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  • Writer's pictureSimone Skopek

Shaping a Nation Through Education: How Literacy Fueled the Industrial Revolution

Updated: Jul 24, 2023


19th century urban poverty – A mother and her little boy earn 1 or 2 pence for 12- to 18-hour days, doing piecework to make artificial flowers, wrapping wire stems with strips of paper or ribbons. Notice the ribbons pinned to the wall.[https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/lost-art-flower-making]

One of the themes of the novel THREE TALES FROM THE TIP OF AN ERA is a portrayal of how education played a pivotal role in transforming Britain during the Industrial Revolution, propelling the nation from an agrarian society to becoming the undisputed global leader. Amidst the hardships and challenges of the Victorian era, one bright ray of hope emerged—the emphasis placed on providing education for the poor to address social woes, and fuel the Industrial Revolution - another important lesson from history that underscores the importance of education in shaping societies and overcoming challenges.


Before this momentous shift, education was a privilege reserved for the elite. The vast majority of children never set foot in a school, except perhaps Sunday School. Even fewer had a basic grasp of reading, writing, or arithmetic. Meanwhile, the 1800s saw a vast peasant and artisanal population being evicted by noble land-owners who found it more profitable to fence in the land and keep sheep. Peasants flocked to the cities seeking work in factories and sweatshops and living in conditions of unspeakable poverty, which produced generational crime and social instability. Children were often abandoned and exploited.

It was during this tumultuous time that a handful of volunteer philanthropists began advocating the importance of education to address these pressing social issues. Though the journey began modestly, by the late 1800s, a powerful educational reform movement took shape. In just a few decades, Britain boasted the most educated working class in Europe, with almost 100% literacy.

This momentous change stemmed from the recognition that educating the entire population including children and working-class adults, held the key to meet labor demands and establish a robust navy and military, while also resolving England's social problems.

The transformation showcased in THREE TALES FROM THE TIP OF AN ERA underscores the profound significance of education in shaping in the lives of individuals and nations and unlocking their economic potential. Despite the difficulties faced during the Industrial Revolution, the unwavering focus on education left an indelible mark on Britain's history, elevating its status at the time as the technologically advanced nation in the world.

The emergence of ragged schools by philanthropists in the mid-1800s was a pivotal moment in education history.

Education pioneer and shoemaker John Pounds surrounded by his students
JOHN POUNDS (1766-1839) – CREDITED AS THE ORIGINATOR OF THE RAGGED SCHOOL MOVEMENT, was crippled as a young shipwright apprentice and went on to become a cobbler. He reportedly sewed extra pockets on the inside of his overcoat and filled them with baked potatoes before setting off at night to the Portsmouth dockyards to search for homeless children. He would toss them the warm potatoes and tell them to come to his shop the next day, as there was more food there. In his tiny workshop, packed with as many as 40 children at a time, he mended shoes whilst teaching them basic reading and arithmetic, as well as lessons about living. In 1999, he won a Portsmouth newspaper ‘Man of the Millennium’ award ahead of more famous local heroes including Lord Nelson and Charles Dickens. [wikipedia]

Ragged schools got their name because the students wore rags and often had no shoes. They were run by philanthropic organizations for society’s most destitute children, sometimes combining free education and religious instruction with food, clothing, and lodging where possible.

The fact that almost half of the people in jails were unemployed and illiterate illustrated the link between poverty, ignorance, and crime. The primary goal, therefore, was to educate and incorporate the children who were at risk into society to reduce crime.

Classes were often held in stables, lofts, and under railway bridges, and were taught by volunteers. However, as the movement became respectable, it attracted wealthy philanthropists. An article in the Coventry Standard (Nov. 22, 1861) noted that ragged schools contributed to the prosperity of the nation by 'reducing the slough of ignorance . . . such that ‘there should be no children – the future citizens of our country – left to grow up in such a condition that they will inevitably come upon society for support, as paupers or as criminals.’ Soon these efforts gained recognition as also helping to create a literate labor force to power the Industrial Revolution.


Industrialization created the need for universal education to supply a much-needed labour force.

Although ragged schools had been helping to meet the most basic needs, by the 1870s industrial schools were established under the responsibility of local school boards, with two main goals: to remove children at risk of becoming delinquent from bad influences, and to teach them a trade to meet the labour demands of the Industrial Revolution.


Ragged school in George Yard, a dingy alley in London’s East End Whitechapel. [Wikipedia]

‘AT RISK’ CHILDREN who had not committed a crime but were neglected or had criminal parents, were sent to industrial schools rather than workhouses to mitigate the risk that they might become delinquent.

CHILD CRIMINALS went to reformatories or military training ships. They were given basic literacy, but the main focus was to teach skills and trades suitable to join the workforce. They were generally employed as soon as they left school and were monitored by the school for years after they were released. The average reconviction rate was low: Only 22% of children from reformatories and industrial schools committed crimes in their adult lives, which compares favourably with modern England which has 40% recidivism within the first year of release from custody.

An industrial school for girls. These offered training - primarily to go into household service. Over time, as women became more literate, they left service and sought better paying jobs, such as teaching or working as shop clerks, which also offered more reasonable hours and greater independence. [Wikipedia]

Schooling was rigorous. Many operated as boarding schools, with a strict schedule: up at 6 a.m., bed at 7 p.m., and a full day of instruction that included reading, arithmetic, and a strong focus on trades: sewing, knitting, laundry, and cleaning for girls; and woodwork, gardening, shoemaking and textile skills for boys.

Factory owners wanted docile, disciplined workers who would arrive on time and do as they were told by their managers. The rigors of classroom learning under the stern direction of a teacher trained workers in the skills and trades, provided basic literacy, and inculcated obedience and a strict work ethic.



The training ship 'HMS Wellesley' in 1876. By this time Royal Navy sailors were wearing shoes. The boys wore uniforms but trained barefoot. [https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/

INDUSTRIAL TRAINING SHIPS AND REFORMATORY SHIPS also helped to meet the growing need for sailors. The reformatory and industrial ships were usually big old wooden man-of-war ships. The students’ timetable included six hours of industrial training and three hours of education and bible study. There were three reformatory ships and ten industrial training ships in the United Kingdom.



Sunday Schools were attended by all social classes, but their greatest impact was on the less well-off. In addition to classroom activities, there were also country outings and sports, some of which gave rise to football leagues. While there may have been cases of rigid indoctrination, that does not seem to have been the general story. “There was no fascism, or anything like that,” recalled Britain’s famous cartoonist, Bill Tidy, who retained rich memories of Christmas parties, singing, and the gentle touch. “No ‘ kill the Jews or the Catholics’ or whatever. It was just nice people, putting forward decent values of what life was about.” [https://victorianchildren.org]

EDUCATION AND UPWARD SOCIAL MOBILITY Gradually, laws limited child labour and ensured that education was available to all, although it often cost a fee and attendance was not mandatory. In 1870, locally elected school boards were established to build, manage, and fund schools from local taxes. By the 1880s, school was compulsory up to the age of ten, and in 1893, up to the age of thirteen.

Evening and weekend education for working-class adults became popular. Some trade unions offered training to gain qualifications, as well as recreational activities such as cycling, gymnastics, and swimming. Many also taught economics, industrial history, and politics through a lens that was increasingly influenced by Marxist ideas.


But while education was an engine of social mobility, it was also a form of social control and reinforcement of the social hierarchy.


Workers at their machines at Luckman & Pickering's hat making factory in Bedworth. 1900s [Warwickshire County Record Office]


Although education served as a means of social mobility, it simultaneously functioned as a tool for social control, reinforcing the existing class hierarchy. Students were assigned to schools based on their class background and family occupation, and in relation to the economy, which needed many more workers than thinkers. In addition to basic literacy and numeracy, the lower classes learned obedience and industrial skills that would make them good workers.

The middle class learned professional skills, and the upper class received a predominantly classical education for a future in business and management. Thus, the education system, while it raised the bar somewhat, still supported the existing social hierarchy.


Shaping a Nation Through Education: The timeless relevance of literacy and numeracy in a technological age

Today, as in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, a significant portion of the population struggles with basic literacy, hindering not only personal development but also impacting social and economic progress. Much like in the early 19th century, poverty and inequality are still affecting access to quality education, perpetuating the cycle of illiteracy.

In addition to the timeless challenges of inequity, we now face an additional problem in education largely due to the rapid advancement of technology, which has changed the way we consume information, leading to shorter attention spans, a decline in the ability to read long texts and a poor grasp of basic math.

In recent years, arguments have arisen questioning the necessity of skills such as penmanship, multiplication tables, algebra and geometry or of having to retain factual information, compose an essay, or train our memories. knowledge - the argument being that the focus of education should be more on creative and critical thinking. As machines take over more and more of our thinking, the foundational skills of literacy and basic numeracy remain crucial in developing critical thinking abilities or be at the mercy of our machines Regardless of the power of artificial intelligence, these fundamental skills enable individuals to analyze information, evaluate data, and make informed decisions are more important as ever.


Children immersed in silent reading in a classroom in 1940
Children immersed in silent reading in a classroom in 1940

Are we getting dumber?

In a Times Higher Education poll of 1,150 higher education staff, almost half of the academics (48%) reported that many students arriving at university are almost illiterate and more than a third (39%) of academics thought that students are “intellectually less able” or less well prepared than previous generation, and reported concerns about the “work ethic and motivation” of their students.

For much of the 20th century, human intelligence steadily rose about 3 points per decade. This trend ended in 1975. Since then, IQ levels have been declining steeply at a rate of about 7 points per generation. Studies show that the decline is not due to genetics but rather environmental factors. Possible reasons for the decline include changes in education systems, nutrition, the media environment, decreased reading, and increased online activity. Technology, particularly smartphones, may also be contributing to the decline by affecting concentration and cognitive abilities. The exact reasons for the decline in IQ scores remain a subject of ongoing research and debate.

Shaping a Nation Through Education' is a lesson from history that applies to us today.

Countless studies show that education is a fundamental determinant not only of health, demographic trends and individual income, but also—and notably—of a country’s aggregate level economic growth. Even in a world of rapid technological advancement, strong literacy and numeracy skills are as important as ever to form the mind, and empower individuals to adapt to new challenges, acquire knowledge, and engage in continuous learning, making them indispensable even in an AI-driven society.

These skills extend beyond technology, playing a vital role in nurturing emotional intelligence. They foster empathy and understanding, critical in fields like healthcare, counseling, education, and customer service, where human connection and emotional support are irreplaceable by AI.

They enhance our ability to discern the nuances of ideas expressed through language, helping us detect biases, identify manipulative tactics, balance arguments and make informed decisions. These skills are essential for a thriving democracy, in which the population can analyze information critically, learn from the past, and participate in an informed and thoughtful way to shape society.

Furthermore, literacy and basic numeracy are key to preserving the essence of human creativity, which fuels innovation and problem-solving. In an age of advanced technology, the uniqueness of human creativity remains unmatched and continues to drive progress and advancement in countless aspects of our lives.

If we were smart enough to heed the timeless lessons of history and examples of shaping a nation through education, we would recognize the unwavering importance that it literacy in shaping the present and the future.


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