Education Act 1902

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Education Act 1902

The Education Act 1902 (2 Edw. VII), also known as the Balfour Act, was a highly controversial Act of Parliament that set the pattern of elementary education in England and Wales for four decades. It was brought to Parliament by a Conservative government and was supported by the Church of England, opposed many by Nonconformists and the Liberal Party. The Act provided funds for denominational religious instruction in voluntary elementary schools, most of which were owned by the Church of England and the Roman Catholics. It reduced the divide between voluntary schools, which were largely administered by the Church of England, and schools provided and run by elected school boards, and reflected the influence of the Efficiency Movement in Britain. It was extended in 1903 to cover London.[1]

The Act was a short-term political disaster for the Conservatives, who lost massively at the 1906 general election. However, G. R. Searle has argued that it was long-term success. It standardized and upgraded the educational systems of England and Wales and led to a rapid growth of secondary schools, with over 1,000 opening by 1914, including 349 for girls only. The Church schools had financing from local ratepayers and had to meet uniform standards. Eventually, in the Butler Act of 1944, the Anglican schools were brought largely under the control of Local Education Authorities.[2]


The "Cockerton Judgment" of 1901 caused a crisis by undermining the lawfulness of "higher grade schools" for children over the age of twelve. A temporary fix allowed the schools to operate one more year. A second issue involved the 14,000 church schools, called "voluntary schools", run chiefly by the Church of England and including some Roman Catholic schools. They were poorly funded and did not receive a share of local taxes, but they educated a third of school children.

Under the 1902 Act the existing overlapping jurisdictions, with 2,568 school boards set up by the Elementary Education Act 1870, as well as all existing School Attendance Committees, were abolished. Their duties were handed over to county councils or county borough councils, as local education authorities (LEAs). The 328 LEAs fixed local tax rates. The LEAs could establish new secondary and technical schools as well as developing the existing system of elementary schools. These LEAs were in charge of paying schoolteachers, ensuring they were properly qualified, and providing necessary books and equipment. They paid the teachers in the church schools, with the churches providing and maintaining the school buildings and providing the religious instruction.[3]

Church Party[edit]

The Church Party, a Conservative faction strongly supportive of the Church of England, largely shaped Conservative educational policy. Under the leadership of Lord Cranborne, it was determined to stop the spread of secularism in education. With John Gilbert Talbot, Cranborne organized opposition to the Education Department and the radical spokesman Arthur Acland from 1894. They blocked the Education Department's attempts to slow the growth of Anglican schools. They successfully passed the Voluntary Schools Act, an interim measure, in 1897. They demanded long-term legislation in 1897-1901, and scored their great victory in 1902.[4]

The design and drafting of the Bill was the work of Robert Laurie Morant, a civil servant in the Education Department. He worked closely with Balfour and Church leaders in 1901 .[5]


Joseph Chamberlain's support base was threatened by Balfour's introduction into Parliament of the Education Bill. This Bill was framed with the intention of promoting National Efficiency, a cause which Chamberlain thought worthy. However, the Education Bill proposed to abolish Britain's 2,568 school boards established under W. E. Forster's Elementary Education Act 1870, bodies that were popular with Nonconformists and Radicals. Liberals opposed the Act, arguing that the board schools had outperformed the voluntary Anglican schools. In their place, Balfour proposed to establish local education authorities, which would administer a state-centred system of primary, secondary and technical schools. Furthermore, the Bill would grant ratepayers' money to voluntary Church of England schools. Chamberlain was anxious about the Bill's proposals, aware that they would estrange Nonconformists, Radicals and many Liberal Unionists from the government.

However, as Colonial Secretary in the coalition government, Chamberlain could not openly oppose the Bill. Chamberlain warned Robert Laurie Morant about the probability of Nonconformist dissent, asking why voluntary schools could not receive funds from the state rather than from the rates (local property taxes). In response, Morant argued that the Second Boer War had drained the Exchequer of finances.

The furore over the Education Bill imperilled the Liberal Unionist wing of the government, with the prospect of Nonconformist voters switching allegiance to the Liberal Party. Chamberlain sought to stem the feared exodus by securing a major concession: local authorities would be given discretion over the issue of rate aid to voluntary schools; yet even this was renounced before the guillotining of the Bill and its passage through Parliament in December 1902. Thus Chamberlain had to make the best of a hopeless situation, writing fatalistically that "I consider the Unionist cause is hopeless at the next election, and we shall certainly lose the majority of the Liberal Unionists once and for all." Chamberlain already regarded tariff reform as an issue that could revitalise support for Unionism.


Opposition to the Act came especially from Methodists, Baptists and other Nonconformists outraged at support for Anglican and Catholic schools, and angry at losing their powerful role on school boards. Historian Standish Meacham explores their position:

the act put an end to the broad-based expansion of secondary education that had originated in the so-called higher grade schools established by progressive, popularly elected local boards. Instead, secondary education was [to be] administered by county council committees and occurred in specifically designated "secondary" schools, admission to which was strictly controlled so as to exclude all but a very few working-class children. This important issue [was] a matter of major concern to working-class reformers anxious to provide a democratic "highway" rather than an exclusionary "ladder" to secondary education.[6]

The Liberal Party led the opposition and made it a major issue especially in the election of 1906; the Labour Movement was mostly opposed. Nonconformist opposition was championed by John Clifford. Clifford formed the National Passive Resistance Committee, which hoped to convince more Nonconformists to resist the Act and stop paying their rates until it was repealed. By 1904 over 37,000 summonses for unpaid school taxes were issued, with thousands having their property seized and 80 protesters going to prison. It operated for another decade but had no impact on the school system.[7][8][9][10]

The Act developed into a major political issue, which contributed significantly to the Liberal Party defeating the Conservatives in the General Election in 1906. The Liberals made a major effort in 1906 to pass the Birrell Educational Bill; it would have ended public support of religious schools. It passed the Commons but was blocked by the House of Lords.[11]


  1. ^ Roger Cooter, In the name of the child: health and welfare, 1880-1940 (1992) Page 69
  2. ^ G. R. Searle (2005). A New England?: Peace and War, 1886-1918. Oxford University Press. pp. 333–34.
  3. ^ Geoffrey Russell Searle (1971). The Quest for National Efficiency: a Study in British Politics and Political Thought, 1899-1914. U. of California Press. pp. 208–12.
  4. ^ Tony Taylor, "Lord Cranborne, The Church Party and Anglican Education 1893-1902: From Politics to Pressure," History of Education, (1993) 22#2 pp 125-146
  5. ^ Dugdale, Balfour 1:237-39.
  6. ^ Standish Meacham, "Looking for the Left," Journal of British Studies (1989) 28#2 pp 191-199 at p. 92 in JSTOR
  7. ^ Donald Read (1994). The age of urban democracy, England, 1868-1914. Longman. p. 428.
  8. ^ D. R. Pugh, "English Nonconformity, education and passive resistance 1903–6." History of Education 19#4 (1990): 355-373.
  9. ^ N. R. Gullifer, "Opposition to the 1902 Education Act," Oxford Review of Education (1982) 8#1 pp. 83-98 in JSTOR
  10. ^ Searle, G.R. (1971). The Quest for National Efficiency: a Study in British Politics and Political Thought, 1899-1914. University of California Press. pp. 207–16.
  11. ^ Harry Jones (2009). Liberalism and the House of Lords, the story of the veto Battle 1832-1911. Taylor & Francis. pp. 107–.

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