HL Deb 27 November 1837 vol 39 cc208-12
The Bishop of London

rose to present a petition on the subject of National Education, which appeared to him to be of very considerable importance. The petition, which came from the town of Cheltenham, was signed by 5,048 persons, who viewed with considerable alarm an attempt now making to form a system of education, which would be compulsory on the people, and which was to be of a totally secular character. The people at large would, it appeared, under that system, be compelled to partake of an education, of which the word of God would not form any part. It originated with a body which was denominated "The Society for Secular Education," and which had amongst its members a considerable number of ornamental names—of the names of some persons, he believed, who were hardly aware of the principles of the society to which they had lent their names. The great and leading principle was, to establish a system of education wholly and entirely secular, and the rules of which should not permit the introduction of religious culture. That society, though it was not, at present, very numerous, was yet in a state of great activity. He, therefore, felt it to be his duty to take that opportunity to caution the Christian public of this country against the principle on which it proceeded. One of the members of this society (a gentleman of much consideration as a member of the Roman Catholic church, who held a seat in the lower House of Parliament, and who had favoured the public with his ideas generally on education), in conjunction with another individual, a barrister, had recently been promulgating their views, on this particular system of education, in different parts of the country. They had convened a meeting in the important town of Cheltenham, over which a leading gentleman in the county had thought proper to preside. The result of that meeting was a petition to the Legislature on the subject, the amount of signatures, when he last heard of it, being just 124. Now, he would say, that a course of education for the lower orders, from which the word of God was to be wholly excluded, was, on the face of it, most erroneous, and would be most unprofitable. On this meeting being got up the clergy of the neighbourhood lost no time in taking the sense of their fellow-townsmen on the subject. A meeting was called which was most numerously and most respectably attended. The speeches delivered at it were eloquent and effective, and a petition against this new system was agreed to, which was speedily signed by upwards of 5,000 persons. A second petition was also agreed to, which was signed entirely by ladies. As a member of the Established Church, he deemed it to be his imperative duty to lose no time in protesting against the establishment of such a system of education as was alluded to in this petition. A feeling appeared to have gone forth through the country, that it was the intention of her Majesty's Government to introduce some measure of this kind. He should think that this was not possible, after the course pursued by Ministers some sessions ago. They then adopted a wise measure, by granting a sum of money for the furtherance of education, and leaving its application to those friends of education who conceived that religious instruction should form a principal part, or rather the basis of all education. This was wise, instead of attempting to interfere in a compulsory manner, and to enforce a system which he was well convinced the people of this country would never obey. The noble and learned Lord on his right (Lord Brougham) entertained, he knew, strong opinions on the subject of education, but he was not aware that the noble and learned Lord had ever advocated the total exclusion of religion from the system of education that ought to be adopted in this country. If such a measure were proposed, he, in common with the petitioners, called on their Lordships not to agree to the adoption of that mischievous sort of education, from which the word of God was excluded. As the petition was short, he would trespass on their Lordships by moving, that it be read at length. In laying it before the House, he would express his confident belief that the Christian people of this country were determined not to allow such an alteration in the system of education as would reject all religious instruction.

The petition was read.

Lord De Saumarez

said, he gave to the petition which had just been read his most unfeigned support; for he thought that it was a mockery to call that a system of national education which was not founded on the word of God, and was not raised on the basis of Christianity. He hoped that any such system would meet with their Lordships' decided opposition.

Lord Brougham

had not had the advantage of hearing all the observations of the right rev. Prelate on presenting this petition, as he had only entered the House shortly before the clerk commenced reading it. He should, therefore, abstain from making any observations on the merits of the petition. He would, however, state in answer to one part of the observations of the right rev. Prelate, that he did not believe, either on the part of her Majesty's Government, or on the part of any other association of men—be they in office or out of office—be they incorporated or unincorporated—or on the part of any individual who had education at heart, and was impressed with a sense of its paramount importance to this country, there could exist any intention of promoting any legislative measure, either for the purpose of making the education of the people compulsory on the people (God forbid! unless it intended to make education hateful to the people), or any system of national education which should exclude religious instruction altogether. He had not heard of any such design in any quarter. This, however, was only his belief—in his opinion, a correct one—with respect to one party. But he could speak of his own knowledge of another party to whom the right rev. Prelate had courteously alluded—he meant himself, and certainly he would steer wide and clear indeed from coming within the scope of the right rev. Prelate's observations. The Bill which he had formerly laid before their Lordships on the subject of education he should again submit to them soon after the recess Having made these observations, he should further state, lest he might commit himself on another point, that if he were clearly of opinion that no com- pulsion should be used towards the persons to whom education was to be proposed, he was equally of opinion that there ought to be the most careful rejection and exclusion of any principle in a measure for education that was calculated to give either to the Established Church, or to any one sect, any preference, preponderance, dominion, authority, or power whatever, exclusively paramount over the education of the people of this kingdom. He now had to present to their Lordships a petition, intimately connected with this subject, from the great and important town of Sheffield. It was signed by between 11,000 and 12,000 persons, and the "Master Cutler" presided at the meeting at which it was agreed to. The prayer of the petition, called for the adoption of such a system of education as would elevate the moral character of the people. He presented this petition, in the absence of a noble Duke who was intimately connected with Sheffield, but who had been obliged to leave town on private and urgent business, and before the petition could be placed in such a shape as would allow it to be presented.

The Bishop of London

said, that as the noble and learned Lord seemed to be of opinion that there did not exist any body of men in this country who would make a system of national education compulsory on the people, he would read an extract from the proceedings of the Central Society of Education, from which it appeared that that body was favourable to such a system. The right rev. Prelate read an extract, in which, as we understood, the German system of compulsory education was commended.

Lord Brougham

said, the words which the right rev. Prelate had read must have found their way by some accident into any document emanating from the Central Society of Education. He did not believe that the conduct of the German princes would be recommended for imitation in this country, with reference to education, by the Central Society. He was not a member of it; but for many of its members he felt great esteem. His friend, the Member for Waterford (Mr. Wise), was the vice-president of the society, and he did not believe that it was the opinion of that body that it would be possible if desirable, or desirable if possible, to establish a system of compulsory education in this country.

The Earl of Winchilsea

said, that that House was much obliged to the right rev. Prelate for bringing this subject under the consideration of their Lordships. Not only was that House obliged to the right rev. Prelate, but many individuals who had lent their names to this society ought to feel equally indebted to him for directing their attention to the object which those individuals evidently had in view. If they attended to the proceedings which occurred at these meetings, no doubt could remain on the mind of any reasonable man, that the object was, to establish a system of secular education, from which all religious instruction should be carefully excluded. He was perfectly convinced that such a system never could be, and never would be, maintained in this Christian country. And he was sure, that if one thing more than another demanded active exertion on the part of that House, it was to uphold that system of education which had been so long and so wisely adopted in this kingdom, and which was based on the great principle that religion should be the foundation of all education. He was one of those who thought, that without religion, all education would prove perfectly useless, if not worse than useless. He should only state further, that when this great question came before the House, in the shape of a proposition for framing a system of education for the lower orders of this country, he should boldly contend that the first duty which they owed to the people as Christians was, to take care that no system of education should be established in which the great truths of Christianity were not prominently put forward. The individuals who had joined this society clearly owed it to themselves to ascertain whether that which had been stated by the right rev. Prelate was or was not founded in fact; and if they discovered that the right rev. Prelate's statement was correct, then they ought to withdraw their countenance from this society.

Petition laid on the table.

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