Issue date
12 Mar 2001

Teachers, the first white collar unionists

"A London School-Board capture, 2.40 a.m.", says a caption to a contemporary drawing of school-children being rounded up in 1871-one year after the passing of the Forster Education Act, introducing State education.

Six years later, State education was made free.

WITH THE Education Act of 1870, the State tentatively began the process of assuming responsibility for the elementary education of children of parents who could not afford to pay for it. It provided for the setting up of School Boards, elected by ratepayers, in districts where the local children were not adequately catered for by the voluntary schools there available. The School Boards were required to create enough Board schools to fill the gaps.

Many Churchmen revolted at the idea of Board Schools and the undenominational education which went with them. But a Board School was reckoned by the mass of poorer parents to be a great deal better than no school. Later, by an Act of 1876, education was made legally compulsory for children up to the age of twelve; and in 1898 Congress passed a resolution in favour of equality of opportunity in education. This demanded: the provision of school meals; the abolition of the half-time system; the raising of the school age to fifteen; the improved training of teachers; and the meeting by the National Exchequer of the costs of educating the nation's children.

That was just half a century after the following prescient exhortation had appeared in the Flint Glass Makers' Magazine:

"If you do not wish to stand as you are and suffer more oppression, we say to you get knowledge, and in getting knowledge you get power . . . Let us earnestly advise you to educate; get intelligence instead of alcohol-it is sweeter and more lasting."

About this time there sprang up, alongside the now well-established and powerful craft unions a number of small but nevertheless vigorous trade unions of non-manual workers. The National Union of Elementary Teachers for instance, had been founded in 1860. Even within the Victorian Civil Service, the Post Office telegraphists managed to set up an Association of their own in 1881; and the provincial Post Office clerks followed suit in 1886. Thirteen years later railway clerks took the same step.

 

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