Until the early 20th century, children at the Foundling Hospital were likely to have had better opportunities for education than their peers in the wider community.

Universal education was not introduced in England until 1870; until then many thousands of poor children received no education at all. And even when education was introduced, poor children in the community would work long hours outside of school and would leave at the first opportunity to help their families.

Education opportunities for the poor

In the mid to late 19th century many of the major children’s voluntary societies were founded, including Barnardos in 1870; Dr Stephenson’s Home (which later became Action for Children) in 1869; and the Church of England Incorporated Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays (which later became The Children’s Society) in 1881. They offered similar educational opportunities as the Foundling Hospital.

Educating poor children was controversial. There were societal concerns throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries that it was dangerous to educate the poor as this would broaden their horizons and make them unhappy with their position in life. Because of this, attempts were sometimes made to teach poor children in the community to read the Bible, but it was less likely that they would be taught to write.

It was thought that children should only be educated to the level that was good for society and their fixed places within it. This was part of the broader principle that people should know their place in society and stay there. This view was challenged by social reformers of the 19th century, who argued that education was the key for poor people to raise themselves out of poverty.

Education as a social dilemma

Offering paupers (children in workhouses and district schools) an education when their peers in the community had none, clearly went against the Victorian principle that paupers should never have more advantages than those who were not dependent on the state. It was argued that education was not necessary for pauper children in rural parishes, where they were destined to become unskilled farm labourers. However, children who had not had the chance to learn the skills that would enable them to enter the labour market were likely to remain dependent on the parish. Despite these arguments, between 1835 and 1870 it seems likely that pauper children in workhouses and district schools had a better chance of becoming literate than poor children living in the community.

From 1835 onwards, the Poor Law guardians were required to appoint school teachers in the workhouses in order to ensure that:

‘The boys and girls who are inmates of the Workhouse shall, for three of the working hours, at least, every day, be instructed in reading, writing, arithmetic, and the principles of the Christian religion, and such other instruction shall be imparted to them as may fit them for service, and train them to habits of usefulness, industry, and virtue’.

(Poor Law Commissioners, 1847, Consolidated General Order Article 114)

The Foundling Hospital approach

At the Foundling Hospital, children were initially only taught the principles of Christianity and to read. This changed in 1757, when the first school master, Joseph Redpath, was appointed and boys were routinely taught to write. However, girls were only taught to write ‘if necessary’.

By 1760 Redpath was also teaching basic arithmetic. Redpath left the Hospital in the 1760s and the influx of children caused by the General Reception (when any child could be admitted, and admissions went up) led to a greater emphasis on vocational training. In 1765 the Hospital stopped teaching children to write; however by 1777 boys were learning to write again. By 1800 boys and girls were both taught to write and some to do some basic accounting, at a time when only just over 60% of men in the community could sign their names.

From the 1770s onwards the children at the Foundling Hospital were taught to sing and by the mid 19th century all those aged nine and over attended choir practice three times a week. Singing remained part of the children’s education into the 20th century.

Educating children in care in the 20th century

After the introduction of universal education in the 1870s, very little attention was given to the education of children in care until the 1980s, when concerns were raised about poor education and employment outcomes. Since then, there have been a number of policy initiatives that incorporate aims to improve outcomes for children in care, including basic educational qualifications, and to provide better opportunities for them to attend university, and to be adequately supported through higher education (Quality Protects (1998-2003); Every Child Matters (2003-2010); Care Matters (2006). Research evidence indicates that looked after children today have better educational opportunities than they had before they entered care.

Prepared with the help of Dr Harriet Ward  CBE, Emeritus Professor of Child and Family Research at Loughborough University and Honorary Research Fellow, The Rees Centre, Department of Education University of Oxford. 

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