Crossroads in Education: Religion and State

William Edward Forster and William Francis Cowper-Temple were foremost in the nineteenth century political debate that led to the Education Act of 1870, widely perceived as a momentous legislative benchmark for primary schooling in England and Wales. Both men were British Liberal politicians and statesmen. The former is chronicled for being known as a practical philanthropist committed to universal education while the latter is said to have been socially aware and concerned with religious tolerance, animal welfare and environmental matters. He was also responsible for transforming the London parks and Thames Embankment.International Newspapers
Religion and State
The Education Act of 1870 made elementary education compulsory for all children in England and Wales and provided the financial means for this to be possible by allowing publicly-funded schools to be built where necessary to bolster the existing “voluntary schools”. If the latter wished to act as “public elementary schools” and receive grants under the new system, they were obliged to follow the clause introduced to the Bill by Cowper-Temple before it was passed into legislation. It specified they could not refuse a pupil on religious grounds and if they wished to give religious instruction it must be at the beginning or end of the day so that parents who objected could keep their children out of the lesson. The Clause read “No religious catechism or religious formulary which is distinctive of any religious denomination shall be taught in the school”.
There was much debate and public controversy about the two primary theories of education, one being that education should preserve denominational interests, and the other that believed having “secular rate-aided education” was the “only means of protecting non-conformity against the Church” (Forster). It required a number of drafts until the final Bill, with the compromise ‘Cowper-Temple clause’, was introduced on 17 February 1870. Known as the ‘Forster Education Act’ it became law on 9 August 1870. It is still recognized as a first major step towards universal primary education in the United Kingdom that served as a building block for improving education in the nineteenth century, and continues to feature in contemporary debates and literature by educational historians and others.
Profiles in brief
William Edward Forster (1818-1886) was born into a Quaker family on 11 July 1818. In adult life he became committed to universal education and his campaign to have education recognized as a public service gathered momentum after the General Election of 1865. In 1868 he was given the responsibility of developing an elementary education bill and for steering it through parliament. He took a prominent part in parliamentary debates on the American Civil War and, amongst other positions, was made Under Secretary for the colonies when he first became an advocate of imperial federation.
Forster’s political record covered various interesting subjects but his period as Chief Secretary for Ireland (1880-1882) when he introduced oppressive legislation such as the Coercian Bill linked to growth of the radical Land League threw them all into shadow. Knicknamed ‘Buckshot Forster’ by Nationalist press, Forster’s life was often in danger and he needed the protection of mounted police in Dublin. He died on the eve of the introduction of Home Rule for Ireland to which he was completely opposed. The Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1893 were defeated and the rest is history.
Francis Cowper-Temple (1811-1888) was from a wealthy and well connected political family. Second son of the 5th Earl Cowper, he was elected as member of parliament and served in various positions in the Liberal Government of the late nineteenth century, notably as Lord of the Admiralty and Commissioner of Works responsible for the Thames Embankment and for the new Law Courts. He is best known for the Cowper-Temple or “conscience clause” which he introduced into the second reading of the Education Bill of 1870.
On leaving politics in 1880 he was ennobled as Baron Mount Temple of Mount Temple in the County of Sligo to which he had a distant heritage. The Title had been created in the Peerage of Ireland l2 March 1723 for Henry Temple of East Sheen, eldest son of Sir John Temple, some time Attorney-General of Ireland. Records of Landowners in Co. Sligo, late 1870s show the following entry The Hon. W.F. Cowper-Temple, of Broadlands, Hampshire, owned 12,426 acres in Co. Sligo, valued at ?5,80l pounds, 11 shillings. He died peacefully at his Broadlands home aged 77.
Ita Marguet, December 2005
Note : All information and material used are acknowledged in the preparation of this article.