THE DISSENTERS AND THEIR EDUCATION POLICY.
THE managers of the Birmingham Education League would do well to define to themselves rather more clearly than they have hitherto done, the relative value they attach to the different aims they have in view in relation to the Education of the country, and then to compare their own conclusions on the subject with the wishes of their constituents. If they would adopt this very simple precaution, they would probably smooth very materially their own path in the agitation before them, and also help those who sympathise more with some of their aims than with others, to choose their course,—which last accommodation to their constituents, however, is not perhaps precisely one which they unanimously desire to afford. We all know that the ultimate object of the League is to secure a national scheme of compulsory, secular, and free educa- tion,—'national' being interpreted to imply the exclusion of all voluntary and sectarian agency, and 'free' to mean the parents' exemption from payment for their children's schooling, but not, of course, to imply that all who can contribute will not be compelled to contribute to the local expenses of educa- tion in proportion to their means, or at least, to their rent, though not in proportion to the benefits they derive from it. But the Birmingham League would do well to consider care- fully which of these several ends they care for most ? Do they care for the extension of education and compulsion most ? or for the secularism of the education most ? or most for the immunity of the parent as such from any charge for schooling, and the transference of his obligations to the rate- payer ? Supposing one or more of these objects to be attain- able without the sacrifice of others of them, which would they retain and which sacrifice ? It is really very important to know. The managers of the League express freely the most unmiti- gated disgust at Mr. Forster's new Bill. But they very skil- fully confuse the grounds of their disgust. They object that compulsion is not extended to the rural districts, but do they really wish it to be extended without universal School Board Schools ? If they do, they care more for education than for the exclusion of voluntary and sectarian agencies from the system ; but so far as our own experience goes, we suspect Mr. Forster's Bill would have been received with far more clamorous alarm and disgust if it had been accompanied by the adoption of compulsion without universal School Boards, and without a provision for at least one School Board school in every School district, than it is received with now. Again, if the Leaguers admit that they do not wish for compulsion till after School Boards and School Board schools have been made compulsory everywhere, but put the seculari- sation of education for the present above education itself, what is in their minds the relative importance of the end of obtaining (somehow) a wide extension of education itself, and of obtaining it by means of free schools ? Do they wish for the gratuitous character of the education only because it is so much more likely to succeed in getting children educated ? or because when the Government schools are free, it will be so much easier to tempt children away from the denominational schools than it will be if the same payment is to be made for both ? If the former, then they will not deny force to the argument that the less the burden to be put upon the rates, the less the danger of causing a violent rural reaction against education. If the latter, they will make light of this very serious danger, and insist that only by free schools can you get a national system. But on all these points a clear understanding between the Birmingham League and their constituents, as to the relative importance attached to the various points of their programme, would be enlightening both to themselves and the public. And we suspect the result—at least as regards the managers of the League—would be that they would attach the following order of importance to their various objects:--(1) The discouragement of all de- nominational schools ; (2) the encouragement of united secular and undenominational education ; (3) gratuitous education, and compulsion so far as they conduce to both these ends and to the first more than the second ; (4) gratuit- ous education for its own sake,—as introducing a greater sense of equality between the children of different classes, and between their parents. Now, if the public could know that this were the order in which these ends recommend themselves to the managers of the League, a good many useful political inferences might be made. In the first place, those who care for good education of any kind, much more than they care for the par- ticular modes by which it is to be obtained, would probably part company with the League at once, unless they could feel per- fectly assured that no other mode would be half so practicable and thorough as the mode kdopted by the League. Next, the public in general would observe that the objections to Mr. Forster's Education Act Amendment Bill are aimed much more against what it declines to do,—namely, to strike a heavy blow at the Denominational Schools,—than against what it does. In point of fact, though the League will not admit it, the transference of the fee-paying power from the School Board to the Guardians of the Poor is an unquestionable and very great discouragement of this kind of assistance, and though it also deprives the School Board of the power of paying a poor child's fees at the School
Board school, and remits the question to the Guardians and to the parent, its tendency must be to diminish the number of fees thus paid, and to do this doubly,—first, by remitting the judgment to those whose business it is to understand the character of the local pauperism, and who will therefore be less open to imposition ; and secondly, because it will make the assistance rendered less palatable. In fact, the Guardians of the Poor will decide the question on grounds from which all theological bias must be absent,—as they have not even the power of determining the school to be chosen,—and which can only be influenced by the one consideration that is really ger- mane to the matter, the question of poverty. The reason, we fear, that the Birmingham League is so angry against this pro- vision, is that its managers clearly see this;—that they are very well aware that the new provision will separate the assistance rendered from all appearance of theological bias, and so make their agitation much more difficult and uphill than before. A grant of 21d. a week per child from the Guardians of the poor for school fees, even if it go eventually to a denominational school approved by her Majesty's Inspectors, cannot by any sane mind be interpreted as a grant in aid of theological opinions,—first, because even with the Central grant, it is not enough to maintain the whole secular teaching ; and secondly, because it is avowedly made by a body which takes account only of poverty, and not of opinions. The very charge which the objectors make, that the altera- tion will have a tendency to pauperise the recipients, at least implies that it will also discourage applications for relief, and provide a fresh motive, for those who are only on the edge of pauperism, to find the resources for themselves. Did not the Birmingham League feel that by making the assistance a mere question of means, the Government are cutting away all plausibility in the theological objection, it would not have declared the change to be one for the worse. As for the assertion that any transaction between the parent and the Poor-Law Board will have a pauperising, and therefore a demoralising influence, it seems to us that there is no reason why the inability to perform a parent's simplest duties to a child's mind, should be treated with any more leniency than the inability to discharge similar duties to the child's body. The provision of education, at the very small pecuniary cost required, is every bit as much a part of a parent's duty as is the provision of food and clothing. That is of the very essence of the principle of compulsion. And that being so, why not acknowledge facts ? The parent who cannot find 21(1. a week a head for his children's teaching is more or less a pauper, whose duties and place the State must take. If there is any fault to find, it is in the provision that this default shall not amount to legal pauperisation,—which, strictly speaking, it ought to do,—not in inflicting on the parents the shadow of at least as real a discredit as any inability to feed or clothe his child should involve.
It seems to us that the Dissenters are needlessly endangering their influence with the country, when they show so very distinctly that they think a great deal more of the danger of letting the Established Church gain anything, than they do of the danger of letting the ignorance of the country glin anything. Mr. Disraeli virtually told them the other day that they had lost ground in the country through his Reform Bill,—that they are not now the strength in the constituencies which they once were. We fear that this is true ; we say we fear it, because in most respects the Dissenters have been politicians of a far more strenuous and high-principled type than the class of electors in whom their influence has been partly swamped. But if they stick to the policy of hanging out an infinitesimal and morally invisible scruple as the standard of their cause, and letting everybody see the weight of their religious pre- judice and jealousy behind it,—if they push a fanciful and untenable objection of conscience so far as to interfere with everybody else's very tangible and visible objection to divorcing religious from secular education, they will lose the public sympathy which their sturdy public spirit and their disinterested zeal have very deservedly gained them, and sink into a mere impracticable political party, like the Teetotallers, —a party which everybody outside it dreads, and nobody not belonging to it even affects to reason with or understand.