Schooling for Shillings

Imagine a private-enterprise educational system that spans the globe and teaches tens of thousands of the disenfranchised poor the three Rs. For the students, the schools are virtually free, yet they are self-sustaining. The system encourages children to develop personal initiative, adult responsibility, and an appreciation of the laws of economics. Students work at adult jobs within the school and get paid for them. They learn to read and write in months instead of years.

This is not a utopian free-enterprise pipe dream. This was the Lancaster system-in its heyday in the early 1800s, an exciting, controversial, and revolutionary educational approach. It caused considerable social upheaval by enabling the poor to break down traditional socioeconomic barriers with their newfound skills.

Ironically, its success ultimately provoked a rapid growth in public education, even though government never duplicated the Lancaster system's low cost or efficiency. The Lancaster system's rise and fall presents a stark lesson for all who are interested in alternatives to today's government education system.

As a young Quaker, Joseph Lancaster felt early in life the sting of religious discrimination. Born in 1778 in the slums of London, his family's faith barred him from attending the schools for the poor run by the Church of England. So his father taught him at home.

The painful memory of this official discrimination, coupled with a temperament suited to pedagogy-biographer David Salmon lists his qualities as "zeal, self-confidence, ingenuity,.. .intuitive insight into the nature of children, [and an] ardent love for them"-motivated Lancaster to teach the poor. By age 18 he was instructing London urchins in his father's attic, many for free or for a nominal charge. (Lancaster was successful in raising funds to maintain his school, Salmon notes, because he was "a skillful, persistent, and unblushing beggar, and he had joined a sect always famous for its liberal and unostentatious charities.")

The young schoolmaster was soon deluged with hundreds of students. With so many pupils and limited funding, Lancaster had to devise a radical method to make ends meet: thus was the "monitorial system" born. The system delegated to the students responsibility for teaching and doing the paperwork. The better students taught the slower. When the slower developed, they became monitors. There was one teaching monitor for every 10 students. But there were other monitorial positions that involved many of the students and spread prestige and responsibilities around.

One monitor would assign a new student to a class. Another would keep track of absences. When a student made progress, a monitor promoted him. Another made or mended pens. Another was in charge of writing slates. A "monitor-general" was in charge of all the other monitors.

The nature of the student interaction-teaching and learning from their peers-discouraged boredom or what later came to be called alienation. Wrote Lancaster: "A school, governed by such order, exhibits a scene of delight to visitors, and happiness among the children, which baffles the power of description."

Under this system, there was little for the master (teacher) to do except organize, reward, punish, and inspire. Lancaster's schools didn't need a harsh master, for they were governed almost automatically. "The master should be a silent bystander because the system and not the master's vague or uncertain judgment will be in practice," he boasted. "In a common school, the authority of the master is personal and the rod is his scepter. His absence brings riot and confusion. In his absence his assistants will rarely be minded. Under my plan, the master leaves and business goes on as usual because the authority is not personal."

His method was unique, fast, and effective. "I continually made experiments," Lancaster later recalled. "1,000 children could be taught in one school room under the care of one master and a great proportion of them finish their education in 12 months. That education comprising the art of reading, writing and arithmetic." Beyond the three Rs, his schools also emphasized geometry, algebra, trigonometry, religion, and languages.

In seeking ways to motivate his students, Lancaster stumbled on a method that brought out their entrepreneurial spirit and taught them how to deal with money. This was no small matter, since Lancaster's era was coincident with the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. Most of the students and their parents had rarely dealt directly with cash.

The schools awarded merit badges for various deeds and accomplishments. These were small paper tickets, much like trading stamps in 1960s America. And like trading stamps, the merit badges were worth little individually but had considerable value when redeemed in bulk. Toys, children's books, French half-crown pieces engraved with "a reward for merit," silver pens, medals, and purses were typical of the prizes that merit badges could buy.

Badges were also used to borrow books from the library monitor, whose job was much like a "concession." It was a bonanza for the monitor, and students often bid to purchase the concession with their merit badges. They learned, in the process, something about the dynamics of buying and selling in the marketplace.

In fact, free-market themes dominated Lancaster's ideas. Adult teachers in Lancaster's system had their income partially based on class attendance. Thus a teacher became a salesman and a promoter of the system to bring in more pupils. Anyone who could pay the few shillings a year was welcome, including girls-no other system at the time had accepted them on an equal basis with boys. In the Lancaster system, they were taught the same subject matter as boys.

Lancaster's cost-cutting experiments brought the cost of education down to a fraction of competing church or private schools. For example, students wrote on slate instead of paper. Paper was expensive, slate indestructible. To save money on books, the schools used one per subject per class. Each page was separated, placed on a stand, then the class was broken up into 10 student units. Each unit gathered around a stand and studied that one page as a lesson. The groups would then rotate so that each one would have access to all the lessons.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.