What was the Liberal Education for All Movement of 1914? It was the introduction of the Mason Method of educating children mainly by books of literary merit into state-funded schools in Britain just before the First World War. This upper-class model of liberal education had already been tried and tested for 23 years in home schoolrooms and private schools by Charlotte Mason’s Parents’ Review correspondence School (1891) (PRS) renamed the Parents’ Union School (P.U.S) in 1907.
Charlotte Mason was a professional teacher. She had been a pupil-teacher in Birkenhead during the 1850s and Mistress of the Davison Infantine School in Worthing from 1861-1873. From 1863 the standards attained by her pupils were crudely measured according to the restrictive ‘payment by results system’ under the Revised Code (1962). Teachers had little flexibility and few books. The liberal education that she discovered in the upper-class Brandreth household in 1868 and from her gentlewomen students at the Bishop Otter Memorial College in Chichester led her on a new and exciting path.
After settling in Ambleside in 1891, Miss Mason met Mrs Julia Firth of Seathwaite Rayne, a friend of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and assuredly heard about the grand old man’s passion for liberal education, art, nature-study and his desire to see free libraries, schools and further education available to the working-classes. Grippedby his ideas in Sesame and Lilies (1865) Miss Mason certainly absorbed Ruskin’s emphasis on the critical importance of attentive reading of good literary books which had stood the test of time. She devised narration as the primary method of achieving this goal without the need for didactic eloquence.
. . . you might read all the books in the British Museum (if you live long enough), and remain an utterly “illiterate”, uneducated person; but if you read ten pages of a good book, letter by letter, – that is to say with real accuracy, – you are for evermore in some measure an educated person. (Ruskin J (1906), pp.25-26).
Learning via the PRS, the educated-class children’s answers to the examination questions on all subjects had convinced Miss Mason that her version of liberal education not only worked well in home schoolrooms but also in the classes and schools run by her former students and in the growing number of private preparatory schools which joined the P.U.S after 1907. But, how could her method be taken into the state elementary sector to raise publicly funded education to a higher level?
In 1912 Miss Mason sounded a clarion call for literary liberal education in six letters to The Times newspaper, published as a pamphlet entitled The Basis of National Strength. The problems of passive mass entertainment, industrial unrest and damage to private property could be remedied by bringing the gifts of ‘knowledge’ acquired by ‘letters’, that is the careful reading of great works of literary merit to the lower classes. She protested ‘it is for the average, the dull and the backward boy I would lay urgent claim to a literary education; the minds of such as these respond…to no other appeal, and they turn out perfectly intelligent persons open to knowledge by many avenues’ (Mason CM 1913 p.32). Her views accorded with longstanding concerns about the teaching of English.
In April 1914 Mrs Emeline Steinthal (1855-1921) the co-founder of the PNEU responded to the call. Having taught her own children in the early days of the PRS, she introduced the P.U.S. method into the Drighlington elementary school in an impoverished Yorkshire mining village. She donated £20 for the necessary books for 160 children for one year. She gave the head teacher, Miss Ambler and the other teachers considerable support. Miss Mason was overjoyed.
This successful initiative was also welcomed by the Yorkshire Director of Education. By 1916 Mrs Steinthal reported that the Drighlington children were far more ‘alert and keen’ than before. They narrated ‘clearly and intelligently; delight was shown in all their studies. There is no need to shout in this school for order and quietness, the children are too much interested’ (Steinthal E 1916). After visiting the school that year, Mrs F. Clement Parsons, a leading PNEU member, also observed ‘the self-activity of the children, the absence of wandering glances, listless faces, sleepy minds (Parsons F C 1918).
With considerable support from Miss Mason’s P.U.S. team, which included advisory leaflets, conferences and local meetings to guide the teachers, the scheme spread across several counties including London. In Gloucestershire, they struck gold. Horace Household, (1870-1954), the Director of Education, had been lamenting the lack of books in his schools. He read the leaflets and decided to try out the scheme in successful schools, commenting that children will always learn where there is good teaching. Thus, the application of the pneumatic method came to be the hallmark of a good school. Mr Household listened attentively to the teachers’ anxieties about talking less, the shortage of books, the group method and their loss of control over the curriculum. Each class, in every setting, followed the same programmes of work for all the subjects and sat the same non-competitive examinations, set and sent out from the P.U.S team in Ambleside and returned there for marking.
The state school children’s papers were enthusiastically read by Miss Mason. Their answers convinced her of the value of what came to be popularly known as the Pneumatic Method. Mr Household visited Ambleside in 1919 and was bowled over by Miss Mason’s wide vision and gracious charm. By 1921 160 elementary schools and 90 secondary schools from several counties had joined in. The Liberal Education for All movement also benefited the development of PNEU private schools orchestrated by the Hon Mrs. Henrietta Franklin; 70 had joined the P.U.S. register by 1921. Mr. Household’s devotion to the method ensured its survival in Gloucestershire until his retirement in 1936, despite financial cutbacks which reduced the supply of books.
In 1923 Miss Mason died when the Liberal Education for All movement was at its height. It had restored her to the state-funded sector she had deserted for the PNEU. Great delight and ease of mind filled her heart.
The centenary of the movement should be commemorated. The issue of engaging children’s delight in listening to stories, in reading good books, in acting out Shakespeare’s plays, in reciting poetry and studying the arts and nature must remain firmly on the agenda of twenty-first century educationists.
Ruskin, J. (1865, 1906). Sesame and lilies. London: George Allen
Mason, C. M. (1913). The basis of national strength. London: P.N.E.U.
Steinthal, E. P. (1916). Two visits to a P.N.E.U. Council School. Parents’ Review, 27, (3), p.161.
Parsons, F. (1918). Courage in education, Parents’ Review, 29, (2), p.131.
© 2014 Margaret Coombs