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Educational notes: Idiots, imbeciles and backward pupils

AS A result of legislation in England between 1870 and 1890 the number of pupils in elementary schools rapidly increased nearly threefold to almost five million. Attendance became compulsory and for many families this was the first sustained experience of school. Class sizes were large (not until 1909 was a maximum of 60 decreed), the curriculum was rigid, the teaching mechanical and the whole system policed by payment by results through examinations in the 3Rs.

By the mid-1880s elementary education was in crisis. A Royal Commission was established to tackle the issue. By chance another Royal Commission was also set up to consider the education of the blind, the deaf and dumb and other "exceptional" children. The backward pupil was one of these exceptions.

There was a dispute in the Commission regarding the origins of backward pupils. Dr George Shuttleworth, a superintendent of an asylum for idiots and imbeciles, regarded educable imbeciles as less deficient than idiots who were considered ineducable. In his view, idiocy and imbecility were personal characteristics.

On the other hand, Dr Francis Warner, a paediatrician who had examined thousands of London pupils as out-patients, gave the causes as malnutrition, poor eyesight, deafness, respiratory infections, nervousness and loss of a parent or parents. He pointed to poverty and poor housing as being the origins of the backward pupil.

Legislation for the education of the blind and the deaf followed the Commission's report in 1893 and further consideration of the backward pupil was referred to a committee of the Education Department. This Committee consisted of seven members: a member of an association for the care of the feebleminded, three persons associated with the London authority and three HMIs. The department's senior staff were customarily elite Oxbridge graduates. In the published view of the then department secretary, staff were ignorant of and indifferent to the working of elementary schools.

Shuttleworth and London's medical officer were called upon to present the definition of backwardness. They confidently repeated the contingent definition of idiots being more deficient than imbeciles. Such a definition is faulty because it has no external referent such as the population at large. However, the definition was accepted and repeated in the committee's report. It also featured in the first section of the Permissive Legislation enacted in 1899.

The Education Department policed the proposals for the education of backward pupils and London's model of segregated special schools became the norm enforced by the department. The basic definition of a backward pupil may have been faulty but its validity became reified in segregated special schools.

The years before the First World War witnessed a switch in demographic transition to a low birth-rate in middle-class groups but a continuing high rate amongst the lower socio-economic classes. Such circumstances were fertile ground for the eugenicist movement and the "moral imbecile" emerged from legislation in 1913. The moral imbecile described the boy who was quick with his school work but a persistent thief or the girl who became pregnant; the moral imbecile was simultaneously adjudged normal but abnormal.

The permissive legislation of 1899 was made obligatory in an Education Act of 1914. Who then were the backward pupils? For the most part, children from lower socio-economic classes whose parents were alien to education. Why were they so? Primarily through poverty, poor housing and ill-health compounded by the nature of the education system with its large classes and mechanical teaching methods. Their divorce from the mainstream provision was buttressed by a faulty definition of their condition.

Ian Copeland is author of `The Making of the Backward Pupil in Education in England, 1870-1914' (Woburn Press, pounds 35 / pounds 22.50)