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As the RSA’s small education team scrambles around trying to make a difference in the crowded world of education, our history can feel both inspiring and daunting. Our Vaults’ brick walls are marinaded in two centuries of Fellows’ coffee and wine-fuelled conversations; plotting and planning, activity and activism.  From the 19th Century campaign for girls’ education, to the introduction of RSA national examinations for all, and the more recent education for capability movement, we’ve frequently succeeded (albeit temporarily on occasions) in turning the education dial – something we hope to achieve again through our new mission to close the creativity gap.

Back in November, the RSA’s Linked In Group helped me stumble upon the latest Occasional Paper from the William Shipley Group for RSA HistoryHabits of Thrift and Industry: Improving Bethnal Green by Pat Francis offers a fascinating biography of educationalist and energetic RSA activist George Bartley (Fellows didn’t yet exist). It also reprints in full his seminal inquiry One Square Mile in the East End of London,  commissioned by the (as then named) Society of Arts in 1870. After the habitually draining pre-Christmas work rush, I finally read the paper on Boxing Day. It’s a brilliant read. Whilst there are clear resonances with current education debates (note in particular the description of ‘free schools’, as well as an account of how the now painfully trendy Cat and Mutton pub used to house 27 families) the purpose of this blog is simply to encourage others to buy or borrow a copy from the RSA library.

The Society had two particular reasons for a focus on the Bethnal Green area: first, an interest in the techniques of manufacture, established by the Huguenots; second, a concern about the area’s poverty, worsened by the industrialisation that was leaving many weavers destitute. It appears that combining thought and action was already in the RSA’s DNA. in 1867, we supported an appeal for funds to purchase land for a new Museum of Science and Art in Bethnal Green ‘within an easy walk of upwards of a million of people, mostly of the artisan class’. Within eight months of opening in 1872, the museum had attracted its millionth visitor. Nearly 150 years later, the same building has become The Museum of Childhood.

Written in the same year as the 1870 Elementary Education Act made primary education compulsory, and published in full in the RSA Journal, Bartley’s Inquiry had four aims:

‘First, to ascertain the number of children provided for by the existing educational machinery within a certain district, the efficiency of such machinery, and the extent to which it is taken advantage of; secondly, the improvements that might be made without the addition of any great outlay, by the combination and organisation of the present schools; thirdly, the number of children educationally unprovided for; and fourthly, the general feeling in the district as to the advantages of education, and the practical working of any great educational measure among the poorest class of the community.’

The report contains a note on each of the forty six schools found in the area. Whilst centred on the approximately 30,000 children in the square mile (of whom Bartley estimated that about 4,000 were educated well, and nearly 20,000 were ‘growing up more or less in ignorance’, the Inquiry contains powerful vignettes about the daily lives and struggles of parents, families and individual children.

Whilst acknowledging the ‘universal feeling for education’ amongst every parent encountered, the Inquiry was highly critical of the attitudes of many parents towards their children’s schooling. In number crunching the area’s public houses as well as its schools, he calculated that ‘if one penny out of every eight now spent in drink were put by for a year, the amount raised would more than build the schools required, and one penny out of every twenty-eight would keep them up efficiently, without any government aid or assistance from charity’. Even if unprovable, the data still feels worthy of a 21 Century infographic.

Not all Bartley’s views are enlightened – he had an interest in phrenology, a lack of interest in equal education for women, and concerns about what we would now call ‘the price of the free’, generally preferring a paid-for model of schooling. However his view (expressed in another publication Schools for the People) that ‘the ultimate aim must be to make all value education for its own sake’, is as relevant as ever, and still needs asserting in these instrumental times.

A vital precursor to the far more famous 1957 Family and Kinship in East London study, the report deserves a much wider readership. In 2015, I’ll be exploring possibilities for a ‘habits of thrift and industry revisited’ TV or radio programme, returning to the same square mile to understand how our ‘education machinery’, and public attitudes to that machinery, have changed. As always, we’d welcome help from Fellows, this time with broadcast expertise, contacts, or possibly just enthusiasm and a decent camera. Happy new year.

Joe Hallgarten is Director of Creative Learning and Development at the RSA. Follow Joe @joehallg


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