Victorian Classroom Life: School Reports as Source Material

By Professor Eric Evans
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.
Victorian boys exercising in a truancy school 


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.

Inspector's report: extracts

Report from HMI Seymour Tremenheere, on schools in the Kendal district (Parliamentary Papers, 1884, vol. xxiv, pp415-19, House of Lords Library).

'Compared with the whole of England and Wales these figures [of attendance] in Cumberland and Westmorland are extremely good ... However, it is impossible to rest content with the condition of affairs... In particular, the action, if such a term can be used, of the school attendance committees for the union of Whitehaven is open to grave criticism. In their district only 16.4 per cent of the population is enrolled on the books, and of these only 65.6 in every hundred are daily at school. They ought to have 1,000 more names on the registers, and 1,600 more scholars in average attendance ...'
'I found that for the town population of 20,000 only part of one man's time was engaged for attendance work; that their country officer had not once entered some of the schools under his charge during the proceeding 12 months; that from neither officer did his employers require any account of either his time or his results; and that no school census had been taken since the committee commenced ... their functions.'
'Moreover, I ascertained that it was an established rule of the authority that no parent should he prosecuted unless he had received a warning during the proceeding month; thus enabling a parent, provided he sent his child to school with fair regularity every alternate month, to escape with no severer penalty than six warnings per annum ...'
'One of the chief causes of absenteeism appears to me to be either apathy or want of method on the part of the local authorities ... To meet this I would strongly urge (a) that each local authority throughout the Kingdom be required to report annually to the Education Department ...; (b) that every local authority be required to appoint one or more attendance officers at the discretion of the Department; (c) that every attendance officer report periodically, say once a quarter ... for the expenditure of his time and showing the results of his efforts; (d) that teachers be bound to send in ... lists of irregular children; (c) that a census of schoolable children he taken by each local authority at least every three years.'


'Punch' cartoon image of a child 'signing off' school to attend work
Punch cartoon 1894: Children did not attend school if they had to work
In one sense, the source is obviously a reliable one. Tremenheere is clearly a conscientious and efficient man, who knows what he is talking about. He is also making an official report which was likely to be the subject of considerable scrutiny in Whitehall. He would be most unlikely to make things up.

On the other hand, school inspectors had their own agenda and it is always worth asking why people write as they do, even in official documents like these. If you look at the end of the source, you will see that the Inspector is making some quite specific recommendations to his masters. These are designed to influence policy and the cautious reader might like to think about whether Tremenheere's statement is necessarily giving a full and accurate picture.

'Where, to use a modern phrase, is he coming from?'

For example, is there likely to be any 'spin', designed to convince his employers of the need for further action? Is he proposing this because he genuinely believes that the measures he advocates are necessary, or because he wants the job of education inspectors to be made more manageable? As with so many enquiries in history, there is no definitive answer to this, but it is necessary to try to understand things from the perspective of the author. Where, to use a modern phrase, is he coming from?

Tremenheere is a bureaucrat. He likes tidy solutions. We should perhaps balance his comments on what he sees as the shortcomings of the Whitehaven union against more detailed knowledge about the local situation.

There might have been good reasons why the school attendance officer had not made more visits, and the union's policy might have been influenced by a more thorough knowledge of local conditions than a government inspector could obtain on one visit, however detailed his enquiries. So, it's worth asking whether Tremenheere is making critical judgements on the basis of insufficient detailed evidence.

Other knowledge

Also, we might want to cross-refer from what Tremenheere says here to other knowledge. Historians of education know well that one of the main reasons why children were not always at school, in the last quarter of the 19th century, was because their parents wanted them to be at work during periods of particular pressure.

This was especially true in rural areas during harvest time in the late summer or in the potato picking season during the autumn. In late 19th century, many poor people still depended on a genuinely family income and not just on the wages of the head of the household. Why does Tremenheere show no apparent awareness of this important issue when he discusses 'the chief causes of absenteeism'?

Is he perhaps not quite as objective and well informed as he might be? This all shows how critically the historian has to approach all source materials - it is only when there is a good body of corroborating evidence that one can be sure of historical facts.


All sources are useful in one way or another. However, as we have seen, getting the best out of them requires us to examine them closely - even obviously well-informed and official ones like this - and ask:

  1. Why was this source created when it was?
  2. Is the person providing the source likely to be well informed about the subject being discussed?
  3. What is the context of the source? What other information would it be useful for me to have in order to evaluate this source? Can I 'cross-refer' it to anything else I may know about?
  4. Is it likely that the author of the source has a particular 'agenda' or 'bias' which might affect what he or she says? Does the author have any ulterior motive?
  5. Are other people likely to use the source in different ways?

Hopefully the answers we get will help in assessing any source from a true historian's perspective.


Image of a school assembly c.1901
A school assembly c.1901
Working with sources such as the report examined here gives a fascinating insight into the world of the government inspector. It also helps us understand more about the relationship between the civil service and the making of government policy.

Civil servants are, in theory, exactly that. They serve ministers, who take responsibility for government policy. Reading sources like this, however, helps us see how the distinction can become blurred.

Inspectors like Tremenheere worked for many years in a specialised and technical area of government policy. They were likely to know a great deal more about policy detail and implementation than most of the ministers they notionally served. Ministers usually held office for a limited period. They might not be so able as civil servants appointed as the result of competitive examination.

In practice, many civil servants became policy makers because their ministers trusted their expertise - and the report we have just examined shows us this process in the making.

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