The development of education and teacher training in Edinburgh was in part a response to demographic changes, and was shaped by monitorial methods of teaching.
The 19th century saw major changes in the demography of Scotland. From being a mainly rural country Scottish cities, such as Glasgow, expanded and came to play an increasingly important role in the life of the nation. The growth of international trade and the development of the mining and metal industries led to a general increase in wealth.
However, in the cities poverty was extensive and the number of schools and teachers had not kept pace with the increase in population. This increase can be seen in the census returns for Edinburgh: in 1811 a population of 82,624 was recorded which by 1851 had expanded to over 345,000. The city was plagued by organised gangs of youths based in the Grassmarket, the Canongate and Niddry Street. The problem came to a head at the Hogmanay celebrations in 1811. The gangs joined together ‘to give the police a licking’. They stormed a midnight gathering being held in the Tron Church and carried out widespread assaults, robberies and murder across the city. 68 youths were arrested: 3 were hanged in the High Street and a number transported. Church Ministers met to consider ways in which the root causes of this rioting could be addressed. Their solution was to arrange for the wider provision of education, particularly religious education, for the poor. As a start it was agreed in 1812 that Sunday Schools should be established in every parish in the city with the necessary teachers appointed and paid.
However, the real problem was the lack of elementary schools in the city. Consequently, Edinburgh’s churches agreed that as a start a school should be established to which they could all send a number of their parish children. This Sessional School was opened in 1813 in Leith Wynd. The emphasis was to be on reading, writing and counting. Because of the large number of children attending, and with only one schoolmaster, the school was organised on a monitorial system. At first Lancaster’s principles were followed, with the children arranged in groups of ten, each under a monitor. Then in 1818 the school implemented Andrew Bell’s Madras system, with the children working in groups of thirty. Under both systems the education provided was regimented and mechanical.
In 1818 John Wood started visiting the Leith Wynd School to assist the work of some of the apprentice weavers for whom he was responsible. His increasing contributions meant that he effectively became the head of the school. In 1824 the school moved to a new building in Market Street, Edinburgh consisting of a single schoolroom 83ft by 35ft. The children were drawn from some of the poorest families in Edinburgh although most would still pay a small fee. In 1828 upwards of 500 children were reported as attending with the largest number registered being 601. John Wood is recorded as the Superintendent in charge from 1826-1840.
The roots of teacher training at Moray House can be traced back to these Edinburgh Sessional Schools. Before the 19th century schoolteachers received no formal professional training. Whilst some schools required their teachers to have a master’s degree, or at least some evidence of having attended one of Scotland’s four ancient universities, many had to appoint teachers who had few qualifications.
In March 1824 the Principal of Edinburgh University, the Rev. George Baird, raised the issue, in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, of the parlous state of education throughout the country, not least in the Highlands and Islands. The Assembly agreed that a Church Education Committee should be established with George Baird as its first convener. Its remit included the ‘training of teachers both to a knowledge of the branches usually taught, and to the actual business of teaching.’ The Committee’s first report to the General Assembly in 1825 highlighted the state of illiteracy in many parts of Scotland and demonstrated that some 250 more ‘Assembly’ schools were needed just in the Highlands and Islands. The Committee also recognised the need to improve the quality of teaching across all its schools.
In 1826 the Education Committee made arrangements with the Market Street Sessional School to allow future Gaelic speaking teachers bound for Highland and Island schools to undertake a course of observation and practice. In this way the Edinburgh Sessional School became a ‘model’ school. By 1834 the Church was convinced of the need for a more systematic approach to the training of teachers. ‘There is an art of teaching in which every schoolmaster ought to be instructed. …This can only be accomplished comprehensively by the institution of model schools for the training of teachers to the practice of their calling’. In 1835 John Wood’s help was sought and a more formal training programme was developed. This comprised daily instruction in the subjects to be taught and practise in the art of teaching by serving as monitors under the guidance of the schoolmaster. After a period, usually no longer than six months, those considered ‘proficient’ were awarded a diploma. It was agreed that all teachers appointed to Assembly schools should receive such training. A training department was introduced at the Market Street Sessional School and it became the General Assembly’s Normal Seminary in Edinburgh. John Wood became responsible for the training of these students.
In 1837 the General Assembly’s Education Committee became responsible for the School and it was renamed the Normal and Sessional School of Edinburgh. In its new role it combined a school and a training department for students intending to become teachers. As a school it had some 300 pupils and in 1840 its associated teacher training centre (Normal School) had over 50 students passing through it. With these developments the Market Street premises proved to be too small and in 1841 a government grant was sought and agreed for a new school to be built at Johnston Terrace close by the Castle. This was the first time the government had played any significant role in the training of teachers in Scotland.
Monitorial systems developed at the end of the 18th century in response to a shortage of teachers and the increasing number of pupils in school classes. In England Dr Andrew Bell and Joseph Lancaster initially developed these systems. Both involved the selection from the older and more able children who could undertake the role of monitor. These children would receive additional instruction from the schoolmaster and in turn they would instruct a group of children: ten in the Lancaster method and up to thirty in the Bell system. The first to apply these techniques in Scotland in 1810 was James Pillans Rector of the Royal High School in Edinburgh. He used a combination of class and group teaching, with monitors instructing groups of ten boys. Lancaster visited Edinburgh in 1812 and the Leith Wynd Sessional School, opened in 1812/3, at first followed his principles. In this school the desks were arranged around the walls of the schoolroom. The remainder of the space was empty except for the schoolmaster’s desk.
" One half of the scholars always sit at the desks with their faces to the wall, employed in learning to write or cipher, while the other half stand on the floor, either reading or practising the rules of arithmetic…"
The classes on the floor were arranged in groups facing the schoolmaster with a monitor keeping order over each group. At the end of an hour those at the desks would change over with those on the floor. Writing would be carried out on slates, although the older children might use paper.
Whilst monitorial systems overcame the teacher shortages and were inexpensive to run they had major drawbacks. They were regimented and involved rote learning and repetition. No child was ‘oot o’ the Bible’ when studying reading and writing and children were unlikely to develop an enthusiasm for reading later in life. The mechanical routines of instruction also prevented an understanding of words and language.
Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838) was a non-conformist, a Quaker. He founded his first elementary school for the poor in London in 1799 when he was just eighteen. The number of children in his school increased from an initial one hundred to nearly a thousand. In order that all might learn something he adopted the plan of setting some of the older children to teach a few of the younger ones. He acknowledged his debt to Andrew Bell’s work. Whilst similar in principle his monitors would only instruct groups of ten children under the schoolmaster’s control. He boasted that over 1,000 children could be taught and governed by his system with just one teacher in charge. From 1805 onwards he began to train teachers in his monitorial or Lancastrian method.
Andrew Bell was born in St Andrews, Fife, in 1753 and graduated from St Andrews University. He was later ordained as a Deacon in the Church of England. In 1787 he sailed to India to take up a number of chaplaincies linked with the East India Company. In 1789 he became Superintendent of a seminary for male orphans of the military in Madras. Here he developed the working principles of his monitorial system. From the older and more able boys he selected a number who would act as monitors. These would be instructed by the schoolmaster and in turn instructed a group of up to thirty children. Because of his success with this method he went on to advocate that it had universal applicability and was ‘of importance to the whole human race.’ He returned to England in 1796 and two years later established the London Charity School where he applied his methods. Schools founded on his Bell principles were subsequently established across England and Scotland.
Before he died in 1832 the Rev. Andrew Bell MA, LLD had transferred £120,000 of his estate to trustees. Part of this was committed to St Andrews principally to support the establishment of a secondary school: Madras College. By a separate deed the residue of his estate, some £25,000, was used to set up a trust dedicated ‘to the maintaining, carrying forward, and following up the system of education introduced by him, according to circumstances and occasion, and the existing state of things.’ The trustees gave sums to a number of different schools, including one in Leith. But after the 1872 Education Act the trust still had £18,000 remaining. The trustees agreed to contribute to the foundation of a Bell Professorship in the Theory, History, and Practice of Education at Edinburgh and St Andrews Universities. These two Chairs were instituted in 1876 and were the first Professorships of Education founded in any English-speaking country.
John Wood was an Edinburgh Advocate and became Sheriff of Peebles. He began visiting the new Sessional School in Leith Wynd in 1819 where a number of his apprentices were being taught. He started to teach the children himself and it from this experience that he developed his own method of teaching: the Intellectual or Exploratory method. The children, in groups of nine to twelve, were drilled by the monitors in the lessons of the day. The schoolmaster then examined the pupils who answered questions about their reading thereby testing their comprehension and understanding of words. He wrote textbooks that supported reading through the use of ‘interesting and instructive’ passages from the Bible and about natural history. The children responded positively to his methods and as word spread visitors came to observe his teaching methods.
At the Market Street Sessional School, as ‘a voluntary worker’, he refined his monitorial system. Monitors attended before the pupils to prepare the schoolroom and to receive instruction. There was a head monitor, monitors and assistant monitors, all paid accordingly. However, it was the role of the teacher that Wood believed needed most reform. He considered that the schoolmaster should be at the centre of the learning, not at his desk, but ‘always on the floor among his pupils, and almost always in the act of teaching’. When a pupil had finished a specified task they could go and read a book from the schoolroom’s library. But with a number of groups going on in the same schoolroom at the same time the conflicting activities led to much noise and distraction.
A central characteristic of Wood’s approach was that teaching was not just a technical task: the personal qualities of the teacher, and his understanding of his pupils, were central to his success.
He left the Market Street School in 1840 and emigrated to the USA.
This article was published on Apr 17, 2013