An Irishman's Diary

 

ONE hundred and fifty years ago, on June 27th, 1862, the secretaries to the Commissioners of the Board of National Education, Maurice Cross and James Kelly, sent their report for 1861 to the lord lieutenant, the Earl of Carlisle.

The year just gone had been another successful one. More than 800,000 children had enrolled in 5,800 schools connected with the board, compared with 100,000 in fewer than 800 schools during 1833, its first year of operation, and the number had increased in every year, even during the worst period of the Famine, despite clerical hostility.

The board had also provided formal training at its Metropolitan Model School for 319 teachers at public expense, and for 39 others who had supported themselves. They ranged in age from 16 to 42 years.

Almost half of the 6,412 teachers in the national schools were now trained and they worked with 669 work mistresses and 2,422 senior and junior monitors.

The board’s pride and joy was the network of 22 district “model” schools around the country and especially in Ulster.

These schools had been opened from 1849 onwards. Their objectives were to promote “united” education, to exhibit the most improved methods of literary and scientific education and to train young people for the office of teacher.

Some had farms attached for the purpose of affording instruction in agriculture.

They were built and supported entirely from funds provided by parliament and were therefore under the exclusive control of the commissioners who appointed and dismissed the teachers. In modern terminology, they were intended to be “centres of excellence” and the teachers were persons of “superior attainment”.

The inspectors’ reports about the schools were detailed but generally laudatory.

In Galway, for example, six trained teachers and 20 pupil teachers and paid monitors gave literary instruction to an average daily attendance of 307 children and the trained teachers also gave instruction to their untrained colleagues outside school hours.

Their work was exhausting and the inspector observed that the wear and tear of life in these schools was infinitely greater than in the ordinary national schools and was particularly trying to the constitutions of females.

Although most model schools had been in existence for less than 10 years, not a few women teachers had fallen into ill health and a number had died. He noted, however, that in many instances the delicacy of these ladies was due to their not taking sufficient exercise in the open air.

Part of the pressure in these schools undoubtedly arose from the public examination of pupils.

In Coleraine, in September, it was conducted in the presence of the local gentry and clergy and parents and friends. It was held over two days and the subjects examined included reading, spelling, grammar, arithmetic, geography, writing from dictation, vegetable physiology and science.

At the end, premiums were distributed to the most successful pupils and everyone sang the national anthem.

In Omagh, on December 23rd, many members of the public were unable to gain admission to the examination room but the “numerous and distinguished audience” who succeeded remained standing for the greater part of the day.

Teachers in model schools were not obliged to provide religious instruction, but it could be provided by pastors or other persons approved by parents.

The commissioners did not hire or dismiss teachers in the great majority of schools which they supported but which were controlled by patrons. But they did provide recommendations for employers.

Teachers should be persons of Christian sentiment, calm temper and discretion. They should be imbued with a spirit of peace, obedient to the law and loyal to the sovereign.

They should possess the art of communicating knowledge and be capable of moulding the mind of youth and of giving direction to the power which education confers.

There were two stipulations: they could not be permitted to engage in any business or occupation that would interfere with their usefulness as teachers and they must be expressly forbidden to keep public houses or houses that sold spirituous liquors.

The commissioners were also determined that the suspicions of the churches that the schools would be used for proselytising would prove unfounded.

The objectives laid down in 1832 were to afford literary, moral and separate religious instruction to children of all persuasions, as far as possible in the same school, but upon the fundamental principle that no attempt should be made to interfere with the ” peculiar religious tenets of any description of Christian pupil”.

Religious instruction could be given before or after normal school hours or for one other period. Before commencing, the teacher was obliged to erect a notice visible to all pupils and to move children whose parents disapproved of their attendance to a separate apartment, if one was available.

At all other times, religious books were to be stored in presses.

To reassure the public, they had free access to classrooms during the hours of secular instruction, to hear how it was being conducted and to examine textbooks and wall tablets. They could also write remarks in a book that had to be kept for the inspectors.

Teachers were divided into eight “classes” depending on their training and competence. The elite, first class, division one teachers, earned £52 (men) or £42 (women) per annum from the board and additional sums from fees or local subscriptions.

Like many official documents before and since, the report was noteworthy for what it didn’t contain. The continuing hostility of the two major churches was glossed over. The existence of more than 2,500 schools

outside the system was ignored. There was no discussion about the average attendance being less than 40 per cent.

The Irish language wasn’t mentioned and the questions of security of tenure or pensions didn’t arise. But perhaps in that report by the model school inspector in Galway, there is an embryonic explanation for the teachers’ associations that became the Irish National Teachers Organisation under the leadership of Vere Foster, seven years later.