The Victorian Schoolroom

by Michelle Jean Prima


Queen Victoria's reign brought many improvements to the education of children, most remarkedly the poor.  Once a privilege only the rich could afford, many laws were passed over the years which guaranteed an education to the destitute also. 

The first of these came about a few years before Queen Victoria's accession to the throne.  In 1833, the government awarded grants of money to schools. Previous to this, poor children could only go to charity, or Dame schools.  The education provided was not always good, as some of the women running the schools couldn't even read.  By 1844, Parliament passed a law requiring children working in factories be given six-half-days schooling every week. Thus ragged schools were opened, providing free education to the very poor.

In 1870, Parliament passed the Forster's Education Act, requiring all areas provide schools to children aged 5 to 12.  But because attendance was not mandatory, and many could not afford the 'school's pence' each week, all children did not attend.  They worked and earned money for the family instead.  It wasn't until 1880 that schooling became mandatory, although it was only mandatory through the age of ten.  In 1889, the school leaving age was raised to twelve, and in 1891, the school's pence fee was abolished.

For the middle and upper classes, there were more options.  Many children began lessons at home.  Either the nanny or a governess would begin a child's education.  Once a boy turned ten, he went away to Public schools like Eton or Harrow.  There, they learned the classics, and were prepared for University.  There were very few schools available for girls, however, until the late Victorian Era.  Wealthy girls were mostly educated at home.

Typical lessons at school included Reading, WRiting and Dictation, and ARithmetic.  The day usually began with prayers and religious instruction. Morning lessons ran from 9a.m. to 12p.m..  Children went home for a meal, then returned for afternoon classes from 2p.m. to 5p.m. In addition to the three Rs which occupied the majority of the day, once a week the children learned geography or another 'object' lesson (taught with objects rather than the abstract) and singing. The girls learned how to sew.

Because paper was expensive, children usually wrote on slates with slate pencils.  Some slates were marked with lines to help with handwriting.  After a lesson was completed, and the teacher checked their work, the students cleared their slates for the next lesson.  Older children also learned to write on paper. An 'ink monitor' distributed ink to the children, who used pens made out of thin wooden sticks with steel needles.  The pen had to be dipped every few words or it would run dry. For arithmetic lessons, children used frames with colored wooden beads, much like an abacus.  Children learned how to multiply and divide using this apparatus.  Simple sums were done in their heads.  They also learned to do sums with money, and learned measurements.

Classes were often very large, with as many as 300-500 students each.  Therefore, the teacher enlisted the help of monitors to assist with lessons.  The teacher taught the monitors, who in turn taught the students.  Classrooms were sparsely furnished, often with long rows of benches and tables, rather than individual desks.  The lesson plans hung on the walls of the oblong room. On the floor, semi-circles were drawn around the perimeter of the room, one for each lesson plan.  Each monitor was assigned a lesson.  He gathered his group of students into the semi-circle, where they stood for the entire lesson, then returned to their seats for practice. 

By 1846, pupil teachers began to replace monitors.  Pupil teachers were boys and girls over thirteen who served five-year apprentices under teachers.  If they did well, they could qualify as a teacher by the age of eighteen and be out on their own. By the end of the century, schools began to divide children into smaller classrooms, with individual teachers for each class.

As one can see, this is a far cry from the education system as we know it today.  Which we take for granted all too often.  In Queen Victoria's time, these were major advances.  And major hurdles were overcome.  Over the years, the less useful ideas were discarded and the beneficial ideas built upon, setting a strong foundation for our education system today.


The Victorian and Edwardian Schoolchild by Pamela Horn, Alan Sutton 1979  ISBN#0862995744

A Victorian School by Richard Wood, Wayland 1994 ISBN#0750213701

The Victorian Schoolroom by Trevor May, Shire Publications 2004  ISBN#0747802432

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