Gladstone and Education

The Education Act of 1870 was a landmark in Liberal policy, writes Paul Adelman, but it failed to satisfy the Nonconformist conscience of many Liberal supporters.

By the eighteen-sixties, it was clear to all observers that the religious societies, which had dominated English elementary education since the early part of the century, were unable to cope with the increasing numbers and social pressures of a rapidly changing industrial society.

What was now needed, it was believed—particularly by the Nonconformist community—was a national system of education which only direct state action could provide. Hence, early in 1869, a meeting was held in Birmingham that led to the founding of the National Education League, and a young local businessman, Joseph Chamberlain, was elected head of the Executive and Acting Chairman.

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