Prior to the nineteenth century the majority of people earned their living in the agricultural sector. Few, if any, had need of anything more than basic literacy. An expansion of the economy, brought about by the industrial revolution, introduced new opportunities for employment. Political developments encouraged the circulation of newspapers and created more clerical job opportunities. Growth of the railway brought a need for travellers to read and understand travel timetables. Agricultural controls transformed farming from a rural employment to a business. Almost every aspect of life was changing and challenging people to achieve a higher standard of education.

The Government had already tried to introduce non-denominational education for the poor under the auspices of the Kildare Place Society. This society provided money for those wishing to start a school and was to be open to the poor of all denominations. However, this proved to be less successful than the Government had envisaged. Religious leaders very rapidly became suspicious of the Bible reading that was sanctioned in each school.

Old Aghorey Session House School. Crown copyright. Markethill Primary 1911.

Markethill Primary 1914.

In the 1830's the Government introduced a nation-wide system of education, intended to address the inequalities in learning. A Commission of Education was established, under the direction of Chief Secretary, EG Stanley, to provide money grants for building of school buildings, salaries of teachers and books for the pupils. In an attempt to allay the fears of religious leaders the Commission especially sought applications that had the approval of all local clergy. The following is a sample of the application form:

To be answered by applicants for Aid towards the
fitting up of Schools,
the paying of Teachers, and the obtaining School-requisites.

The Commission would contribute up to two thirds of the cost of salaries and building work, with the community to raise the other third of the coast. A text urging religious toleration was to be hung in a prominent position within the school:

Religion was taught in some schools within designated hours but the main subjects were the three R's of reading, writing and arithmetic. Children were expected to contribute a small fee for their schooling the cost of heating the room. Penmanship was most important for young men wishing to become clerks. Children began practising their letters in sandtrays before progressing to slates. Eventually they graduated to the use of pencils and ink pens. At this time they used copy books known as Vere Foster books, named after a wealthy man who had given substantial amounts of money to the education system.

The buildings were sometimes little more than miserable huts; some were even held in abandoned barns. Usually the school had only one room in which a single teacher educated pupils of all ages. Registers were kept to record attendance and the payment of fees. They also recorded the reasons why students left the school; many because they were employed at home, others to attend a denominational school, and still others due to emigration.

An inspection of 1837 showed that education was suffering because of the standard of teaching. As a result a teacher training college was set up in Dublin to teach basic skills, with additional subjects of science, industry and farming. At the end of the course a teacher received a certificate. A qualified teacher could earn anything from £10-£30 per year. Teachers could single out pupils to be monitors within the class, hearing the younger children read and keeping order. These monitors were given the opportunity to sit an examination to become teachers, ensuring a continuity of teaching. The Board issued a series of strict guidelines by which teachers were to operate:

It was hoped that by the time pupils left the national school they would have attained a standard of education that would open up a range of different occupation