From the beginning of time children have received their initial education at home under the care of a mother or other interested relative. In earliest times education was of a practical nature. Children were taught simple obedience to their parents and instructed in the chores they would perform in later life. This informal instruction taught children the basic skills necessary to survival.
Following the arrival of Patrick in Ireland, the church became the foremost
educational institution in the country. New methods of writing and preserving
information came into being and with it the need for an educated priesthood.
Yet outside of monasteries people had little need of reading and writing, the
world of books had no bearing on their day to day survival. Developments within
society led to the establishment of new professions and with these new opportunities
came the need for advanced education. Gradually children were taught their ABC's,
usually by carving the letters onto the face of a dice and allowing children
to play. Such early potential usually remained unfulfilled, as parents had neither
the means nor the inclination to provide their offspring with schooling.
Royal Charter established some schools for the education of the poor in 1733 but the existence of schools did not preclude the development of learning. The demand for child labour was such that parents found it more profitable to send their children to work at an early age. Some schools were established in the eighteenth century under the auspices of the Erasmus Smith Society. These were state-controlled schools aimed at the conversion of Roman Catholic children to Protestantism. Other schools operated under the guidance of the Society for Education of the Poor in Ireland, also known as the Kildare Place Society. This organisation, founded in 1811, attempted to provide education to students from all religions, but Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland committees were suspicious of its aims.
At times young people received some schooling at a 'hedge school' so called because they were often held out of doors. At these they were taught by rote and had little understanding of what they were being taught. Often this was due to a lack of teacher training, with the result that teachers were often only a little more knowledgeable than their students were. However, the standard of schooling in Co.Armagh was better than in the rest of Ireland as Charles Coote recorded in his survey of 1804,
The establishment of the Commissioners for National Education in 1831 has generally been thought of as the beginning of popular education in Ireland. But it is important to note that the commission was not responsible for opening new schools, merely controlling the funding for existing schools. Essentially the education system continued unchanged throughout the nineteenth century. One reason for this was that in the 1840's Ireland experienced an economic slump brought about by the Napoleonic wars and its system of poor law provision was not sufficient to counteract widespread poverty. It was more profitable, and indeed necessary, for children to work rather than to receive an education.
The information contained within the ED.1 reference at the Public Record Office
Northern Ireland demonstrates a number of trends regarding the system of national
schooling in the country. From the grant aid forms it appears that only half
the number of enrolled children attended on a regular basis. Lessons were delivered
in a single room, often by a teacher of only eighteen years of age and sometimes
as young as sixteen years of age. The quality of teaching and educational standards
was therefore considerably varied.
Early grant aid forms often requested funding for improvements to schools buildings. As the years passed, these requests turned more towards the provision of books and equipment. Salary requests also steadily increased as additional teachers were employed to cope with increasing numbers of students. Demands for domestic training and a need to address farming efficiency brought about the employment of significant numbers of workmasters and mistresses to provide practical skills. Provision of practical education induced more children into the classroom and the system endured.
Developments within the Civil Service brought increasing opportunities for young people. This was especially beneficial to second sons who found it necessary to seek employment. In 1870 a bonus was introduced for teachers who were willing to teach other subjects outside of normal hours. This brought onto the curriculum subjects such as geometry, Irish and Latin. No doubt, this was of benefit to those with the means and inclination to learn but the majority of people in Ireland wished only for the skills that would enable them to read the local paper and correspond with relatives who had emigrated to America.
Female education was even more limited as women were barred from many occupations. In the lower classes girls were taught only that which they needed in order to teach their children the ABC's. In the upper classes females were discouraged from sitting exams as this was considered too taxing on their health. They were instructed in the accomplishments of music, languages and needlecraft. Mrs.Lucy Hutchinson recorded,
After partition, the new Ministry of Education in Northern Ireland introduced
changes aimed at developing the quality of the education being delivered. The
Education Act of 1923 placed schools in the care of local authorities, allowing
education to be more responsive to the needs of the local community. The Butler
Act of 1944 attempted to combat child labour by raising the leaving age to fifteen,
a measure postponed until 1957. Since then changes to the system have focused
on developing the practical subjects contained within the curriculum.