HL Deb 30 June 1899 vol 73 cc1112-22


Order of the day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, it is with confidence that I ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill, because it is in no sense a party measure, while at the same time it is of considerable importance, and a step in the right direction in improving the education of the children in our schools. That it is not a party measure can be gathered from the fact that the principle of the Bill, that of raising the age of exemption from eleven to twelve years, was adopted in the Education Bill of 1897, which was brought into Parliament by Her Majesty's present Government. That Bill, however, only got to Second Reading, and this year the hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Robson), a member of the Opposition, introduced that principle into the Bill which I am now conducting through your Lordships' House. The Bill was passed in the House of Commons by a majority of Members on both sides of the House. Therefore, I think I may fairly say that this is not a party measure, and I hope I shall be able to convince your Lordships that it is a very important Bill in the cause of education. The present law as regards half-timers is that when a child has attained a certain age, which is fixed by Parliament, it is able to claim partial exemption if it passes a standard of examination which is fixed by the local authorities, not by Parliament, and which therefore varies in different districts. I think it must be admitted, both from experience in this country and on the Continent, that the half-time system is absolutely necessary, both in manufacturing and agricultural districts. At the same time it must be admitted that the half-time system is disadvantageous to children from the educational point of view. That is not to be wondered at when your Lordships consider the kind of work that children in manufacturing districts have to do. A child that has worked four or five hours in a mill in the morning is naturally somewhat tired, languid, and inattentive to its lessons in school in the afternoon, and it is found that in alternate weeks, when the school work is in the morning and the mill work in the afternoons, the half-timers do no give that attention to their books which the other children do. Experience shows that children who go to work as half-timers are much less capable of receiving instruction than those who go through a regular course of school education. Tests have shown that the half-timer very soon falls behind other school children in educational progress. I will venture to quote to your Lordships a case which was referred to in the House of Commons, and I do so the more readily because the facts of that case afford a sufficient answer to the main argument adduced by the opponents of this measure—that it is most important that children at the earliest age possible should acquire a technical knowledge of the work, whether in the mills or in the field, which they would probably have to take up when they left school. The case to which I allude is known as the Bolton case. In Bolton there are 538 technical knowledge scholarships, and something between 3,000 and 4,000 half-timers, and yet out of all those scholarships only one child who had been a half-timer secured one, and at the time he secured that scholarship he was not a half-timer. That shows very distinctly that there is a disadvantage from an educational point of view in the half-time system, and it follows that the age of partial exemption ought to be raised as high as possible consistently with the efficient working of the half-time system. Those who are interested in education must have been gratified to see the great change of opinion that has taken place in favour of raising the school exemption age, both in the agricultural and manufacturing districts. I can speak upon this point with some confidence, because when I had the honour of being Vice-President of the Council in 1885 and 1886 the school age exemption was ten, and the educational standard, which, as I have told your Lordships, is fixed by the local authorities, was the second standard in the agricultural districts, and the third, and sometimes the fourth, but generally the third, in the manufacturing districts. Your Lordships know how small is the amount of knowledge required in a child to pass these standards, and, coupling that with the fact that the standard of age exemption was ten years, you will readily understand what a deplorable state of things existed in those days from an educational point of view. Yet, after very careful inquiry, the matter having been brought under the attention of the then Lord President of the Council and myself, it was found that in both the agricultural and the manufacturing districts there was so strong an opinion against raising the age that it would have been difficult—I might almost say impossible—for a Government to have introduced and carried a measure to effect that purpose. Nor, indeed, were we more fortunate in endeavouring to induce the local authorities to raise their educational standard. They declined to do so, and matters had to be left as they were. It was not until 1891, under the Factory Act, that some advance was made in this direction. There was a clause introduced into that Act which prohibited the employment of children in factories and workshops under the age of eleven years. That clause was not introduced for educational purpose, but for the natural and desirable purpose of improving the health and the condition of the children who were employed in factories and workshops. At the same time, I think that that legislation in 1891, although for a different object, facilitated very much the raising of the age in the Education Act which was passed in 1893. Happily, since that time there has been a further change of opinion—as the saying is, much water has flowed under the bridge since then—and so great has been the change of opinion that it has been possible to introduce this measure into Parliament, raising the age from eleven to twelve years. I may be asked how we can test the change of opinion. In the first place, I should say we may test it by the very slight opposition which was given to this measure in the House of Commons. It was introduced by Mr. Robson in a speech of great ability, and the facts were put forward by the hon. Member in a temperate manner. I should like, in passing, to join with Sir John Gorst and Sir William Harcourt in paying my humble tribute of praise to the admirable tact and judgment with which Mr. Robson steered the Bill through the House of Commons. The Bill was opposed mainly by some Lancashire Members who represented the textile industries, but it must not be supposed that the manufacturing interests of the entire county of Lancashire are opposed to this measure, because it will be seen that as many Lancashire Members were found in the majority which supported the Bill as were against it in the minority. I believe also that the Lancashire Members who spoke in support of the measure were as many in number as those who opposed it. The Bill passed the Second Reading by a majority of 317 against 59, and many of those fifty-nine Members, who repre- sented agricultural districts, were satisfied at a later stage with the proviso which has been introduced into the Bill, and to which I shall have to call attention in a few minutes, and supported the Bill. All attempts to restrict the measure in Committee were defeated by large majorities, and in the result the Third Reading was carried without a Division. Another test as to the change of public opinion is that many persons who were opposed to raising the age in 1893, and who prophesied evil results from such a course, have since found that their prophecies have been falsified and are now very warm supporters of the Bill. Another test, and a very important one, is that those interested in education—those most capable of forming an opinion, because they themselves are well acquainted with the course of teaching in the schools, heartily support this Bill. The teachers are unanimous in favour of raising the age from eleven to twelve years. No doubt they would like to see it raised even higher, because they believe that the half-time system is not only injurious to the half-time children, but affects the other children in the school, as it tends to interrupt the regular course of instruction and to necessitate many lessons being taught over again. They hail this measure as a step in the right direction. Managers of schools and inspectors of schools are also unanimous in favour of raising the age of exemption; and, therefore, it may be confidently asserted that we have a strong body of men—men most competent to judge—supporting this Bill. I desire also to point out, as a further reason for passing this Bill, that in raising the age we are really fulfilling pledges which were given by this country through its representatives at the Conference at Berlin in 1890. I have often heard it said that this country was under no pledge in this matter. I agree that we were under a moral pledge I will venture to read to your lordships a passage from a speech made in the other House by Sir John Gorst, one of our representatives at that Conference. Sir John Gorst said: We went to the Berlin Conference rather with a view to inducing the other nations in Europe to adopt the same restrictions upon textile and other manufactures which, it was, represented, were some burden on British trade. The only point in which we were behind many of the nations of Europe was the age at which we allowed children to take part in these industries, and it was thought at the time to be a very good bargain for this country to do away with the advantage of juvenile labour in order to obtain from the other nations of Europe the regulations which we consented to at that Conference. As the other nations have performed their undertaking, the time has arrived when we should attempt to give effect to what I cannot but consider was a pledge on our part to raise the age of exemption. The proviso in this Bill to which I have alluded provides that— The local authority for any district may by bye-law for any parish within their district, fix thirteen years as the minimum age for exemption from school attendance in the case of children to be employed in agriculture, and in such parish such children over eleven and under thirteen years of age who have passed the standard fixed for partial exemption from school attendance by the bye-laws of the local authority shall not be required to attend school more than two hundred and fifty times in any year. As everyone must see, there is a great distinction between the case of children in agricultural districts and those in manufacturing districts. The distinction is quite sufficient to justify different treatment, and, if necessary, the application of certain provisions in the one case which are not required in, and perhaps would not be applicable to the other case. Although many sanitary improvements have been made in the mills, the work there cannot be said to improve the health of the children. The converse is the case with regard to the work done by children in the fields and in the open air. Their health is improved, and they are thus more capable of receiving instruction. Again, the work in the mills goes on day after day throughout the year uninterruptedly, in fine weather or bad, in sunshine or rain. This is not so in the case of agricultural work. This proviso, which was carried in the House of Commons by a majority of 245 to 26, and is made with the approval of all the Members for the agricultural districts, only deals with Agricultural work, and is optional. It is intended to meet the special wants of agriculture. During certain months of the year in these rural districts children are required by farmers, and so strong is the feeling in these districts, and so urgent is the case, that it is found very difficult to enforce attendance of children in schools. The school attendance officers shut their eyes to what is going on when the education of children is neglected by their parents, and are 10th to issue summonses upon them for the non-attendance of their children at school. Magistrates, also, during those months instead of inflicting fines upon parents, are content to give them a caution. Therefore there is good reason for making a change in the direction of this proviso. I will read to your Lordships a passage, bearing out what I have just stated, from the speech delivered by Mr. Robson in the House of Commons. He was commenting upon some returns of attendances in rural schools, and said— Whereas one school in a rural district had been open 338 times, the attendances of various children had averaged from 54 to 64, and a little judicious inquiry brought to light the fact that the children had been actually employed on the land illegally by members of the School Board for that district. In another school, out of 442 possible attendances, the returns show 22, 65, 78, and 98 attendances, while no summons for irregular attendance had been taken out for four years. The proviso, as will be seen, does not conflict with the educational character of the Bill. It does not attempt to lessen the age of exemption, but only applies where the age of exemption has been raised by local authorities to 13. It is, in fact, the adoption of a scheme which prevails in Germany and Switzerland under which children are allowed to work in summer and attend school in winter. This plan, known as summer work and winter schooling, has worked most admirably, and in certain districts in those countries the exemption age is as high as 14, 15, and even 16 years. Your Lordships will observe that the child will not lose any schooling. A child of 11 will work the winter in school. It will be exempted during the summer of that year, and on arriving at 12 would, were it not for this proviso, be able to leave school at once, but under this proviso, as the age of exemption is raised to 13, the child will get another winter's schooling. It will, therefore, be seen that the child gets two winters' schooling for one summer's work. I hope this proviso will be largely used in agricultural districts. By this system the parents will obtain the earnings of their children, who will be working legally in the fields for a period of the year, and they will be saved the annoyance of visits from the school attendance officer, and of summonses. The adoption of this system will also be of great advantage to the farmers, for they will be able to count upon children's labour just during the months when it is most wanted. The proviso has been very carefully considered by the Education Department, and by the experienced officials of that Department, who see no reason why it should not be passed and work satisfactorily. I commend the Bill very heartily to your Lordships, who, I think, must concur in the opinion of the Education Department, and of those who have studied the question of education, that if Parliament raises the age standard it will procure for the children in our schools both increased physical and educational advantages. I now beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."


My Lords, I am very glad to see that this Bill is likely not to meet with any opposition in this House, and I think the House is very much indebted to the noble Lord for the speech in which he has moved its Second Reading. As he has said, the educational advantages of this measure are undoubted. All the educational authorities are united in desiring the change which the Bill will effect. The teachers are in favour of it, the managers of schools are almost unanimously in favour of it, and Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools have repeatedly urged the necessity of making this change. The only question which remained in doubt was whether the working classes generally were willing to make the sacrifice of the wages which their children might earn through the half-time system in order that they might have the benefit of a more complete period of schooling. But, as the noble Lord has told us, there is very little doubt remaining on that point, and I think it has been conclusively proved, by the very large majorities which this measure obtained in the other House, that the opinion of the working-classes generally is very different from what it was a short time ago. I have no doubt that the Members of the other House of Parliament are all most anxious that our education system should be made as complete as possible, but, however great may be the educational zeal of Members of Parliament, I doubt very much whether it would extend to the point of voting for a measure, not promoted by the Government, which was very strongly disapproved of by their constituents. The only opposition which was offered to the Bill in the other House proceeded from a small section of Members representing manufacturing constituencies, and even they did not defend the half-time system, but only pointed out that it was a dying system, and that it would be better that it should be allowed to expire from natural causes rather than that it should be put an end to by legislative action. The position of the agricultural labourer is in so many parts of the country one of such great hardship and difficulty that the small wages which a child is able to earn by agricultural labour may make a very considerable difference in the income of the family, but I believe that the Amendment which was introduced in the House of Commons, and to which my noble friend has referred, has removed most of the objections which were felt by Members representing agricultural constituencies, and that the proposal which has been made will make it possible for a child to remain longer at school, but that during the last two years of his school life he will have holidays which will enable him to work during the summer, and attend school during the winter. That Amendment has removed every objection felt by the agricultural districts to this Bill. I am glad there is now a prospect that what almost amounted to a pledge on the part of the Government at the Conference of Berlin is likely to be redeemed, and I believe this Bill will make a very great improvement in our educational system.


My Lords, I desire to avail myself of the opportunity of expressing my cordial support of this Bill. There is a certain satisfaction in thinking that at last, after, I believe, nine or ten years' delay, Parliament is now endeavouring partly to redeem the pledge given by a former Government at the International Conference. I think I am right in saying that we were in favour of the age of exemption being increased to thirteen, so that we have not achieved after all these years very great progress in this direction. Still, this Bill is an excellent step in advance, and I think it is very satisfactory to observe that, certainly in this House, it meets with, I think I may say, general approval and support. I quite understand the natural reluctance of the working classes to part with earnings which, no doubt, may in some cases be valuable to them, but I feel quite confident that, although the taking of this step may seem to some people rather difficult, in the long run when the Act has been at work it will be found that the hardship will be no longer felt. It is curious to observe how step by step we have advanced in the direction of securing the better education of our Children, and I cannot help thinking that many things which a few years ago were regarded with great apprehension and suspicion are stow accepted as matters of course. I shall not criticise the Amendment relating to children in agricultural districts, because I believe it is the result of careful consideration by Members of the other House well acquainted with the subject. It seems to them that the Amendment will give entire satisfaction, and I have no doubt it is well adapted to meet the case of children in agricultural districts. I see with the greatest satisfaction that the Bill is passing through this House, and I would venture here to congratulate Mr. Robson upon his success in thus far carrying this, one of the most useful and important measures that have been introduced for some time past.


My Lords, I am glad to join in the general expressions of approval of this Bill, and I rejoice that, although it has been delayed, this step is now being taken. One of the circumstance, which seriously impede the education of children all over the country is that at so early an age they leave school, and forget a great deal of what they have learnt. I very much hope that in the agricultural districts thirteen instead of twelve years of age will be fixed upon.


My Lords, I desire also to express satisfaction that this Bill is likely to become law. I believe that it is accompanied by some positive advantages in the combination at an early period of practical work with education. The working of the measure will, I have no doubt, do something to check that migration of children from the country to the towns which is a very serious evil from many points of view. It not only diminishes the amount of labour at the disposal of the farmers, but in a large number of instances the children them- selves incur serious moral dangers by going to the towns. By being retained at school till they are thirteen years of age they will be without this temptation, and also have their character strengthened. It is an unquestionable fact that a boy's character is formed between the age of twelve and sixteen, and by this Bill children will have the advantage of being under instruction up to a later age. I regard the Bill as a real moral gain for the children of the country.

On Question, agreed to.

Bill read 2a (accordingly), and committed to a Committee of the whole House on Monday next.