Whatever Happened to Monitorial Schools?

When, where, and why did these schools appear?

Deep concern for the untended and mostly poor English children of factory workers and others flocking to cities for jobs led Joseph Lancaster to found schools that would gather and help the unschooled. Lancaster opened his Royal Free School in London during the 1790s. The dearth of teachers for these students pushed Lancaster to design schools that accommodated large numbers of children in huge rooms under the guidance of one paid teacher who would then supervise older students–“monitors” as they were called–who actually taught younger children. Often called “charity schools,” these early Lancastrian schools, as they became known, spread throughout England and crossed the Atlantic to the U.S, often sponsored by the Society of Friends or Quakers–social reformers of the day both in England and America.

When Lancaster visited the U.S. in 1818, there were many “monitorial schools.” Historian Dell Upton found that “Lancasterianism was adopted up and down the Atlantic seaboard as the official pedagogy of emerging public schools in New York City (1805), Albany (1810), Georgetown (1811), Washington, D.C. (1812), Philadelphia (1817), Boston (1824), and Baltimore (1829)….”

These “monitorial schools,” then, were reform-driven schools aimed at educating poor children in Bible reading, work, and citizenship to lower threats of crime and civil disorder from unschooled children who would soon become adults. Middle- and upper-class families including the Quakers had the funds to educate their own children, however, through tutors and privately-funded academies.

What were monitorial schools like?

There are written accounts of what Joseph Lancaster did in England when he started such schools for poor children in the early decades of the 19th century. When monitorial schools crossed the Atlantic Ocean and opened in U.S., historians have plumbed archives to locate accounts of students, teachers, and visitors to these schools (see here, here, and here). Apart from these historical accounts there are pen-and-ink drawings and paintings of what the school looked like.

By having one teacher supervise a huge room of children through older students (called “monitors”) who themselves had gone through such a school primarily memorizing texts and rote recitation and pursuing the same methods with their younger students, the cost of schooling was inexpensive compared to private instruction at that time.

In the second and third above drawings of monitorial classrooms, note that students have their hands clasped behind their backs. Historian Carl Kaestle quotes a boy in such a New York City school in the 1820s. “The monitors then unanimously gave the order, ‘Hands behind!! One the instant every boy has his left palm enclosed in the right behind his back, in aa sort of hand-cuffed state, and woe be to him who is not paying attention when the order is given, or is tardy in obeying it” (Kaestle, Pillars of the Republic, p.43).

Did monitorial schools work?

They surely “worked” in gathering many urban poor children into buildings giving them a taste of literacy for little cost to the community. Philanthropic and religiously-inspired reformers underwrote these “monitorial” schools in the hope that there would lead to social stability in communities avoiding the record of over 100 food riots over the price of flour and essential food that erupted in English cities between the 1750s and early 1800s and occasionally took place in American cities.

What happened to monitorial schools?

Criticism from parents and educators of the day about how little children and youth learned within the monitorial system got harnessed to a growing reform movement in the 1830s and 1840s that looked to schools as an economic and social instrument to make America stronger. A reform-driven awareness grew that all children, not just poor ones, had to master basic skills and literacy in order to enter the workplace and carry out civic duties from serving on juries to voting led to a large-scale and widespread reform movement . School reform was part of larger efforts to improve American society such as crusader-inspired reforms aimed at abolishing slavery, improving prisons (newly created “reform schools” for younger law breakers), extending rights of women, and levying taxes on all families to support a “common school” for all children within a community. By the 1840s, the eight-grade “grammar school,” an organizational innovation imported from Prussia, appeared across New England and slowly spread through pre-Civil War America. Monitorial schools disappeared.


Filed under how teachers teach, Reforming schools, technology use

10 responses to “Whatever Happened to Monitorial Schools?

  1. Thank you for this fascinating piece of educational history. It’s interesting to look at what type of curriculum was seen as necessary for poorer children and how it differed from what was being taught to the better off, including different notions of citizenship for example.

    • larrycuban

      Adam Laats–cited in post–would have answers to your question, Eddie. He is completing a study of Lancastrian schools. Thanks for commenting.

    • Great question, Eddie. I’m finding that Lancasterian schools for white children in the US tended NOT to repeat the UK pattern of separating out students from low-income families. That is, in the USA, the schools were generally intended to promote a patriotic citizenship among both lower-income students and middle-income students. In the US, the segregation was done by race, not income. At the African-American schools, the curriculum was also similar to the curriculum at the white schools, but the discipline tended to be much harsher. See some details here: https://iloveyoubutyouregoingtohell.org/2018/06/17/from-the-archives-look-at-me-when-im-talking-to-you/

      • larrycuban

        Adam, thanks so much for answering Eddie’s query and elaborating on your study of Lancastrian schools. I look forward to your completing the project and reading that history. It is fascinating particularly the links between Lancastrian schools and the Common School movment and structure of the age-graded school.

  2. Prof. Cuban, THANK YOU for this post on the monitorial schools. It is a history that is absolutely vital for anyone hoping to understand the roots of public education in the US, yet it is ignored all too often. And thank you for linking to my upcoming book. I am up to my eyeballs in research about the Lancasterian movement in the USA between 1800 and 1840 and I’m wrestling with several of the questions you bring up in this post.
    First, we need to ask tough questions about the connections between Lancasterian schools and later public school systems. You mention that monitorial schools disappeared, then age-graded teacher-led classrooms came into vogue in the 1840s. That’s true, but it sidesteps the most crucial point: The standard story is that the Lancasterian “delusion” failed, then modern urban public schools were born. What I’m finding in the archives is that there was a tight connection between the Lancasterian movement and the common-school movement that followed. But what was the relationship between the two?
    Historians have noticed a connection, but they have not offered any satisfying explanation of it. Lawrence Cremin, for example, pointed out that cities such as New York and Philadelphia largely ditched their open Lancasterian schoolrooms by the 1830s, because the “system proved odious” to parents and students. But Cremin also couldn’t help noticing that modern urban public-school systems rose directly from the ashes of the Lancasterian fever. As Cremin put it, modern urban public schools emerged “particularly in urban areas where the Lancasterian system had been most widely applied.”
    Similarly, Carl Kaestle noted that Lancasterian schools “provided the nucleus of later public school systems.”
    They did, but it seems at first that they shouldn’t have. After all, Lancasterian reforms failed. Cities such as Philadelphia put big money into implementing Lancasterian ideas in 1818, but after a decade or so they realized the system didn’t work. Not only did it not work as fabulously as Joseph Lancaster had promised, but it didn’t work at all. They couldn’t find teachers. They couldn’t keep monitors. They couldn’t attract enough students, even though they promised tuition-free schooling.
    The dramatic failure of the Lancasterian movement leads us to our tough questions. If Lancasterian schools failed, how could they have somehow led to the creation of modern public-school systems? We seem to arrive at a paradox: How could such a huge failure turn into a huge success?
    In my new book, I’m offering an explanation. The key, I think, was in the nasty personality of Joseph Lancaster himself. Lancaster’s reforms NEVER worked as promised. Even in its supposed glory days at the Borough Road School in London in the early 1800s, Lancaster’s lauded “system” was always a sham. He said it was cheap, but it was actually costing supporters a huge amount of off-the-books money. He said it was a labor of love, but in fact he forced his apprentice-monitors to subject themselves to a gruesome regime of emotional and sexual abuse.
    Yet precisely because Lancaster did not scruple to make outlandish claims for his “system,” he managed to convince American reformers to buy in. If he had been more modest, humble, or honest, he might have explained that his “system” did not really solve the tangled problem of urban poverty. He might have noted that it was not actually cheap, but in fact very expensive. If he were honest or sincere, he would have had to have made those truths clear. But he wasn’t. He sold earnest American reformers a bill of goods.
    When that bill came due, the reformers realized they were left holding an empty bag. What did they do? They scrambled to find ways to fix the gaping structural problems of Lancasterian schools. They realized they needed trained teachers, not unpaid child-monitors. They realized they needed to figure out how to pay for their schools using reliable, budgeted tax money, not dribs and drabs of philanthropic contributions. And they realized they needed to make their schools attractive to all, not just the poorest members of society. If schools were going to get the political support they needed, they would have to be “public” schools, not merely “charity” schools.
    In the end—at least, this is the analogy I’m toying with in the book—Lancaster was not the “father” of American public education. But neither was the later generation of reformers such as Horace Mann. By the time Mann arrived on the scene in the late 1830s, Boston and other cities already had fleshed-out systems of urban public education, systems that had evolved directly out of the Lancasterian flop.
    But because he was such a monster and his ideas were such a failure, Lancaster doesn’t deserve to be called the “father” of public education either. At best, if we stick with the analogy, Lancaster was more like a birth-control quack, selling fake contraceptives. When those contraceptives didn’t work—as it seems painfully obvious in retrospect they wouldn’t—America’s urban public schools were born by accident.

    • Thank you both, including Adam for the link to your post and site – a great discovery!
      I wonder whether the ideas of the early 19th century progressives like Robert Owen, Johann Pestalozzi, Friederich Froebel etc. had any impact on these monitorial schools or were they regarded as an outright rejection of this approach.
      If we need any reminding of the persistence of the ‘woe be to those who don’t pay attention when the order is given’ philosophy, our UK Education minister has recently said that he wants all children to face the front of the classroom and pay attention to the teacher when schools reopen.

      • Joseph Lancaster famously claimed to have only read one book on education in his life–Locke’s Some Thoughts Concerning Education. He didn’t care much about Pestalozzi or Froebel, but Robert Owen was a big fan of Lancaster’s ed ideas. In fact, in his New Lanark factory, Owen explicitly modeled his school on Lancaster’s books. As Owen wrote (pretty un-progressively) to Lancaster in 1811: “And in aid of your sentiments regarding the benefits which the community will derive from educating the very lowest classes, I can with truth state from a very extensive experience among them, that those under my care & superintendence which were the best educated, have been uniformly, the most easily directed for their Good, & by far the most valuable Servants.”

  3. EB

    The Lancaster system survived as a model for Sunday schools. In the later part of the 19th Century in the US, many larger churches, with dozens and dozens of children to manage in a religious education setting before regular services were held on Sunday mornings, there would be a large room with a Sunday school “superintendent” at a podium on the main floor, and a number of age-graded Sunday school rooms each taught by a teen-aged girl or young woman, but all under the eyes of the superintendent. Often there was a tier of balconies with room dividers to create smaller spaces above the main floor, around the outside walls of the room. This method was MUCH more suited for one-hour lessons than for all-day schooling, as you can imagine. My church still has these little balcony rooms above our large meeting room. We actually did use them for Sunday school classes at one time, although since they are open on one side, the noise level was pretty high. Also, the children were tempted to climb over the balcony railings.

  4. Pingback: Is Behaviour Worse After A Lockdown? And other findings from this week's results... - Teacher Tapp

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