HC Deb 14 February 1868 vol 190 cc734-42

rose to ask a Question of which he had given notice; and though he put it on going into Supply, he could assure the House that he would not detain them long. It was to ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether, the Education of the People having been referred to in Her Majesty's Speech, it is the intention of the Government to bring forward during this Session any Bill affecting the Elementary Education of the People of England and Wales? The words of Her Majesty would, no doubt, be in the recollection of most Members. They were— The general Question of the Education of the People requires your most serious Attention, and I have no Doubt you will approach the Subject with a full Appreciation both of its vital Importance and of its acknowledged Difficulty. He thought he might state on behalf of the great majority of the House that they felt a deep interest in this important question, and that the only reason why it was not referred to in the debate upon the Address was the feeling that, as Parliament had been called together for an exceptional purpose, it would be hardly fair to ask Her Majesty's Government what their intentions were until the usual time. The right hon. Gentleman indeed had, in the course of his speech on that occasion, volunteered the assertion that that passage in Her Majesty's Speech was not to be regarded as a rhetorical flourish; but that was hardly in accordance with what passed elsewhere on the same occasion. He had been informed that the Prime Minister, in "another place," referring to the passage of the Queen's Speech which he had quoted, used these words— In regard to education in England, it requires much more information than we possess, and I cannot but feel that the time is hardly ripe for coming to a definite conclusion in regard to it."—[3 Hansard, cxc. 49.] On hearing that interpretation put upon the passage by the highest authority, he felt it his duty to ask on the first opportunity what the real intentions of the Government were on the subject? He could not help saying that he ventured most humbly to dissent from the statement of the Prime Minister, notwithstanding his high authority. If it was information merely that was necessary to settle the question they need not wait any longer. They had information. What with Committees and Commissions, information had been abundantly obtained. There had been the Duke of Newcastle's Commission on the subject, and since that time there had been two or three Committees, one of which sat for two Sessions under the presidency of the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for War (Sir John Pakington). Besides, the House from year to year had been in possession of the most complete Reports from the Inspectors who were appointed to examine and report on the state of the different schools, and from the Committee of Council. And, in addition to this official information, they were in possession of a vast mass of un-official information, so that it could not be said they had not information enough to enable them to proceed to legislate. The statement which had been made by the highest authority was made three months ago, which now-a-days was a very long period, events marched so quickly. Nearly three months after that expression of opinion on the part of the Prime Minister a very different statement was made by the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary at a great gathering at Bristol. The Prime Minister had said "the time was hardly ripe for coming to a definite conclusion;" but his noble Relative said he thought "the present time was favourable for the passing of a wise, a large, and a well-considered measure for the education of the people." The noble Lord's exact words were, "I do hope that the next two or three years will not pass away without leaving behind them something not less memorable than the Reform Bill of 1867"—a statement which was received with loud cheers; and he gave a most excellent reason for coming to that conclusion, for he added that "the present time was favourable for the passing of a wise, a large, and a well-considered measure for the education of the people." It was quite true the noble Lord had said he hoped two or three years would not pass away without leaving behind something memorable, but they all knew that this question of education was not one to be finally settled in a day; but if Her Majesty's Government were in possession of "a wise, a large, and a well-considered measure" he hoped they would not keep it back from Parlia- ment. He was not at all surprised that there should have been some change of opinion in the Government. The Home Secretary, following the noble Lord at the same gathering, alluded to the business of this Session, the Reform Bills for Scotland and Ireland, the Boundary Bill, the Bribery Bill, and besides this, there must be some measures for Ireland, but, though he seemed to come to the conclusion reluctantly, he added that it would be necessary to have an Education Bill. The arguments for delay were strong, but there were stronger arguments still for proceeding to action, one of the strongest of which was to be found in the Acts which had been passed last year. In that year they had greatly extended the Factory Acts, and had passed the Workshops Act, measures which seriously affected the question of education. The Chancellor of the Exchequer stated on another occasion that he did not think the country would ever consent to base popular education on compulsion. As regarded direct compulsion the right hon. Gentleman was perhaps correct; but with respect to indirect compulsion, and compulsion of a very strong kind, the House had already consented to it. They had already passed Acts which might be said to base the education of the working children of working men in towns on compulsion, because they had made their labour before the age of thirteen possible only upon condition of a certain amount of education. The right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, having taken that step, that it became doubly incumbent upon Parliament, after having decided that parents should not receive their children's wages, nor employers obtain their labour, unless they attended schools, to see that there should not only be schools, but good schools, to which they could go. Another reason why it was important that something should be done was the way in which the money was voted out of the taxes of the people for educational purposes. There was a great injustice in the present distribution of that money, for many districts received no benefit from it, and what made this the harder was that those districts were the poorest. To meet that difficulty by lowering the qualifications would have no good result, as would be evident to any one who had read the remarks of Sir James Shuttleworth, who had probably studied the education question more than any man in the coun- try. He had shown that the diminution of the qualifications of masters had led to a great disregard of higher teaching, and also to a lowering of the tone of the schools, so that even elementary instruction became less successful. The arguments he had just adduced for immediate action were based on what Parliament had done; but undoubtedly the strongest arguments rested on what Parliament had not done, and he thought there was now a prevalent feeling that it was time for us to change our system, and that the State should take the initiative. That feeling was founded on the fact, which he felt himself compelled to admit, that, notwithstanding all the money which had been voted, half the children of the working population of England were destitute of anything that could properly be called education, the present system giving help, not where it was most wanted, but merely to those who were helped by others. He also agreed with the noble Lord (Lord Stanley) that the present was a favourable time for settling the question, seeing that the present Government were not a whit behind their opponents in the desire or the power to deal with it. The noble Lord, in his Bristol speech, said, and very truly— This is a question on which the Conservative party are not one whit behind their opponents in their desire and in their power to deal with it, for Lord Derby was the founder of the system which, with certain modifications, now existed in Ireland, and my right hon. Friend (Sir John Pakington) long ago took up the question as relating to England, and others have helped according to the measure of their ability. The noble Lord might properly have mentioned himself, for the main principle of the Bill brought in by his right hon. Friend (Mr. Bruce) last year, and on which the right hon. Member for South Lancashire and himself put their names, was borrowed from a Bill brought in by the noble Lord and the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary for War—namely, the principle of a rate in aid. The supporters of that Bill, moreover, were the successors of those who induced the noble Lord and the right hon. Baronet to bring forward the Manchester and Salford Bill in 1852. That principle of rating, which had now gained considerable popularity, was advocated by the right hon. Baronet at a time when it was by no means popular, and he was glad to find by the excellent draft Report which he submitted to the Committee over which he presided, that the right hon. Baronet had not changed his opinion. For these reasons he thought it desirable that the settlement of the question should be undertaken by the present Government. In addition to that, it was possible that a Government led by the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be able in one very important respect to deal with the question better than any Government on that (the Opposition) side of the House, for his Government might very possibly—nay, very probably—carry with them more completely the clergy of the country, for whose past efforts in the cause of education he felt very grateful, and whose continued co-operation he wished to secure, because he could quite understand that they might place greater confidence in a measure introduced by a Conservative Government than in one promoted by the Liberal party. His right hon. Friend (Mr. Bruce) being absent in consequence of a domestic affliction, he hoped the House would allow him to explain the reason's why, besides putting this question to the Government, he had, on his behalf, given notice of the re-introduction of the Bill of last year. Promoters of that measure, of various political and religious opinions, had agreed upon important alterations in it, and it had been thought due to the House and the Government that the Bill in its modified shape should appear on the Votes. The noble Lord, however, having promised a large, wise, and well-considered measure, he could hardly suppose that the Government contemplated a mere tinkering of the Revised Code, and he trusted that their measure would be such as to render it needless to proceed with the Bill of last year. If there ever was a question which was not a party question it was the question of education; and, indeed, he thought party would have to be dispensed with in dealing with most social matters. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had made it not very easy either to oppose or support him as a party Leader; but in this case, there being a general unanimity as to the principle and the object, with great differences of opinion respecting the details and machinery, a free discussion in Committee would be necessary on any Bill, whether brought in by the Government or not, and it would probably require extensive modifications before it was passed. As to the principle, there was, he thought, a general conviction that the old haphazard system could no longer be trusted to, and that the education of the poor must not remain at the mercy of the inability or unwillingness of the parent or the apathy of the neighbours. The position of the question had very much changed since last year, for the very influential party, more powerful in the country than in the House which had been opposed to State interference, now admitted that the facts were too strong for them to struggle against, and were anxious, under certain safeguards for a good system of State education. Those, moreover, who had strongly insisted on a secular system, not from any dislike to religion, but from a belief that education could not be successfully provided by denominational schools, were now mostly in favour of giving aid to the latter, while on the other hand the friends of denominational education no longer objected to grants to secular schools. The agitation, too, against the Conscience Clause was now resuming its proper proportions, for vast numbers of the clergy, and men of very strong opinions, were evidently coming to the conclusion that nothing could be more fatal to the interests of religion than to allow popular education to be delayed by what was called the religious difficulty. Most people, he thought, agreed with the right hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Gathorne Hardy), who, in his speech at Bristol, said the object of the Government should be to bring education home to every child in the country; or, as the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Samuelson) stated, it was the duty of every district to provide the means of elementary education for the children who lived in it. With this concurrence of opinion, however, as to the principle, there were differences as to the extent and the manner in which a district should be rated. Next came the question what aid should be given to the rates out of the taxes of the country, and under what central control it should be administered; or, in other words, how they could best preserve that principle of local self-government, so dear to their traditions, while also maintaining a high standard of efficiency by central supervision. Then there was the very important question whether the schools should be free, or, if not, to what extent they should expect the parents to pay? There was likewise another most important question—namely, how they could best preserve the present voluntary zeal on behalf of education while supplementing it by public assistance, either by taxes or by rates, and in what manner and on what conditions they should help existing schools? Lastly, there was the question, how they could best reconcile the rights of conscience of individual parents with the general desire felt by most parents for the religious education of their children? Those were all of them important points of detail, which would require in their discussion the exercise of that spirit of give and take to which the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary had so well alluded; but they could be better handled in a Bill brought in by the Government. He had, therefore, to ask the right hon. Gentleman in what manner he meant to call upon the House to respond to Her Majesty's expressed wish that the serious attention of the House should be given to that question, and more especially whether the Government intended to introduce a measure relating to it during the present Session? A chief argument in the minds of many for at once tackling the subject of education was the passing of the Reform Bill of last Session. That was not, with him, a reason for immediately settling that question. He had been anxious before to settle it, and he did not know that he was more anxious to do so now. If the Reform Bill was likely to do harm, the harm would be done before their educational measures took effect; and, on the other hand, he believed that the great good of the Reform Bill would be shown before those measures took effect. He admitted, however, that it would be wise, while giving the working classes an increased share of political power, to make a better provision for their education. It might be said that they should wait till the next Parliament before attempting to pass a bold, large, wise, and well - considered measure; but if they wished to pass such a measure now they need not fear that the new and enlarged constituencies would be hostile to it. There was no question on which our working-men were so earnest, on which they felt so strongly that the State ought to act, on which they were more ready to make sacrifices, or on which they were more thoroughly convinced that the honour and welfare of England depended than on that of education. The working-men were a class peculiarly accesible to sentiments of national pride and honour; and he believed that a feeling prevailed among them that this country could not much longer afford to be as uneducated as it was; that, as we must expect other nations, especially on the other side of the Atlantic, to grow greater in population than we were, it was only by adding to the power of the individual, and not by increasing our numbers, that we could hope to hold our own in the world. The working-men believed in the old saying that knowledge was power, and they were fully as anxious as any other class that the power of England should be augmented by the improved education and better culture of its inhabitants.


The Question put by the hon. Gentleman is a very fair and natural question on his part. The subject to which it refers is one which was mentioned in the Queen's Speech, and acknowledged by both sides of the House to be of paramount importance. I am, therefore, not surprised that the hon. Member should make an inquiry as to the course which the Government intend to pursue with regard to it, particularly after the mention of the subject in Her Majesty's most gracious Speech, and knowing as we all do that the hon. Gentleman, much to his honour, has taken a lively interest in this subject. But, although I admit the fairness of the question on his part, and although I am ready to recognize that it was a very natural step for him to take, I confess that I do not so entirely approve the manner in which his inquiry has been made, because he has availed himself of an opportunity which the forms of the House allow to hon. Members to enter into a great deal of argument upon points of magnitude and controversy bearing on the question of national education, and has at some length given the reasons which have induced him to arrive at certain conclusions on the subject. Now, there are two reasons why I cannot follow his example at the present moment. In the first place, I think it is a very inconvenient thing to have a debate upon education on so desultory an occasion as this, which, although convenient in many instances, is hardly adapted to a subject which would require sustained and complete discussion on both sides, and from which the interest of the House might, in a moment, be diverted by another topic being suddenly introduced. That is one ground upon which I feel myself precluded, under any circumstances, from embarking in a lengthened discussion on a matter of such magnitude as that to which the hon. Gentleman now invites our attention. If the question had been brought forward as a Motion, of course Her Majesty's Ministers would not have shrunk from entering into debate, and stating the policy which they think the Government and the House ought to adopt. But the other reason why I hold that it would be extremely inconvenient for the Government at all to enter into discussion now is, that great misapprehension might thereby be occasioned at the outset as to their purposes and views, seeing it is their intention, and has been their intention for a long time, to introduce a measure with respect to the elementary education of the children of the labouring classes in the present Session of Parliament. Therefore, I think the House will agree with me, under these circumstances, that it is with no disrespect to the hon. Gentleman, whose position in regard to this question is generally recognized and does him credit, that on the present occasion I refrain from further trespassing on the attention of the House.

Motion, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," by leave, withdrawn.

Committee deferred till Monday next.