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On the Relation of Ragged Schools
o the Educational Movement

1857 — Inaugural Congress, National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, Birmingham, England


Ragged schools have not yet become distinctly connected with the educational movement of our country. Thirteen years have now elapsed since the first attempt was made in the metropolis (an isolated effort had been made in the country some thirty years before) to bring under the reach of instruction those who were utterly beyond its pale, and for whose souls none appeared to care. The grain of mustard seed has become a large tree, overshadowing thousands. Ragged Schools have multiplied beyond all expectation; they have enlarged and extended their mode of operation, but yet they have retained the same essential elements: thy have attempted to reach a class untouched by any other existing agency; they have employed means essentially different from that of other schools, and they have made the voluntary efforts and influence of unpaid Christian labourers an important part of the scheme.

It would at firs sight appear very strange to a bystander that a whole class of schools should have been ignored by the Council authorized by our Government to aid and encourage education in the country, and should have been entirely passed by in the distribution of pecuniary grants from the public funds; that they should have been scarcely alluded to in the great Educational Conference so recently assembled in the metropolis, and should, in fact, be left to stand aside whenever school matters are discussed; and this may appear particularly remarkable when it is recollected that it is the peculiar object of the Council on Education to call out and stimulate voluntary effort, and that in no schools has this been so exerted as in Ragged Schools. The causes of this seemingly strange omission as respects Ragged Schools are easily explained. These were at first purely experimental, and their founders felt that any interference, even in the form of assistance, would shackle their operations, and hinder the effect of their work. This the venerable John Pounds of Portsmouth felt, when he went on labouring at his little Ragged School for twenty years, unknown to even his own townsmen, and then declined the proffered aid, preferring to spend all his own hard-earned and humble means for his children. When the schools were firmly established the managers did not, except in very few cases, seek the help of the Government grants, knowing that these were made on conditions with which it was impossible that they would comply; and the subject was so new to the public, that they were not prepared to appeal to it or to the Government in support of their claims to help. But public attention has now been called to the necessity of extending education to the “perishing and dangerous classes” of the community — those that most need it. Liberal aid was granted in a Minute made on the 2nd of June, 1856, nominally to Reformatory and Ragged Schools; but the latter have been excluded by a subsequent Minute, and grants from the Committee of Council on Education are confined still to schools for convicted and vagrant children, on the one hand, to the children of parents who can pay for their education on the other — i.e. to Reformatories, and feeding Industrial Schools coming under a certain test, and to British and National Schools. These schools will doubtless be put on their proper footings, when their claims are understood, and when it is demonstrated that a permanent need of them exists in our country. This, then, it will now be attempted briefly to set forth.

Whenever educational statistics are taken in any large town an immense discrepancy is discovered between the number of children who are in attendance is discovered between the number of children who are in attendance at school and those who actually exist. Some of them are accounted for by being at work, some are at home for domestic purposes, some are known to the police as pilferers and vagabonds, if nothing worse; and all these it is now happily within the power of our magistrates to consign either to certified reformatories or to industrial schools. But, after these deductions are made, thousands unaccounted for remain; extensive rural parishes have their tens and hundreds, and these altogether make up the millions of untaught children of whom we heard at the Educational Conference, and to whom his Royal Highness the Prince Consort so feelingly alluded. It is to these children, who CANNOT or WILL NOT attend the National and British Schools, and yet who have not so committed themselves as to be taken to school by the hand of the law, that the  efforts of Ragged Schools are directed. And it is these who present a constant hindrance and temptation to evil to honest children attending school, who draw them off and plunge them into crime, themselves often escaping detection by their superior skill and dexterity, who will ever furnish fresh recruits for our reformatories, who even do much indirectly towards lowering the educational status of the labouring classes, as the close proximity of evil always must do, and who will form a band of criminalsfor the next generation. Words cannot describe the mischief to the State rising from this mass of ignorance, which must perpetuate itself unless strongly grappled with. Its nature and amount cannot be ascertained by any education statistics, because such children do not present themselves when these are made, but it may be gathered from the fact that, in only one town — that of Liverpool, ‑ of 19,336 persons who had been apprehended in nine months ending September 30th, 1856, only 3.00 per cent could read and write well, and nearly half had no knowledge of either. At the Sheffield Ragged School 300, out of 420 boys, did not even know their alphabet on admission, and 420 girls were equally ignorant. Such will probably be the usual condition of the children who are drawn into Ragged Schools. And their actual ignorance cannot be gauged by any statement of this kind. This ignorance of letters is only a symptom of still more dangerous ignorance — it is an indication of an utter carelessness respecting all that is needful for the welfare of the individual and of society — an ignorance of all necessary for this life and for the next. The parents  who will have allowed their children thus to grow up must either be plunged in a depth of poverty which loudly calls for the hand of charity, or living that irregular life which is perhaps the most injurious of any to a healthy physical or moral development, or they are actually sunk in vicious habits, which must be imparted to the children.

Of the whole number of boys and girls alluded to in the Sheffield Ragged School, only six boy sand ten girls were orphans; therefore such must have been the condition of the parents. And yet we have heard it denied by some that any class of children exists which cannot be brought under the existing schools for the working classes, or who ought not to be dealt with by the law. Let such persons go from their respectable homes and places of business, let them plunge into the depths of London wretchedness, unvisited by any save the policemen or the Christian missionary; let them even pass through a few streets beyond their well-known thoroughfares of Westminster; let them traverse whole districts in Liverpool, where the lowest poverty and vice must present themselves to the most casual observer; let them plunge into courts and alleys in Bristol and Cardiff, and doubtless other large towns, which the police pass by in despair, and hardly dare to enter when some urgent call for interference demands their help, — and then let such persons say that there is no need for Ragged Schools, for that all the children in England who are not swept off by the hand of the police into reformatories or industrial schools, can attend the ordinary pay schools, and ought to do so.

The want, then, actually exists of some agency beyond that at present contemplated by Minutes of Council; and it must exist until reforms are made I the moral and social condition of England, which we cannot expect to see carried out in the present generation of adults, but for which we may prepare the way.

Now, do the Ragged Schools direct their efforts expressly to this class of children, and do they actually effect the work proposed? That they do thus direct their efforts, and indeed confine them to this class, is proved by the fundamental rule of the Ragged School Union, “that those children alone be admitted who aredestitute of any other mans of instruction.” In other Ragged Schools the rule is similar: “The school is for the gratuitous instruction of such young persons only as cannot attend other schools, owing to the poverty of their parents or their own want of character or necessary clothing.” The noble President of the Ragged School Union thus states the object of the managers of the Hull Ragged School: “Your particular province is over the children in the mire and the gutters; and when you pass from these to more placid and clear waters, you leave your calling, and neglect your duty.” And if ordinary discretion and care are exercised by the Committee of the School there will be little danger of these schools luring off children from higher schools. My own somewhat extensive experience fully accords with that of other experienced persons, and of Lord John Russell in his recent address at the Sheffield Ragged Schools, that the honest poor would not wish their children to associate with children of the real Ragged School class; that these schools do not injure the ay schools, and that there is a spirit of independence existing I the country which would make the working classes prefer schools where they paid for what they received to those which lowered them to the rank of recipients of charity.

Do these schools really do the work intended? Time and space will not permit me to enter into the details which might be endlessly multiplied, to show that those who were on the borders of destruction, and promising to be always an expense and burden, rather than a help to society, now become honest and useful members of it. “We admit them ragged,” says Lord Shaftesbury, in the address above quoted, “and turn them out clothed, as we admit them heathens and turn them out Christians.” This is the sum and substance of the whole; and we are not surprised to hear from him, that of the large numbers who have emigrated, not one has been known to turn out badly; and still more, that in one year 460 old scholars presented themselves, with good characters from employers, to the society established in London for giving annually small prizes to such. The last report states that 1260 scholars were put out into situations. During the year the shoe-black brigade earned 2981l. for their own support. In 46 of the 100 schools connected with the union, there are no fewer than 10,117 depositors in the Penny Banks, who have paid in 3439l. We rejoice to hear one who has so warmly at heart the cause of education as Lord J. Russell, declare in his recent speech at Sheffield — “It is absolutely necessary, as it appears to me, that for the present, at least, the voluntary efforts of those who love mankind, and have a feeling of regard for their neighbours, and for the safety of society, should combine in endeavouring to provide, by what are called Ragged Schools, and by schools of a similar description, a supply for the wants to which I have adverted. I believe that if these wants are supplied, although we can never hope, in our most sanguine expectations, that temptations will not divert many from an  honest and religious course, yet that the number of those who are sent to prison who, not having originally vicious inclinations, have been perverted by bad example and the circumstances of their position — that the number of those who are criminally punished will very much decrease, and society be a great gainer thereby.”

Such being the opinion of so distinguished a statesman, as it will probably be of all who practically understand the subject, it will be a matter of surprise that Ragged Schools have remained so long excluded from aid, and still are so; especially as it has been felt by experienced schoolmasters of British Schools to have a very beneficial effect on their own schools, for the class of children of whom we have spoken to be removed from exerting an external injurious influence on their scholars, or from lowering their own schools by the introduction of children in irregular attendance, who, if admitted, greatly interfered with its good order.

The reason of such exclusion has rested partly with the managers of the schools themselves. They have felt that their work was of a very different character from that carried on in the schools aided by the Council, and for whom the Minutes were framed. In the later, intellectual attainments, and the habits of mind necessary to acquire them, were chiefly aimed at. The masters, to receive the full benefit of the aid allowed, must have gone through an examination, which many, in schools belonging to a higher class of society, would shrink from. The annual inspection of the school is to be diligently prepared for, and the records are submitted to their lordships, and presented to the public, of the particular numbers who have attained certain steps in book learning. The pupil-teachers must give considerable time out of school hours to their own studies, and the master devote daily a fixed period to their instruction. The Ragged School managers and teachers knew that his was impossible in their schools, and believed that the mere attempt to satisfy these demands, which might be most judiciously made on other schools, would paralyse their efforts, and absolutely prevent the accomplishment of the end intended.

It has been found, practically, that certificated teacher-masters and pupil-teachers, well trained in a British or National School, do not work well in a Ragged School; their intellectual education is quite unnecessary, and has mot commonly withdrawn their minds from other and more essential parts of their work in such schools as these. Reading, writing, ciphering, are valuable and important means, but not the end. Other schools are dealing with children who have homes, in the true sense of the word, — who have parents who may be induced to co-operate with the schoolmaster, — who know the value of character, and have learnt somewhat the rights of property, — who have, in fact, a position in society, and are preparing to fill their destined place in it. But in these schools, says Lord Shaftsbury, most truly, “you have to deal with a class almost wholly ignorant of things appertaining to domestic life. You must communicate new ideas, — you have to get them into habits of regularity, order, and discipline, — impart to them the habit of industry, and prove to them that industry is the means of their livelihood.” Hence there must be a variety of means adopted, such as may be found to be most adapted to the special wants of each school, but which cannot be brought under the particular Minutes of Council. Besides, as his lordship also observes, the fact of formal exhibition of intellectual progress would be most injurious to such a school, nor could its real condition and progress be ascertained simply by a formal inspection. Of this, experienced persons are fully aware. Hence, while greatly wanting help, with their operations crippled through want of pecuniary means, many have hitherto preferred to go on, depending on voluntary contributions alone, to risking an injurious interference with their work. The Council, on the other hand, has not seen the way clear to give any help but in accordance with the Minutes framed for the Pay Schools, and has feared that, if those Minutes were in any way relaxed, many schools would claim the privilege to whom it did not rightfully belong, and would thus sink in the scale to a lower grade.

Ragged Schools must, by their very nature, always have a low intellectual status, as judged by the ordinary tests; and the very inadequate staff of teachers found in most of them, owing to their limited resources, necessarily involves a far lower state than might be attained with proper appliances. I was truly said of one school, where on mistress had the care of 200 scholars, that “the children were kept, not taught.” The expense is very great of maintaining efficiently such a school, for a large moral force of a superior kind is required to do these children real good. In a Ragged School for 200 children, with an Evening School of about 50, a suitable staff, framed on the Minutes of June 2, which it was then understood that such a school came under, cost 250I — a pound for each child; while in a good British School each child need not cost the managers more than 5s. per annum.

It is only in ordinary cases by government aid and inspection, adapted to the wants of these schools, that they can be made what they might be and ought to be. Yet, this inspection, to be really useful, must be based on very liberal principles, to allow latitude for the varied condition of schools, necessarily attendant on different circumstances. In some towns the nature of the population is of a stationary character, and the bulk of the children can be detained three or four years in the school; here an educational condition equal to the middle classes of a good British School may be fairly expected, and many of the children may eventually be drafted off to a Pay School. But in other towns, especially those where there is a floating Irish population, a large portion are charged every six months, and the few who attend through several years are so irregular, that they cannot fairly afford any test of the efficiency of the school. I have known a boy profess to have attended six years, and no know his letters! He had not been six weeks there.

Surely, when this subject is fairly laid before the Council, the necessary aid will be given, subject to conditions which can be complied with; such, indeed, as are laid down in the Minutes of June 2, 1856, at the time specially intended for Ragged Schools as well as Reformatories, but which now are withdrawn from them by the imposition of a test which cannot be complied with. Security would be fully given that the schools are confined to the class intended, if the Inspectors visited them, not only at a formal examination but in the ordinary working of the school, when the could hardly be mistaken respecting the real nature of the children, and when they might require from the managers a declaration that they had personally examined into the condition of the scholars, and ascertained that they were of the class intended.

Six years ago, in the first Conference on the Reformatory question held in this town, these Ragged Schools, or free Day Schools, were made a special object of consideration; resolutions were passed, and a memorial was sent from it, praying that these schools, particularly needing help, and greatly requiring it for the good of society, should have aid granted them adapted to their needs. The other two objects of that Conference, the feeding Industrial and the Reformatory Schools, have already been effected. May it be the honour of this great meeting to have publicly acknowledged the claims, and by their voice obtained them, of the thousands in our  country who have as yet been left in the highways and byeways, helpless and perishing, but willing to come to the waters FREELY offered them, an din a condition to be reclaimed to society by the hand of mercy voluntarily extended to them.



Source: Transactions of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science 1857, Inaugural Addresses and Select Papers (London: John W. Parker and Sons) 1858, pp. 226-232.