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Glad ur not... at school | Life for children in Victorian Britain | Birmingham City Council

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Glad ur not... at school

If you were given the choice of whether to go to school or not today, would you go? It's hard for us to imagine, but children in the 19th century didn’t have to go to school. Unless you were from a wealthy family, an education was not something that you would expect to receive or even think was that important. From around 6 years old, children of the poor were expected to work and help support the rest of family. Thousands of people moved to cities like Birmingham to find work in jobs that were better paid than those they had working the land. But poor living conditions in the city's overcrowded slums lead to the spread of deadly diseases and rising rates of crime.

Some Victorians believed that the only way to tackle the growing problems in the slums was to educate the poor and teach them 'good Christian values' such as honesty and obedience. Children who were at school all day and no longer on the streets were not as likely to get involved in any criminal activity. Charity schools and Sunday schools were the first to begin the task of educating the poor. As well as teaching children and adults to read using the Bible, they also offered desperately needed food and clothing.

In 1880, laws were enforced that meant every child between 5 to 10 had to go to school. For parents of large families who could barely afford enough food, paying a penny a week for their children to go to school was a great expense. Some parents were angry that their children were being forced to go to school instead of bringing home a wage to support the family. It was common for fights to break out between furious parents and teachers!

As the saying goes, the days you spend at school are the best of your life. But for many children, the school day was long and filled with difficult lessons and cruel treatment. Children would be hit by teachers if they didn’t understand a lesson or spelt a word incorrectly. You would not have been allowed to talk in class and if you broke any of the many other school rules, you would be punished. A strap or cane would be used by the teacher to hurt anyone who misbehaved or didn’t know the answers to their questions.

Classrooms were large and freezing cold in winter. The teacher would make sure that lessons were hard work, repetitive and really not much fun. Boys and girls were educated differently, girls were taught needlework and home-making skills and boys woodwork. Children were expected to work hard at school and do well at exams. Each year, inspectors would visit schools and test each pupil’s knowledge and understanding. If a child failed this examination, then they would have to repeat the whole year’s work.