History Essay Sample: History of Ideas Concerning Education

Discuss the findings of The Royal Commission of Inquiry into Primary Education in Ireland (or Powis Commission) of 1868

Your discussion should include an analysis from two opposing perspectives, e.g. an aggrieved British taxpayer and a hard working Irish teacher. It should also include some reflections drawn from the History of Ideas Concerning Education which help illuminate the problem and/or point to a possible solution e.g. Rousseau’s idea that childhood is the sleep of reason and that children should not be taught to read until they reach the age of puberty.


This essay looks at the state of primary school education in Ireland as discovered by the Powis Commission, including the physical condition of schools, the nature of teaching, the condition and status of teachers, and related cultural issues and how these findings would have affected a value-conscious British taxpayer and a hard working Irish teacher. The essay then concentrates on how teachers would have been further affected by the key recommendations of the Powis Commission, and by Rousseau’s theories of education.

Main Body of Essay

The Powis Commission, which met in 1869 and 1870, produced eight volumes of evidence and a total of 129 conclusions on and recommendations for primary education in Ireland. Its initial conclusion was:

‘That the progress of children in the national schools of Ireland is very much lower than it ought to be. That in Church Education Society schools, non-national convent schools, and Christian Brothers’ schools, the result is not very different’ (Powis Commission 1870, cited in Akenson 1970, p. 313).

The Powis Commission had been set up by the English Treasury to ascertain the effectiveness of Irish education. This was in response to taxpayer demands in the 1860s to ensure cost effectiveness and accountability in education spending. (A similar body, the Newcastle Commission, had been set up to look at English education in 1858). Education spending in Ireland had risen sharply from £125,000 in 1851 to £294,000 by 1859 – arguably, it was not unreasonable for the English taxpayer to know whether the money was producing results in what was then effectively a colonial power.

The Powis Commission discovered that 6,520 schools were registered with the Irish National Board for education in 1867, but there were only 5,547 national school houses, which seemed dubious in itself – where were the others? There were around 2,600 other schools providing elementary education, but these were not registered with the National Board. Between 500,000 and 600,000 pupils between the ages of five and 11 were enrolled in the National Board schools by the 1860s.

Illiteracy stood at 33% of the population in 1871, a considerable reduction from 53% in 1841. However, Coolahan (1981) asserts that literacy figures were not rigorously collected. The Commission discovered that of the primary school pupils in National Board schools who were examined by the school inspectors in 1866, a total of 45% were at Book 1 level and that that only 23% of pupils had reached Book 3 level or higher. In 1867, the average daily attendance by pupils in National Board schools never reached more than 75%, and was often much lower.

The average National Board School comprised only one or two schoolrooms. Within the schoolroom, rows and rows of children sat at long communal desks facing the teacher – typically 18 inches of space was allowed per pupil. Akenson (1970) describes contemporary teaching methods, which to modern eyes look laughably ineffective. Teachers were expected to teach children of all ages and levels of educational achievement. It was usual for one or two classes to stand up to receive their instruction from the teacher and a monitor. Initially, the teacher would talk or give a reading lesson to the class, and then ask questions to ascertain whether the children had understood the material. Questions from children were usually encouraged. Corporal punishment helped to maintain order in the classroom.

The rest of the children would remain sitting down – some would do writing practice or arithmetic. However, the vast majority, especially the younger children, were not given any work to do. Most teachers spent the school day teaching individual classes one by one, so the majority of their pupils sat idly for the greater part of the day. Rote teaching was not widely practiced. In most schools, the teaching day ran only from 10am until 2.30pm or 3pm.

On the face of it, the British taxpayer was receiving questionable value for money. However, it is important also to consider the conditions in which teaching took place, and the circumstances which teachers had to contend with.

The Powis Commission discovered that up to 23% of schools had floors made of earth, which were very cold in winter. Many children came to school barefoot, and this no doubt contributed to poor attendance levels, especially among the younger children. Only two-thirds of schools were deemed to have roofs, floors and windows in good repair, and fewer than half had playgrounds and enclosing walls. A third of schools had no toilets. About 400 schools were ‘deficient’ (Coolahan 1981, p. 25) in the provision of desks, lighting, ventilation and heating. It was found that in about a fifth of school houses, teachers were responsible for the repair of the buildings. Around 70% of schools lacked maps or educational pictures – where these did exist, they were often provided at the expense of the individual teachers.

Schools which lacked basic facilities and were kept in poor repair must have been very unappealing for teachers to work in, regardless of the skill or industry of the individual teacher. Badly maintained schools and the subsequent poor attendance levels also represented poor value to the British taxpayer in terms of teaching and educational results when freezing classroom temperatures deterred the children from attending school.

The Powis Commission discovered that only 34% of teachers had received formal teaching instruction prior to commencing their teaching career, much of which was short-term and of poor quality. Teachers were graded into three classes, 9% being graded as first class, 25% as second class, 49% as third class and 17% listed as probationers. Salary levels for Irish teachers were well below those paid to teachers in England – the average annual salary for male principal teachers was £42 (£34 for women), while assistant male teachers earned £22 per annum (£19 for women). The 1860s saw a considerable movement away from teaching – the Powis Commission found that between 1863 and 1867, over 2,500 teachers either resigned their jobs, emigrated or were dismissed from teaching.

As well as being detrimental to individual teaching careers, the lack of structured teacher training, a high teacher turnover and the crude grading system also contributed to low standards of educational attainment and poor value for taxpayers – neither side benefitted. Consequently the Powis Commission recommended that all teachers should undergo formal pre-school training of at least one year.

It is fair to say that teachers enjoyed little autonomy in the running of the schools they taught in. Coolahan (1981) describes how School Boards, established when the Irish State education system began in 1831, had complete control over which textbooks were used and how regulations were applied. The textbooks concentrated heavily on factual material – little imaginative work was used. The School Board also distributed the funds approved by Parliament for the building of schools, and was responsible for teachers’ pay. Each National Board school was controlled by a school manager who hired teachers, distributed their salaries and arranged the school timetable. While important powers were vested in the School Board, school managers wielded considerable influence over teachers.

Teachers faced another major struggle in the schoolroom which hindered their efforts. The Irish language was not recognised as an official subject in National Board schools, even in areas where Irish was the sole language spoken. This naturally impeded learning among Irish-only speaking children and made the teacher’s job even more difficult. The textbooks chosen also contained very little in the way of a distinct Irish culture. The situation was deliberate – for much of the nineteenth century, British educational policy was that of British cultural assimilation and a weakening of Irish cultural identity. The language barrier had been highlighted during the 1850s, but School Boards chose not to act. Ironically, the cultural assimilation policy served to provide poor value for taxpayers as well as frustration for teachers when Irish-only speaking children could not learn. It was not until 1879, following the Powis Commission, that the Irish was accepted as an additional school subject for which pupils could pay fees.

It is clear that Irish primary school teachers were not in a fortunate position, and this was exacerbated by the Powis Commission. One major recommendation of the Commission was the system of payment by results (in addition to a fixed salary) for primary school teachers. In effect, payment by results served to make teachers more accountable and to justify educational expenditure and teachers’ salaries. Teachers would receive an additional payment if their pupils reached the required standard in reading, writing and arithmetic. The payment by results method necessitated prescriptive curricula, regular examinations and mechanical teaching methods.

Atkinson (1969) argued that the payment by results system was wholly unsuited to the Irish educational system, where large numbers of schools had only one teacher, where the majority were untrained and where attendance levels were patchy. Statistically, it is arguable that payment by results had benefits – 43% of pupils reached Book 3 or higher by 1899 and illiteracy dropped to 14% by 1901. In 1871, average daily attendance of enrolled pupils was 37%, but this had risen to 65% by 1899. However, educationally the system encouraged uniformity and sluggishness, with every school child facing the same courses, regardless of individual ability. The qualitative aspects of teaching (lesson plans, questioning techniques, building pupils’ characters) were ignored. The system also helped to forge unsatisfactory relations between teachers and inspectors.

This essay now looks at the history of ideas concerning education, and how this attitudes to teachers and teaching. One century earlier, during the Enlightenment or Age of Reason, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote Émile, a treatise on the nature of education. Émile was to have a huge impact on theories of childhood which continue to the present day.

In the context of the nineteenth century Irish teacher, doing his or her best to educate poor children in inadequate school buildings and possibly having to contend with cultural and language barriers, the message was plain. Rousseau (1762) argued that children were innately good and creative beings, but were corrupted by society, especially the schoolteacher. ‘God made all things good, man meddles with them and they become evil’ (Rousseau 1762, cited in Phillips 1996, p. 193). The philosophy was a combination of nature-worship, child-centrism, and an emphasis on doing and discovery as distinct from formal learning.

Rousseau’s belief was that children should learn through experience, intuition and empathy. He completely rejected the idea that children should acquire knowledge from an authority figure in a structured fashion, and proposed that they read no books – ‘the curse of childhood’ (Rousseau 1762, cited in Phillips 1996, p. 193). He recommended that children did not learn to read until adolescence. ‘And what if some lesson finally becomes necessary to them? Keep yourself from giving it today if you can without danger put it off until tomorrow’ (Rousseau 1762, p. 94).

Taken to its logical end, Rousseau’s philosophy would have meant redundancy for the entire primary school teaching profession whose role was to give young children a formal elementary education which included reading and writing – and examination. His philosophy was completely at odds with the concept of structured teaching – it is arguable that it alone undermined the purpose and authority of schoolteachers. Even where Rousseau allows for some formal teaching later on, the authority of the schoolteacher is bound to be undermined, as an adolescent who has always been allowed unbridled self-discovery is unlikely to be easy to discipline, teach or to accept authority.

It is arguable that Rousseau’s educational philosophy was a different way of placing obstacles in the way of the schoolteacher to that which had gone before. Many of the ideas contained in Émile were adopted by Western schools during the course of the twentieth century to the detriment of both educational standards and moral discipline – it is not unreasonable to suggest that his philosophy, had it been applied in 1870s Ireland – would have been far more successful in undermining teachers than the problems they faced then.


The state of Irish primary school education, as discovered by the Powis Commission in 1870, clearly benefitted neither the British taxpayer nor Irish schoolteachers –many of the latter undoubtedly did their best in very difficult circumstances to provide children with a basic education. Generally the lot of the teacher in the nineteenth century Ireland was not a happy one.

The response of the Powis Commission to implement a payment by results system may have appealed to harsh Victorian logic and may have raised educational standards at least in the statistical sense, but was too prescriptive, unresponsive to changing society and continued for too long. The ideas expounded by Rousseau in his work Émile effectively amounted to a huge undermining in the formal learning of basic skills and of teachers’ authority, as the twentieth century gradually showed.