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18 September 2014
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Victorian Classroom Life: School Reports as Source Material

By Professor Eric Evans
Image of Victorian boys, exercising at school
Victorian boys exercising in a truancy school ©

To get as close as possible to the truth, historians take a critical approach to the reports of even the most respected government officials - and sometimes discover unexpected prejudices.

Context

The history of truancy goes back over a hundred years when school attendance was first made compulsory. Then, as now, school inspectors were charged with monitoring this, in addition to judging the overall quality of teaching, as the extracts from the inspector's report on page 2 of this article show.

The source is part of a report to government from one of Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools. It was part of the Inspectors' duties to write up their impressions of school visits. Inspectors could, and did, comment on a wide range of aspects concerning education. They looked at school attendance, the curriculum, the quality of teaching and - a key focus here - whether pupils turned up regularly or not.

Inspectors frequently also interpreted their role as to draw government's attention to failures in the implementation of policy, and to suggest remedies. You will find a good example of this at the end of the inspector's report.

'...this source gives us a highly useful local perspective ...'

The source is helpful to historians of 19th-century Britain, because it provides us with a useful perspective from a school inspector. From 1881, attendance at elementary school should have been compulsory. Here Seymour Tremenheere tells his political masters what is actually happening on the ground three years later, in 1884. In this case, in the far north-west of England.

You will notice that Tremenheere is generally satisfied with attendance levels. However, there are certain places which give grave cause for concern. So this source gives us a highly useful local perspective, from a government employee paid to find out what is going on.



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