HC Deb 02 June 1856 vol 142 cc885-96

Order read, for resuming Adjourned Debate on Question [25th April], "That the Bill be now read a second time."

Question again proposed.

Debate resumed.


said, the people of Scotland felt great interest in the Bill. Last year he felt himself compelled to join in opposition against the Bill which the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate then introduced, because the right hon. and learned Lord proposed to do away with a time-honoured system in Scotland, which had for centuries fostered education and been a blessing to that country. But the present Bill was of a different nature, and he wished to state his reasons why he should no longer oppose the Bill, but why, on the contrary, he was ready to offer his support to the right hon. and learned Lord in carrying it into law. The present Bill did not propose to alter the existing system, although it would certainly introduce many startling changes if adopted in its present form, and some of which he certainly did not think it was expedient to introduce. The opposition which had been raised against the Bill appeared to him to be founded on a total misapprehension of the real object of it. It was supposed that the Bill would effect a severance of the schools from the Church of Scotland. He agreed with the petitioners, who opposed that Bill on that ground, that such a severance would be productive of the worst possible effects; but he did not conceive that any severance of the schools from the Church would be effected by the Bill. It was his opinion that the right hon. and learned Lord had no wish to sever the schools from the Church; that question, thereforee, was no longer a matter of argument. Had that been the object of the Bill he should have continued to have given it his most strenuous opposition, because he could not conceive that a pure religious education in the schools could be insured except by a connection of those schools with the Church. One great change in the Bill, and that which had excited considerable difference of opinion in the Church of Scotland, was the proposed abolition of the test of the schoolmaster which the Church of Scotland had hitherto required. He had always felt that the obligation that the schoolmasters appointed to the national schools should belong to the Church of Scotland was unjust in principle and oppressive in practice. Considering how many men of piety and intelligence there were in Scotland professing the same doctrines virtually as those of the Established Church, it was, in his opinion, un- just to say that they were unfit to be teachers in the schools simply because they differed from the establishment in some unimportant part of Church discipline. Any law which operated to exclude them from such an office was unjust and uncalled for at any time, and assuredly more particularly so at the present day. The religious feeling in Scotland was as strong as ever; he therefore did not believe that in seeking to share in the management of the schools the large Dissenting bodies in Scotland had any wish to do away with the religious character of those schools. If it were possible to abolish the obnoxious test of adherence to the Established Church, without giving up the religious character of the teaching in schools, he conceived it to be most desirable. At present, he might safely say that the teaching in the schools was not in the slightest degree of a sectarian tendency. He had found in his district one-third of the school children belonged to various sects of Protestant Dissenters, and a considerable proportion were Roman Catholics, and yet there had not been a single complaint against the doctrines taught. It had been said that all change should be opposed, because some Dissenters had declared that, having obtained one advantage over the Established Church, still more would be required; but he hoped the House would not be guided by hasty expressions from any source. He hoped rather that the Established Church would, by timely concession, obviate the necessity of future changes more sweeping and, possibly, more dangerous. Another feature in the Bill was the appointment of Government inspectors, and he thought experience was in favour of that enactment. When it became necessary to inquire into the character of schoolmasters, it was a great advantage to have a man to conduct the inquiry who would not be bound by any petty local feelings. He would, however, wish to put it to the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate whether, having no desire to interfere with the religious character of the schools, it would not be as well that that desire should appear upon the face of the Bill, in order to refute any opposition from those who opposed changes upon that ground; and if that were done it would have a great tendency, he apprehended, to diminish the opposition to the Bill. In the clause by which private prosecutions against schoolmasters were to take place at the instance of the heritors only, if an alteration were made to allow prosecutions at the instance of individual heritors or of the minister, he thought there would be a sufficient security that Roman Catholics or Dissenters could not override the feelings of the clergy or the people by subverting the minds of those placed under their care. There should be some enactment that schoolmasters must be of some Christian denomination, and, as the Westminster Confession of Faith was ackowledged alike by the United Presbyterians, the Free Church, and the Established Church, he thought that might safely be made a test. If those concessions were made, he believed they would disarm much opposition from that side of the House. He would also beg to remind his Friends, from whom upon this occasion he might in some degree differ, that it was most essential that the question should be settled during the present year, and he would put it to them whether, if they could make concessions not inconsistent with their principles and at the same time retaining the religious character of the schools, it would not be advisable to yield some points in order to settle this muchvexed question?


said, it seemed to him that the argument of his hon. Friend (Sir J. Fergusson) ought to have led him to a conclusion directly opposite to that at which he had arrived.


Not a test requiring adhesion to the Established Church, but only of the religious character of the schoolmaster.


His hon. Friend would destroy one species of test, but would establish another in its stead. Now, he (Mr. C. Bruce) could see no reasonable objection to that provision in the present system under which the schoolmasters were required, as they had been, required for 200 years, to be in communion with the Established Church. He was one who entertained serious objections on principle to the clauses of the Bill; but supposing they were to throw out the Bill on the second reading, they would not settle the question, which might be brought forward again on a succeeding night. It was, therefore, not his intention to divide the House, although he should undoubtedly say "no" to the second reading. Unless his right hon. and learned Friend should expunge the objectionable clauses, he should, when the House went into Committee on the Bill, move that it go into Committee that day six months. His right hon. and learned Friend who introduced the measure had declared that he was willing to make every concession which he could, preserving at the same time the principle of the Bill; but those concessions were rendered of no value by retaining the obnoxious provisions to which he (Mr. Bruce) objected. The 9th clause seemed to him to aim at the entire separation of the long connection which had existed between the parish schools and the Established Church. He could not, therefore, consent to that clause. No doubt his right hon. and learned Friend would deny that his object was to abolish religious in favour of secular education, yet that was a natural consequence which would result from the measure. He thought that the opponents of the Bill were entitled to much greater concessions than had been made by his right hon. and learned Friend, especially after the previous decisions of the House last year and the year before. In the House of Lords, which was not to be put out of consideration entirely, it was rejected at once; so that they had a right to expect very material concessions, and especially a guarantee of the continuance of the intimate connection between the Church and the schools. Not to concede that was to "keep the word of promise to the ear, and break it to the sense." The hon. Member for Edinburgh (Mr. Black) had professed himself not only perfectly satisfied with the Bill, but avowed his intention to support it. That hon. Gentleman was held in high consideration both by that House and by his constituents, and, therefore, his observations were entitled to great weight. He had advised them to accept this measure as an instalment, and had referred to the High School of Edinburgh, and cited it as a proof that the constitution of parochial schools in Scotland was not one necessary to maintain; because that school had eight masters of different denominations, and yet it enjoyed a large amount of popularity. But the hon. Gentleman had forgotten to state that that school was purely a grammar school, devoted to secular teaching, and providing for the education of the children of the middle rather than of the poorer classes. Edinburgh, indeed, had many advantages in respect of religious teaching which country parishes in Scotland did not enjoy. The hon. Gentleman also said that the existing constitution of the parochial schools was opposed to the spirit of the age. He really was at a loss to know what was meant by such an argument, because the spirit of the age was a very volatile spirit, and very different in different countries. The spirit of the age delighted in putting down all old institutions, however they might venerate them. The House of Common, however, he trusted would respect existing institutions, while at the same time it desired to promote social progress and the advancement of truth. Among the institutions of the country, he believed that it respected none more than the Established Church, whether of England or Scotland. Now, the noble Lord at the head of the Government was said to be an incarnation of the spirit of the age; and the House could not have forgotten the eloquent and statesmanlike declaration of that noble Lord the other night in favour of the Established Church in Ireland. In his (Mr. Bruce's) opinion this measure of the right hon. and learned Lord would, if passed as it at present stood, be a heavy blow and great discouragement to the Established Church in Scotland; and the more they inquired into that Establishment, as respected its relation not only with schools but other institutions, the more they would have reason to rejoice that it had so faithfully performed its legitimate functions. He believed that no useful or satisfactory school superintendence could be exercised by the ministers of one denomination over the children of another. There were, undoubtedly, parts of the Bill of which he approved; but without a distinct assurance that the 9th clause would be given up, he should certainly oppose the measure in Committee, for if it passed as it was it would destroy that valuable connection of which he had spoken, and would introduce disunion and heart-burnings into every parish in Scotland, and sound teaching in its schools would become impossible.


said, he felt called upon to vindicate himself after what had been said by the hon. Member for Elginshire, who had last addressed them, and he would say that if the hon. Gentleman was not more accurate in his arguments than in his report of what he (Mr. Black) had said relating to the High School, in Edinburgh, they would be entirely groundless. In that school the Bible was regularly read, and a desire was manifested that the instruction which was given should be of a religious character. It was not correct, then, to say that secular instruction alone was given in that school. Every master in the High School of Edinburgh desired his class to be a large one, and they knew too well that the people of Scotland wished their children to have religious instruction not to supply this want. The petitions against the Bill came from two sources—one from the Established Church, and another from the Commissioners of Supply. There were about 1,000 parishes in Scotland, and these met in a collective capacity—first, as presbyteries, then as synods, and, lastly, as the General Assembly. Then the General Assembly had its Commission. No sooner did any question arise affecting the Church than the Commission or the General Assembly gave the word, and every parish minister must then set about getting up petitions. This body had a monopoly of the schools at present; and no corporation, especially an ecclesiastical one, gave up a monopoly without some resistance. He willingly admitted that the Commissioners of Supply were very estimable gentlemen; but they had not exhibited much statesmanship. They had opposed the repeal of the corn laws, the repeal of the Test Acts, and other liberal measures, and they did not appear to exhibit more liberal feelings in these case of the parochial schools. They appeared to consider it their duty to support every thing which was antique, so that Dr. Chalmers once said, "There are two things in nature which never change—the fixed stars and the Scotch lairds." No public meetings of any consequence had been held against the Bill, and he trusted that if the Bill passed, the heritors of the Church would not stop in the march of improvement, but would proceed so as to relieve themselves of the present incubus. What showed the real opinion of Scotland in the strongest manner with regard to this Bill was the meeting of the Convention of Royal Burghs, which was the remains of the Scotch Parliament. At the last annual meeting of that body, held in Edinburgh, a Motion was submitted approving of the general principle of this Bill. To that Motion an Amendment was proposed, demanding the insertion of a clause providing that the schoolmaster, on induction, should be bound to subscribe the Confession of Faith, as by law established. The numbers were—for the Motion, and in favour of the removal of tests, thirty; for the Amendment, only nine. It was quite absurd to say that there was no "test," for a book of 500 pages had to be subscribed, the tenets of which those who subscribed promised to adhere to all the days of their lives; but he believed that but a very small proportion of schoolmasters had read this book. Such a system of tests would deprive the country of the services of great men. By this Bill the minister would retain the same power that he held before. It was a mistake to suppose that the minister and the presbytery laid down what was to be taught in the schools. That power was really exercised by the heritors. The presbytery was merely a examining body. The heritors selected the schoolmaster. The presbytery retained a veto to dismiss an immoral man; but, practically, all questions affecting a man's morals were settled in the Court of Session. The great guarantee that religion would be taught in these schools was to be found in the religious character of the people. Besides the High Schools of Edinburgh, there were schools teaching 3,000 scholars; but when these schools were founded it never entered into the imagination of the ministry to require religious tests in the schoolmasters.


said, the boroughs whose representatives had expressed an opinion in favour of the Bill were without parochial schools, and he thought they would do well to attend to their own affairs, and leave the country parishes alone. The first six clauses of the Bill, the object of which was to provide larger salaries and better dwelling-houses for the schoolmasters, were unobjectionable; but he objected to the rest of the Bill, because it would, in his opinion, have the effect of depriving the Church of the superintendence of the schools. There was no objection, on the part of the people of Scotland, to provide funds necessary for those purposes. The remaining clauses of the Bill entirely related to the question of religious teaching. At present the presbytery exercised a controlling power with respect to religious teaching; but the provisions of the Bill of the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate would take that power away. The practical action of the ninth clause would be to take away the test altogether; and many of the other clauses of the Bill tended to sever the schools from the Church, and turn them into secular schools, somewhat after the fashion of the Resolutions of the noble Lord the Member for London (Lord John Russell), which had been so unanimously rejected by that House. Another matter to which he wished to call attention was with reference to the appointment of in- spectors. By the fourteenth clause of the Bill, power was given to divide Scotland into districts, and appoint inspectors to superintend them. Now, that was a provision introduced into the Resolutions of the noble Lord the Member for London, but it had been unanimously objected to. In England, grants of money were advanced through the Committee of Privy Council. Nevertheless, no such power was exercised in this country as was proposed by the present Bill to be put in practice in Scotland. He should like to know why it was attempted to exercise a power in Scotland which had been unanimously rejected as regarded England? Although he had so many objections to the Bill, he did not intend to divide against it at that stage. However, it was but fair to give notice that unless the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate previously placed on the table such Amendments as would meet many of the objections urged that evening, he should deem it his duty to offer even opposition to the Bill going into Committee.


said, he had serious objections to the Bill. It was his belief that the schools of Scotland were at present in a more efficient state than they had ever before been, both as to the qualification of the teachers and the number of the schools. He would have no hesitation in inviting the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate to go with him into any district in the south of Scotland, and if he found any young person of the age of fifteen, and of sound mind, who could not write or read, he would give up his opposition to the measure altogether. To the inspection of the inspectors proposed by the Bill he also objected—their supervision, in his opinion, could never be as effectual as that exercised by the clergyman of the parish—and he would advocate the selection of the best schoolmasters without the regulation for their being of the Established Church being so stringently enforced—a declaration, he thought, to the effect that they were protestants, and would never teach anything contrary to the truths of the Bible, would be quite sufficient.


said, he desired to express his concurrence in the general objects of the Bill, but, with respect to the appointment of others besides members of the Church of Scotland as schoolmasters, he was bound to say that he thought the Bill went a great deal too far. It was his earnest conviction that the Legislature was bound by the Act of security, passed at the time of the union of the two countries, to maintain the Presbyterian religion in Scotland. The required subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith was the assertion of that principle, and the abolition of the subscription was the abolition of the obligation that the schoolmaster should be Presbyterian, and that his teaching should be Presbyterian. He could as yet discern nothing in the religious circumstances of Scotland to justify such a change in the character of Scotch schools. The people of Scotland were at the present day as thoroughly Presbyterian as at the time of the Union. They had the same antipathy not only to papacy but to prelacy; and that antipathy had increased by circumstances which had lately occurred in the Episcopal Church of England. No doubt, the Presbyterians were no longer united, and that was a reason I why the test should be altered so as to adapt it to the present circumstances of Presbyterianism in Scotland, and such a change he considered might be made in complete harmony with the Act of Union; but that was no reason why the Presbyterian character of the schools should be swept away entirely. He therefore trusted that alterations would be made in the Bill to meet the objections he had stated.


said, as he was given to understand that there was to be no division on this stage of the Bill, he hoped he might be allowed shortly to explain its objects. His desire in introducing the Bill was to place the schoolmasters, at the expiration of the present Act, in a proper and decent position with respect to remuneration, and at the same time to do away with the exclusion which prevented a man, however orthodox his belief might be, from being a schoolmaster, unless he was a member of the Established Church of Scotland. He had been complimented by hon. Members on the improvement of the present Bill compared with former propositions, but he could not accept the compliment, as he did not think the present Bill so efficient; but it was not necessary or right to go on year after year in contention if there appeared to be any mode of settling differences. Accordingly, having made up his mind to leave the parish schoolmasters as they stood, with only such modifications of their position as seemed necessary, he proposed the present Bill. He did not, however, call the Bill a measure of education for Scotland, but only a step towards it—a necessary step undoubtedly, because when the present Bill was passed then all parties might unite in ulterior measures for the education of the people of Scotland. Along with the increase of salaries and house accommodation he proposed to abolish the test. With respect to the abolition of the test, there were two views held—one, that the test was a security for the teacher being a member of the Established Church of Scotland; and the other, that it secured the religious character of the teacher. He would put it to the House whether that test was an efficient one for those purposes? Hon. Gentlemen seemed to forget that the Test and Corporation Act had been repealed. Nevertheless, he believed there was more real religion in the corporations of Scotland than in any others. The university test had been abolished in the same way, and he believed no Scotchman would wish to see it reimposed. This test he therefore proposed to abolish, as applied to schoolmasters. It was a mistake, however, to suppose that there was no test left in the Bill for the schoolmasters. He did not suppose that the present was the best constitution for the schools that could be instituted, but nevertheless he felt a certain amount of respect for ancient institutions, and thought that the powers proposed by the Bill were justly left in the hands of the Presbyterian ministers. An hon. Gentleman had said that the seventh clause of the Bill took from the Presbyteries the right of initiating proceedings. That was true, because the power they possessed was the power of acting both as prosecutors and judges—a combination of functions which was admitted on all hands to be vicious. He should be inclined, however, to give the power of complaint to any three heads of families. It had been said that the eleventh clause took away all power of examination from the Presbytery; but the clause had no such sweeping operation, for it was expressly limited to such schoolmasters as were not of the Established Church, and it left the right of examination just as it was in every other case. If hon. Gentlemen opposite would be content with that security for religious teaching which was provided in the Bill, by leaving the appointment of the schoolmasters and the jurisdiction over them in the hands where they were now placed, the Bill might pass, but he should be very loath to consent to anything in the shape of a test or a profession.


said, the right hon. and learned Lord had not explained how the Presbytery were to take cognizance of any difficulties which might arise in respect to religious teaching. Either there ought to be a test, as a criterion by which the Presbytery might go, or there ought to be a recognition that the Presbytery was to be the judge of what teaching was orthodox and what not.


said, he wished to ask in what way the jurisdiction of the Presbytery was to be preserved? He believed that the last clause was the most general one he had ever seen introduced into any Act of Parliament. The Bill was, in his opinion, most imperfectly drawn, and he was by no means satisfied with the way it was interpreted by the rubrical or marginal notes. He hoped that the right hon. and learned Lord would place upon the notice paper such Amendments as would render the measure more acceptable to the feelings of the people of Scotland. He also hoped that ample time would be given to the House to consider those Amendments before they went into Committee.


said, that it would be very satisfactory to the people of Scotland if the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate would, before the Bill passed its next stage, introduce into it some provision securing that the teachers appointed to the schools in that country should be Protestants.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill read 2°.

On the Motion that it should be committed on Thursday,


said, he would beg to ask the right hon. and learned Lord Advocate when he would lay upon the table the clauses which he had shadowed forth in his speech?


said, that, instead of the Bill being imperfectly drawn as had been asserted by the hon. Member for Berwickshire (Mr. F. Scott), he thought it had been imperfectly read. He would do his best to make himself master of the difficulties which had arisen, and if they appeared to be real he would frame clauses to remove them. If he found it necessary to introduce new clauses he would give ample notice of them.


said, that these last expressions of the right hon. and learned Lord had inspired him (Mr. Scott) with much distrust of his intentions.

Bill committed for Thursday.