Changing Childhoods: The Educational Experiences of Working-Class Children in the 1860s
This research project investigates the experiences of working-class children in England during the period immediately preceding the introduction of educational compulsion. It takes a broad approach to the topic, looking not only at full-time schooling, but also Sunday schools, half-time education, and the pupil-teacher system. It seeks to discover how changing ideas about childhood influenced these children’s experiences of education.
It is theoretically grounded in the new sociology of childhood and the Foucauldian concept of discourse, distinguishing between the objective biological immaturity of children, and the culturally and temporally contingent meanings attached to that immaturity, which form abstract notions of ‘childhood’. During the mid-nineteenth century, influential discourses included the Rousseauian-Romantic view of the child as natural innocent, the Lockean understanding of the child as tabula rasa, and the utilitarian conceptualisation of the child’s value lying in futurity. These, together with the older, contrasting discourse of the economically productive child, will be explored, positioning the school as an institution within which varying ideological viewpoints were made manifest, trialled and tested.
The research will be carried out through document analysis, examining a wide range of primary documents from the period 1850-1870. These will include school logbooks and associated records, working-class autobiographies, and inspection reports. They will illustrate both the educational experiences of children, and the views of the adults shaping those experiences through policy and practice. The intention is to create a detailed, contextualised picture, connecting earlier scholarship on educational reform with newer theoretical developments in the history and sociology of childhood.