HL Deb 22 March 1850 vol 109 cc1238-47

said*: My Lords, I can sincerely say that it has not been without some hesitation that I have determined thus early to call the attention of the House to the important subject of education in Scotland. That hesitation, however, has had reference to one circumstance alone. I allude to the fact that notice has been given by a noble Lord in another place of his intention to introduce a Bill upon the subject. I am anxious, therefore, at once to explain that, except in so far as some general principles are concerned, to which I shall feel it my duty to refer, it is very far from my intention to anticipate even my own opinion—far less the opinion of this House—in respect to any measure which may come before us.

The subject of national education is, in Scotland as well as elsewhere, beset with many difficulties. But there is one circumstance peculiar to that country, with reference to which the whole of those difficulties must be viewed, and according to the view we take of which they may be either diminished or increased. The circumstance I allude to is this—that in Scotland there is, and has long been, a system of education, national in its origin and object, and, to a great extent at least, national in its character and effect. A party has been formed in Scotland, composed of somewhat heterogeneous materials, who appear to think that the first step to be taken is to upset this system altogether, and to substitute some other in its stead. What that other system is to be has not been so distinctly stated; and I suspect that the suffrages which are united in pulling down, would be by no means equally united in building up. Now, my Lords, the petitions which I have the honour to lay on the table of the House do not pray that your Lordships will take no steps to extend education in Scotland—they do not pray that you will take no steps to improve the education already existing. They pray only that this House will agree to no measure involving any radical or fundamental change in the constitution of those schools which by law are placed in connexion with the Established Church; and to this point it is my intention strictly to confine the observations I shall have the honour of addressing to the House.

My Lords, the parochial system of Scotland, considered merely as an institution of the law, is of no very ancient date; although a date with which we connect not a few of the institutions which we value most—I mean the period immediately succeeding the Revolution. But to understand the real character of this system, we must go much further back. It was at the first establishment of the Reformation in Scotland that the parochial system was first planned, and submitted by the Reformers for the adoption of the State; and, although it was not then adopted by Parliament, but was left to the unaided exertions and authority of the Church, yet to a large extent it was carried by these into practical effect; and the subsequent statutes enforcing this system can only be considered as giving the sanction of law to a system which had been first conceived and already carried into effect by the Church itself. I shall not detain the House by dwelling on the advantages which this system has conferred on Scotland. Your Lordships have all at least a general impression that hitherto, at least, that country has been somewhat before others in the moral and intellectual cultivation of its people; and you have all a further impression that this result has not been unconnected with the parochial schools. But I am perfectly willing to allow that this system must now be considered mainly with reference to two great changes of circumstances—the increase of population and the progress of dissent.

Your Lordships are of course aware that at various periods in the history of the Church of Scotland, sections have split off from her communion and formed independent bodies. I do not stop to inquire what the causes of these divisions have been; but I am anxious to direct your attention to one peculiarity which belongs to them. The differences between the Established Church and those bodies which have separated most widely from her, are not only less, but are as nothing to the differences which exist between the members of the same body, included in the wide embrace of the Church of England. Not only do these differences not refer to matters of doctrine, but not even, for the most part, to matters of discipline. They have reference chiefly to the lawfulness of the connexion, and the degree of connexion lawful between Church and State. Now, my Lords, mark the consequences of this fact on the question of education. When the Dissenters of Scotland send their children to the parochial schools, they find there precisely the same religious teaching—the same Catechisms and forms of faith which they themselves approve of, and on which in their own schools they would conduct the religious education of their children. The consequence has been, that the children of all sects have freely attended the parish schools, and I have evidence before me (with which I shall not trouble the House, though it is evidence taken before a Committee of this House) showing that on all hands it has been freely acknowledged that Dissenters find in the parish schools no other teaching than that of which they themselves approve; and that no attempt has ever been made, as indeed none such is possible, to influence the minds of their children on those more abstruse and difficult points on which alone they (for the most part) differ from the Established Church. But I should omit a circumstance materially illustrative of the large and liberal spirit in which those schools have been conducted, were I not to mention the cases in which the Church has been called upon to deal with the children of a very different communion. Your Lordships are, of course, aware that there are several districts in Scotland, chiefly in the Highlands and Islands, in which a large Roman Catholic element exists; and in these districts the General Assembly laid down a rule with reference to their own schools, which are still more entirely than the parish schools under the control of the Established Church, that the children of the Roman Catholics were to be freely admitted to the benefit of the general education given in the schools, without insisting on their receiving any religious instruction to which their parents or priests might object.

Such being the position of the parochial schools with reference to Protestant dissent, and such being the large and liberal spirit in which the system is conducted with reference to those even who differ most wisely from the Established Church, I needly hardly explain to the House that the agitation which has been raised of late for the overthrow of the parochial system, is one which is founded in the main—I do not wish to use any irritating or offensive expression—on those feelings which all Dissenters bear to all Established Churches, especially to those which they have lately left, and from which they differ least. Of course, however, such are not the grounds on which the movement must ostensibly rest: other grounds have undoubtedly been put forward. One argument I have heard used is this—being in fact the same argument which has been always used against Established Churches—that what is supported by all should be open to all. I have but one objection to make to this argument; at least one only with which I shall now trouble the House—that it involves two misstatements of fact. First, it is not true that the parochial schools are supported by all—they are supported by endowments raised exclusively from the proprietors of land; and, secondly, they are already open to all. I do not, indeed, contend, that the endowment either of Established Churches or of established schools are independent of the Houses of Parliament; but I never can allow that they stand precisely on the same footing as the grants made out of the public Treasury under the ordinary votes of the Legislature.

Well, but, my Lords, I have heard another argument put forward. The party of purely secular educationists, or those who wish to separate entirely religious from secular education, are, I believe, a very small party in Scotland. But an intermediate ground has been taken by those who seek only to overthrow the connexion between the parochial schools and the Established Church; and it is characteristic of the tendencies of the Scotch people that this ground has taken the form of a dogmatic affirmation, as if, on a point of abstract principle, that there is no legitimate connexion between Church and School—that the "schoolmaster (for so it has been expressed) has no locus standi on the Word of God." I shall certainly not detain the House by any argument on this point. I am glad, however, of this opportunity of declaring my distinct conviction, that of all the duties incumbent on the Church of Christ, in all the branches into which it may be divided, one of the first and most sacred of all is that of seeing to the religious instruction of the young. And, my Lords, I never can admit that the rights of parents are incompatible with this duty on the part of Churches. The one has been ingeniously pitted against the other in a recent manifesto put forth in Scotland. A strong assertion of the rights of parents is made to cover the attack on the connexion between Church and School. My Lords, no one would be more determined than I would be to uphold the most absolute liberty of conscience on the part of all, and, as involved in this, the undoubted rights of parents in respect to the religious instruction of their children. And if I am asked how I would reconcile the rights of parents with the duties of Churches, I should point to the parochial schools of Scotland, as I have already explained their operation to the House. Under that system, religious instruction, according to certain known and definite forms, is made a part of the education offered; and the onus of objecting to that instruction is thrown upon the parent. His objection, if stated, is respected—as it ought to be. But your Lordships will observe the enormous difference between giving no religious instruction except such as parents may demand, and forbearing to give any religious instruction to which the parents may take it on themselves to object. In the latter case you have some security—not merely that the objection is bonâ fide a conscien- tious one—but also that religious instruction, though withheld in the form in which it is offered, will really be given in some other form consistent with the parent's faith. But only imagine, my Lords, how the other system would work in those districts where education is most required. Take the manufacturing, mining, or other destitute districts of Scotland, where the parents, neglected themselves, are of course neglecting the religious education of their children. Would it be right to give to those children no other religious instruction than that which their parents might supply? Can you, consistently with your duty, under such circumstances, leave the work of communicating religious instruction exclusively to parents?

But, supposing that Parliament were to overthrow the parochial system of Scotland in its distinctive features, on the ground that schools ought not be connected with Churches, the object in view would not be effected. You would have interfered with this connexion in a case where you know it is characterised by no intolerance of spirit, but conducted in a spirit of the greatest liberality, and you would leave untouched the same connexion in respect to all the Dissenting Church-schools: where at least you have no similar security against a proselytising and sectarian spirit. And be it observed that the demand against the schools in connexion with the Established Church is urged by men who have set up schools in jealous connexion with their own ecclesiastical body, and the constitution of which you have publicly authorised and sanctioned. I hold in my hand the model deed of the Free Church Schools, to which the noble Marquess opposite (Lansdowne) has given his assent, as President of the Council. Under this deed, the constitution of the schools is, as I have said, jealously ecclesiastical—the masters are dismissable at the absolute will and pleasure of the Free Church ecclesiastical courts, and the most stringent provisions are introduced to maintain a close and perpetual connexion between that ecclesiastical body and its schools. I am bound to inform the House, that, though thus strictly ecclesiastical in organisation and control, those schools are represented by the Free Church as being entirely unsectarian in spirit, and open to the children of all. But supposing this to be universally true, those schools can but aspire to the character in this respect which you know to belong to the parochial schools in connexion with the Established Church.

I come now to the last argument against the parochial schools with which I shall trouble the House upon this occasion. It is said that they are inadequate to the extent of population. My Lords, I at once admit the fact of inadequacy. But what do I hear urged in the next breath by certain of the agitators against the parish schools? That the Established Church is engrossing the whole education of the country—and that two-thirds of the people cannot consent to be educated by the Church of one-third? My Lords, passing by the question of amount, these two arguments cannot stand together. The facts on which the first is founded I admit; the second is a mere expression of party feeling. It is perfectly true that the parochial schools are inadequate. But what does this prove? Not that schools already existing, and so far as they go working well, must have their constitution overthrown; but that there is room enough on unoccupied fields on which any new system may well be tried. You know, my Lords, the difficulties which stand in the way of any national system being devised which shall satisfy the feelings of the country by combining religious and secular education, and satisfy also sectarian jealousies by the absence of any particular ecclesiastical connexion. You know, my Lords, that in England it has been as yet found impossible to frame any national system of education, except by aiding the exertions of individual Churches. I am far from denying that that peculiar circumstance in the character of Scotch dissent to which I have before referred—the substantial agreement of a great majority of the people in all matters of doctrinal faith—I am far from denying that this circumstance does hold out a hope that such a system might more easily be applied in Scotland than elsewhere. But you know that it would be an experiment made on most difficult ground. And none know this better than some who are now leading the attack on the parish schools. One of the Free Church leaders in the agitation, when referring to the objection that the same argument which would disunite Church and School, as regarded the Establishment, would go to disunite them also as regarded the Free Church, at once declared that it formed no part of his intention to abandon their own scheme until they should see how any new system might work. I advise your Lordships to adopt a similar prudential course. It may be very natural for the Dissenting Churches to desire this experiment should be tried first on the schools which belong by their constitution to the Established Church. But it will be equally natural, I think, for those who are not impelled by the same feelings to make this old institution of the country the last rather than the first object on which experiments should be tried. For my own part, I can sincerely say that I have no feeling which would prevent me from co-operating with the Free and other Dissenting Churches in extending the means of education over the wide fields which lie unoccupied. The British and Foreign School Society, formed upon the basis of uniting different Churches (within a certain limit) in the cause of education, has, I believe, had the most beneficial effect in England. Scotland offers a most favourable field for such an organisation. But whether on this or any other plan, it may be found possible to unite all parties in the cause of education, I do feel much disposed to agree with the prayer of these petitions that your Lordships will be very careful how you make any radical or fundamental change in the constitution of the parochial schools: and the more inadequate they are in point of numbers to the wants of the population, the more evident is is that, even if less liberally conducted than they are, the Established Church possesses in them no inordinate influence over the education of the country; and the more evident also is it that our first efforts ought to be directed to the vast fields which He unoccupied, rather than to effecting radical change in an institution of such a character as the Parochial Schools. I cannot despair, my Lords, of uniting, at least in some degree, the various Churches in Scotland in more legitimate endeavours when I look at such publications as that which I now hold in my hand—a pamphlet by an able and excellent minister of the Free Church, Dr. Buchanan of Glasgow. When I find such men pointing to such facts as this—that 187,000l. a year are spent in Glasgow on pauperism and the detection and punishment of crime, as against 35,000l. a year spent on all the churches and schools put together—when, I say, I find such men directing their attention to such facts, and calling on the various churches to unite in meeting social evils of such enormous magnitude, I cannot despair of the call being responded to, and some effort of a national character being made in the cause of education.

My Lords, it has not been ray object to enter into any details, but merely to put the House in possession of some of the main bearings of the question of National Education in Scotland. I have avoided many points of importance on which I shall be prepared to speak when a fitter opportunity occurs.


thanked the noble Duke for his able and lucid statement. He had himself had occasion to be officially in communication with the representatives of the Scottish parochial schools, and to have heard much of them. And although he was far from saying that they were in a perfect state, or sufficiently developed to meet the wants of the country, still he should much regret seeing any system of education attempted or adopted in Scotland the basis of which should not be founded on the principles of the parochial schools—schools which had been the means of founding in Scotland that great national pre-eminence in education which, for a long time, that country had held in the eyes of the world. Entertaining these views, however, he still could not but regret that many individuals connected with these schools did not seem prepared to lend their influence and exertions towards such an opening of the parochial schools as might enable them to fulfil, in a larger degree than they at present could, the great mission with which they were charged—the education of the people. While he thus wished to see the parochial schools maintained intact, as regarded their principle, he was far from saying that other institutions might not, at the same time, be made to co-operate with the parochial system, and he had seen with admiration the efforts made by the Independent Church in Scotland, on the principle of that aggressive system, as it was called, by means of which it was sought to carry education into the homes of the ignorant and poor. He could not sit down without stating to their Lordships that both the Free and the Established Church in Scotland had met the efforts of the Committee of Privy Council in that spirit of harmony, confidence, and toleration which had made those efforts more successful than they would otherwise have been, and that there existed a cordial and practical co-operation on educational subjects between both Churches and Her Majesty's Government.


thought that, after the most lucid, useful, and very succinct speech delivered by the noble Duke, it was important that their Lordships should not interfere, in the slightest degree, with education in Scotland, except in the way of encouragement. They might, without meaning it, in the steps they took for extending the parish school system, do some detriment to what ought to be preserved intact, and, therefore, cautious legislation was desirable. He was sorry to say that the torch of education, which had been first lighted in Scotland, no longer yielded the same light as it had done formerly, and that Switzerland greatly exceeded Scotland, and the best parts of Scotland too, in her educational efforts.

The petition was then laid on the table.