to the colonies. Child labour in the mills and mines and fields had led to excessive inhumanity. Younger children were blatantly exploited, and the laissez-faire attitude of the general population played into the hands of business corporations and agricultural pursuits.


Parents, who could raise a few pence, sent their children to Dame Schools run in parlours of:

A matron old, whom we Schoolmistress name;
Who hosts unruly brats with birch to tame.
(1742 Poem)

Reading was the main subject taught, with a few simple calculations, since there was little need for much more. The birch was the prime motivator for learning and the punishment for low achievement. When Tom Paine wrote Rights of Man in 1791, he had to leave town; but the subsequent rise of radicalism disposed influential thought towards more humane attitudes. Pressure was put on the Church to provide philanthropic schools. Charity Schools run by the clergy, emphasised religious education and reading. Rote learning was a feature and the birch encouraged memorisation.

Such Church schools, despite their short-comings, provoked community pressure for public schooling. “Encyclopaedists” as the “Intelligentsi” of the time were called, demanded state-run secular schools and, so, even from its earliest times, public schooling became a political football. There was strong opposition to the notion, especially from the wealthy who could afford to send their sons (note) to Eton or Winchester, the only exclusive boarding schools available in the kingdom at the end of the 18th century. Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, 1776) said, “Though the State was to derive no advantage from the instruction of the inferior ranks of the people, it would still deserve its attention that they should not be altogether uninstructed”.

Since the government gave grants to schools for their operation, their progress needed monitoring. The standard of teaching was suspect in many places and there was uncertainty as to the general achievement of the pupils, as they were called. (The word implied that teachers taught). Inspectors were appointed in 1840 to supervise the training of pupil-teachers, report on each school’s activities and provide advice. The founder of English elementary education, Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth, was before his time with his beliefs in the cultivation of learning habits, training in useful life skills and the “development of intelligence”, as learnacy was called at the time. He saw the school as a centre of social life and culture. He saw inspectors as central to the encouragement of developmental learning.

Within two decades, his dreams were shattered. Inspectors of schools were obliged to test all classes.


Robert Lowe can be blamed for this misuse of quality control. Within a decade of the departure of Kay-Shuttleworth, the occupant of his previous position introduced the infamous “payment by results”, the simplistic notion of testing as an indicator/motivator of learning progress. It was called the Revised Code (1862), a document produced by the Education Department that had statutory force. A law was passed that specified certain standards.

Schools were arranged in age-grades and inspectors tested classes in bulk. The school did not receive a grant for any child who failed. Punishment and fear-of-failure became established as an educational nostrum that has lasted until the present day.

Kay-Shuttleworth and Matthew Arnold were beside themselves with disappointment and angst at such quackery, but were unsuccessful in their reform efforts for many years. They were very lonely. The populace cared little and teachers were demoralised, passive and frightened. The quality of teaching declined seriously as didactic, jug-to-mug, chalk-talk strategies were supported. Outstanding books of the period such as Tom Brown’s Schooldays and Life and Remains of R.H.Quick illustrate the effects of “payment by results”.

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About the Author

Phil Cullen is a teacher. His website is here: Primary Schooling.

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