The Welsh Intermediate Education Act, 1889

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Throughout the 20th century Wales and the Welsh were justifiably proud of the standards of education within the country. And the basis of those high standards was rooted in one piece of legislation that was both startling and seminal: the Welsh Intermediate Education Act of 1889.

The story, however, starts some time before. Compulsory elementary education in Britain had arrived after the passing of John Forster's Education Act in 1870.

This was a revolutionary piece of legislation where, for the first time in British history, education was to be offered to all children, regardless of their economic status or ability.

Of course, it took years to fully implement the terms of the Act – simply getting children, particularly less well-off children, to attend school, when they and their parents had been used to them roaming the streets or providing extra income, was a major problem.

School boards were set up, each of them with the responsibility of first or primary level education for all children. The school leaving age was set at 10 and no-one was to be exempt from school attendance. Truant schools were even established in some areas to cater for those children who had clearly not learned that particular lesson.

By the early 1880s the problems around the provision of elementary education had been, largely, overcome and now it was time for reformers and educationalists to look to the next stage of educating the country.

Pre-dating similar legislation in England by a dozen years, the Welsh Intermediate Education Act was passed on 12 August 1889.

The intention was simple. As the opening paragraph of the Act read: "The purpose of the Act is to make further provision for the intermediate and technical education of the inhabitants of Wales and the county of Monmouth."

The school boards were swept away and joint education committees were established in every Welsh county. It now became their duty to submit to the charity commissioners a scheme for the implementation of intermediate (between primary and further education) and technical education for the people of their areas.

These intermediate schools were designed to cater, mainly, for children of the middle classes who, because of their financial situation and social status, had little or no prospect of moving on to one of the independent public schools.

While the original intention had been to emphasise the technical aspects of education – these were, after all, children who would become the engineers, surveyors, clerks and technicians, not the rulers, of the empire - it did not always quite work out that way.

While many of the intermediate schools did offer good quality technical education, particularly in the mining valleys of east Wales and in places such as Pembroke Dock, where the presence of the admiralty dockyard was an attractive draw, many of them quickly took to copying the curriculum of the long-established public schools. Being able to decline Latin verbs or understand the intricacies of iambic pentameters may have been interesting but it did not guarantee a job when school days were over.

Nevertheless, it was a broad based education that benefited many – and it did help provide Britain with a huge pool of prospective teachers. For large parts of the 20th century no English secondary school was complete without its squad of Welsh teachers, a clear product of the Welsh intermediate school system.

Attendance at the new schools was, of course, voluntary and depended to a large extent on parents being able to afford their contribution or fee. That was a major factor and, unfortunately, many children who would have benefited from attending one of the new intermediate schools was unable to do so simply because their parents could not afford it.

For those children who chose not to move on to intermediate school, the leaving age was raised to 11 (in 1899 it was raised again to 12), pupils remaining at their elementary schools where the curriculum was, supposedly, adapted to cater for their needs. By 1891 such education was being provided free of charge.

Although initially called intermediate schools, due to the emphasis on county-wide provision the new schools soon became known as county schools. Caernarvonshire was the first area to establish such a school, royal assent being given in 1893 and the first intermediate or county school opening in the Caernarvon itself in February 1894.

The new schools were to be funded by a variety of different means. They were partly financed from the rates, partly from fees collected from the pupils and partly from the reorganisation of old endowments that had been given, sometimes centuries before, by wealthy benefactors for the creation of educational establishments.

Some of the long established endowed schools, places such as Brecon, chose not to become part of the new system and were allowed to remain outside the county provision, thus creating the basis of the Welsh public school network. Most, however, chose inclusion.

The county schools continued to offer a valuable service until the 1944 Education Act created the tripartite system of grammar, secondary modern and technical schools. Then the county schools were subsumed into the new range of provision, most of them becoming town grammar schools. Names, however, take a long time to either grow or fade and for many, many years the Welsh grammar schools continued to be known as "county schools".

The Welsh Intermediate Education Act may not have been perfect but it undoubtedly laid the foundation of a revolutionary system of education. It enabled many boys and girls to gain access to an educational experience they would otherwise never have imagined possible. As such, it is something well worth celebrating.

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