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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 55

The Times, Saturday, July 18, 1885

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The Times, Saturday, July 18, 1885.

Into the alleged cases of over-pressure in the Board's schools seem, to judge from their report of which we printed an abstract yesterday, to have done their work carefully and thoroughly. They have held twenty-one meetings and have taken written and oral evidence from numerous independent quarters. An important part of their inquiry was the effect of over-pressure on the health of the school-children and the existence or non-existence among them of the many and formidable diseases referred to in Dr. Crichton Browne's report. In dealing with this question it was necessary, they say, to have the advice of medical experts whose competence and impartiality would be accepted on all hands. This help they accordingly endeavoured to obtain; but, having somehow failed to do so, they gave up the attempt and succeeded, to their own satisfaction, in finding answers for themselves to the questions which the medical experts were to have been asked to answer for them. The summary of their opinions is very much what the general public are prepared to accept and credit. They have not found the systematic and universal over-pressure described in Dr. Crichton Browne's report, but have satisfied themselves, on the contrary, that the children in their schools are receiving benefit all round, in health as well as in learning. The existence of over-pressure in some cases they admit, but only among a comparatively small number of children, and this not as a necessary consequence of the school system, but through a variety of causes, some of which the School Board has no page break power adequately to control. Some of children are unduly pressed on by the wish of their parents, in order that they may reach a standard high enough to release them from further school attendance; others are sickly and underfed, or come from wretched homes, where the benefit they have received at school is largely undone out of school hours; other children attend school so irregularly that it is only by extra effort that they can be made to keep up with their class. In some instances, too, the school teaching has been unintelligent and unsympathetic, and the children have suffered in consequence. The School Board for London and the Education department—ego et rex meus—have, the report says, made many changes with a view of avoiding over-pressure, and the committee add a series of further recommendations framed for the same object.

Most of these it will be for the Board to consider and to give effect to as it may deem fit. With regard to others the help of the Education Department is asked. It is the opinion of the Committee that greater uniformity of method and a more equable standard in judging of school work are desirable among school inspectors. These, however, are not very easily to be secured. Nor are we at all sure that absolute uniformity of method is a thing to be desired in itself. We can understand that boys and masters may wish to know beforehand the line of examination which their inspector will follow, and that they find themselves baffled when he quits the beaten track and attacks them from an unlooked for quarter. But it is in this way that a good inspector can best detect the difference between intelligent training and cram. It is easier, of course, to cram boys than to train them intelligently in their work, but it is hardly the office of an inspector to suit his methods of examination to the interests either of the crammers or of the crammed. Another suggestion is that children who have not attended school with fair regularity should be relieved from examination and from the over-pressure almost necessarily involved in preparing them for it. This, and the suggestion which follows—that in estimating the merit grant more attention should be paid to the due promotion of children of more than average capacity—raise afresh the old vexed disputo between the interests of the many and of the few. The present system of payment by results has been complained of as favouring a dead level of attainments. It keeps page break back the best children and compels the teacher to bestow extra pains upon the worst and most un-promising. To allow a master to make a better average show by withdrawing from examination such children as would do him no credit would have an obvious tendency to lead him to neglect those children altogether. To compel him to present them is to compel him to fit them to be presented, but this, unfortunately, he can do only at the cost of time and attention which might be more fruitfully bestowed, and at some risk to the health of the child who must be taken through a year's work in very much less than a year. Again, to offer special rewards for the rapid promotion of clever children has a precisely contrary effect on the master and very much the same effect on the child. The master is tempted to give an undue share of attention to his best pupils at the expense, necessarily, of the others, while the boys who receive it are liable to be forced on for promotion without much regard to their physical health. The permission sought for teachers to classify their children in different subjects according to their abilities is open to no objection, if only the Department can see its way to granting it. It would involve a very considerable recasting of the present plan of arranging and examining and of apportioning school grants. But it is so reasonable a request that the trouble it would occasion would be well Worth its cost. Children have by no means an equal facility in each of the three subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic, or of what the Code so terms. To write a good hand and to spoil correctly have little or no connexion with the curious art of solving arithmetical puzzles. The Code thinks otherwise, and insists on an arrangement of classes so contrived as to give effect to its views. It may be a question, however, how far school teachers are to be trusted to make another arrangement. The Committee ask that the necessary authority be granted to the teachers "under supervision," and this, we presume, the school managers are to provide. Authority, thus guarded, should be in no danger of being abused. The request that infant schools shall not be fined in case of the boys not taking needlework we may indorse without reserve. To sew on a button is about the only species of needlework which a boy will find of use, and to sew on a button is the very thing he is not taught to do.

The report is very full and precise. The re-commendations based upon it are discursive. The subject of over-pressure seems, like the subject of trade depression, to have no assignable limits. The inquiry gathers as it goes, and ends with a page break long list of things to be done and to be avoided not very closely connected with the matter first proposed. We are glad to find in the report a confirmation of our own view that the outcry about over-pressure has been very much in excess of what the facts have warranted. The thing complained of has existed of course—it exists in all schools of all grades, and in the higher grades more than in elementary schools. But whatever fault there may have been in London elementary schools, the School Board has made strenuous efforts to get rid of it, and, in the opinion of its Committee, with very complete success. We are oven inclined to think that the precautions have been carried a little too far, and that over-pressure has been guarded against by methods which may endanger school efficiency. The struggle of teachers to obtain high percentages has been pointed out as a main cause of over-pressure. The struggle has been intensified by the old method, under which the teachers were paid by a fixed proportion of the grant, which varied in accordance with the percentage. This method the Board has now abolished and has substituted a system of payment by fixed salaries. That the change will be effective wo have no doubt. It will remove one great stimulus to exertion on the teacher's part, and will enable him to look with more equanimity on faults and imperfections which he has no longer the old inducement to cure. But that this is a change for the better is less certain. The value the Board attaches to it is proved by the fact that it has made it at a cost of £125,000 of public money. This we are to regard as spent by way of a bribe to masters and mistresses to moderate their educational zeal. A more useful result of the outcry against over-pressure will be the adoption by the Education Department of some of the suggestions appended to the Committee' report. But these, as the Committee point out, have their attendant dangers. Even the power sought of moving clever children up through the standards more rapidly than the rest will require to be exercised with care, since it will enable the children to arrive too soon at the standard which will allow of their being removed from school and sent out to work. The alternative is to keep them back at a standard admittedly too low for them, and this, therefore, is what a careful exercise of the power of promotion must propose as its proper aim. The result will be that the child's school life will be prolonged.