Would you want to go to a school like this?

4 min readApr 27, 2021

Schools have changed hugely in the last 150 years. What has got better, what has got worse, and who were the women who forced through these changes?

Let’s go back in time around 150 years. We’re entering a period called the Victorian era, so called because Queen Victoria was on the throne. What do you think you would be doing today if you were living back then? If it is a Monday or Tuesday, do you think you would be going to school? What if it is a Saturday?

Well, if you were a child in East London, chances are you would not be going to school, whatever day it was. I can hear some of you cheering, but what if I told you, instead you might be going to work. Perhaps in some kind of factory or mill. And you would be there from early in the morning, until late at night. And there would be no football club or playing in the park with your friends on Saturday — you’d be at work then too.

Doesn’t sound quite so good now, does it.

Quite a lot of people back then didn’t think it was so good either. They didn’t think it was good that children never learnt to read and write, because they turned into adults who couldn’t read and write.

So in 1870, they introduced a new mass schooling programme, so more children could go to school. More children in schools, meant more buildings were needed. And they built lots, particularly in London. Next time you go out for a walk with your family or friends, have a look around you and see if you can spot some Victorian schools. They are usually built from brick, and have a plaque near the roof, which states the year they were built in. Maybe your school was built in the Victorian era? Have a look next time you go in.

Another way to identify Victorian schools are the entrance signs for boys, and the separate one for girls. Originally, more boys went to school, because people didn’t think it was important to educate girls. Over time, this changed and all children — boys and girls — were required to go to school, much like today. However, at school they were often kept separate, and taught different things. Only boys were allowed to do science and technology, as they were expected to get jobs that used these subjects; girls learnt skills like sewing and cooking, as the best jobs they could expect were in domestic service. You didn’t get any choice in this and couldn’t complain. Victorian schools were very strict, and you didn’t question or answer back to your teacher.

School was also quite different depending on how rich or poor your family was. If you were poor, you might go to school with toothache, lice or starving hungry. Imagine trying to practice your spellings with your tooth throbbing, or your head itching like crazy. This was a time before the NHS, so if you wanted to see a doctor or dentist, you had to pay for it. And many families in East London could not afford that.

Sisters, Rachel and Margaret McMillan, realised that sick and hungry children could not learn. So with their friend Katherine Glasier, they called on the government to provide free school meals. These were introduced in 1906. The children didn’t get packets of crisps and cartons of orange juice, like you might have in your lunch box. If you were lucky you might get a hot meal, like boiled meat and potatoes; others got bread and cheese, perhaps a pickled onion or bread and jam.

The sisters also set up a clinic where children could get their teeth checked, and see a doctor for free. The teachers said they saw a huge improvement in the children, who were happier, better behaved and their school work improved.

Clara Grant was another East London teacher, who realised that school was more than learning to read and write. The children in her neighbourhood were poor, so she provided them with free clothes, a hot meal (probably the only one they got all day) and she introduced the first school nurse. She was best known, however, for her farthing bundles. Children with a farthing (less than 1p) could walk under an arch that read: Enter All Ye Children Small, None Can Come Who Are Too Tall. They would then be given a newspaper bundle, inside which were lots of small gifts to unwrap.

The other big difference with schools is that most children would leave when they were 12. That’s around Year 6. And if you were from a poor family, that was when you went out to work. Gradually, the leaving age increased, children were able to learn for longer and start working when they were properly grown up.

Now you have learnt more about Victorian schools, do you think you would like to go to one? Perhaps learning needlework sounds fun to you? Or maybe you would like the sound of the school dinners? Have a look in your activity pack for some tasks you can do to learn more about Victorian schools. If you don’t have a pack, you can download one online eastlondonwomen.org.uk/learning/primary/ .




East London women-led digital non-profit, using tech to share stories from the past, and sharing skills to prepare young people for the future.