So how\’s that State education system coming along then?

Almost one million Scots are unable to read and write properly, according to an influential group of educationalists who have called for an overhaul of the country’s approach to literacy.

According to the Literacy Commission — which also includes business leaders and the novelist Ian Rankin — about a fifth of adults do not have the literacy skills they need for their daily lives.

Not well then, eh? The State has them for 11 years and cannot even manage two of the three r\’s?

Quick question. What was the literacy rate before State schooling, back in the 1880s?

17 comments on “So how\’s that State education system coming along then?

  1. We don’t know because we didn’t have targets, OFSTED, Literacy Commissions and quangos in those days.
    (My 6 year old daughter came home with a form so that she can become a “eco-councillor” – I don’t think three R’s are a top priority.)

  2. According to James Bartholomew, “It was reckoned in 1861 that 95 percent of children were getting between five and seven years of education. State education was started to save that missing 5 percent or less”. OK, that refers to education not literacy, but E G West (pdf) said:
    “As early as 1839 a special
    survey in Hull found that over 92 per cent could read. A similar survey in the mining
    districts of Northumberland and Durham in 1840 showed that four out of five miners
    – 80 per cent – could read and that more than half of them had learned to write. One
    authority on the subject, Mr R. K. Webb, believes that in the late 1830s over two-thirds
    of the working classes were already literate. The Registrar General?s report for 1870
    shows that 80 per cent of the men marrying in that year were able to write. (Since the
    average age of marriage at this time was about 28 years, these grooms had left school
    about 17 years before, in 1853. But a more appropriate figure to test the literacy rate of
    young school leavers in 1870 is the 1891 census report. This showed that 94 per cent
    of the males could write.)”

  3. That’s conflating two different definitions of literacy though – the Victorian one (also used in developing countries) is “can read and write your own name”.

    On that criterion, the UK now has 99% literacy (that’s the same criterion under which Indian literacy is 61%, etc).

    The “functional literacy” criterion being used here is far stricter. Here’s more information.

  4. Reading was often encouraged in Victorian times; if you can read, you can read the Bible. (I believe it was, again, James Bartholomew who made that point.)

  5. As referred above there is no hard and fast definition of literacy- the UN puts it as able to write a simple sentence in any language (teach them to write “Castro is marvelous” in Spanish and they’re literate- I’ll bet that”s how the Cubans achieve 98% literacy).
    I’ll also bet that literacy levels pre state education were more than sufficient for the needs of the time. Farm workers didn’t need literacy, neither did mill workers- people reading for pleasure was and is a good thing, but you clearly can’t force people to read for pleasure, that only works if they’re pleased and hence don’t need forcing.
    I have no idea what degree of literacy is required today, and I am highly suspicious of people who draw a large salary in return for telling me- I doubt that they’d ever confess that they haven’t a clue if it meant unemployment: and in any case these people have achieved their advancement through a high level of literacy and assume that other people are like themselves (practically everyone does, and practically everyone is wrong)
    Just institute vouchers to fund education to 18, set a school leaving exam which 90% of 16 year olds can pass (test it on 16 year olds), let parents chose the education for their child and class those who pass as adults. The kids will have an incentive to learn- including those kids who don’t want to please teacher. The ones who really want to get out of school can do so early, and get out of everyone’s hair. And if they decide that they want to go back to school they’ve still got the vouchers- they can go to learn what they want to learn

  6. My great aunts and uncles were educated pre WW1 in what State schools existed then. They left aged 11 or 12. Their mental arithmatic (still extant when I knew them aged 70-90) was exemplary. They could also write clear grammatically correct English in beautiful copperplate handwriting. They were just ordinary working class children, educated in large classes by one teacher. One of my uncles became a local journalist and writer, another a local Methodist preacher. Others ran their own businesses.

    If only the billions spent now resulted in similar outcomes.

  7. Was the Victorian definition of literacy merely that a person could write their own name?

    I know that various rough measures of literacy from historial records count the proportion of people signing their name rather than “making their mark” on church registers, naval enlistment papers etc., but was that really all that people meant back then by “he can read”?

    I have read somewhere about school inspections requiring pupils to read out a line of text from the Bible. Funnily enough the same vague memory also includes various dodges by the school to fool the inspector, but, for what it’s worth, my impression was that “literacy” did require more than just writing your name. Anyone know more?

  8. Some years ago (and just where I couldn’t say) I read that literacy was being studied in the U.S. even before 1820 and that the figures were in the 90+% range in the cities (and included immigrants). I think the definition of the time was being able to read a newspaper 0r suchlike in one’s own language. I also remember reading at the same time that the lowest literacy was found in rural South Carolina (not including slaves) at about 55%. I also remember reading something in essay form by a Congregationalist clergyman from Massachussetts who was surprised, when travelling in the South, by the high rate of literacy he found among slaves (he estimated at about a third) and particularly that their masters were quite actively having the children taught by tutor along with their own children. In the same place was mentioned that Martha Washington conducted “school” many mornings for both children and adult employees, both black and white.

    It is often pointed out that many states of the South had laws making it a crime to educate slaves. The clergyman mentioned this to hosts at the time and was told that such laws were only enforced against those seen as “troublemakers.”

    A few years ago there was circulated on the internet an “exit exam” intended for graduation (from 8th grade) in Salinas, Kansas. It was quite comprehensive and would probably be difficult for many present-day high school graduates (and even some college students). I particularly noticed the use of now-archaic units of measure with which few would be familiar but the problems themselves were quite respectable (and of practical importance).

  9. Those interested can see the (Salina, not Salinas–that’s probably the place in California) test I mentioned by Googling
    “graduation test Salina.” It’ll surprise.

  10. My grandfather was born in 1880. He and his brothers and sisters attended a village school in Lincolnshire, along with all the other kids in the district. They learned to read in terms of comprehension, as well as the simple recognition of words. Also spelling. They were taught such works of literature as were considered decent for them. Their written skills had to include the ability to write essays. They also mastered basic arithmetic, and multiplication tables. Also they had to learn their bible of course.

    It was a rural place, so at harvest times the teachers and children would leave their classroom and head out onto the land to help. And then the children would be sent home with baskets full of spuds, turnips, apples, damsons…

    It cost a little bit of money each week, but if you were too poor they would find a way round it. All you needed was boots, and a coat for the winter. And they would be found too if you didn’t have any.

    But there were also the things they learned informally. Very many of his generation could read music, and sing. They knew how to handle horses, and keep livestock. They were very self-sufficient.

  11. When you read about the early life of Thomas Telford, born into destitution in 1750 or so, he became an apprentice stonemason when he was 14. He could not have done that had he been functionally illiterate and innumerate. In fact he had benefactors, who had not only ensured his survival, but provided him with books and education. Those folk had no way of knowing he would become the finest civil engineer we have ever seen. They were just providing a safety net for him, and his widowed mother, in the normal course of events.

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