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“Failing Schools” as Far Back as 1735?

April 4, 2017

I have temporary access to the newspaper search engine, So, I decided to search the term, “failing schools.”

The earliest usage of this term dates back to March 02, 1735, in the Dublin Evening Post.

The context of the term is financial. The 1735 news excerpt concerns “a Voluntary society in Dublin, who associated in the year 1717, for this very Purpose to promote Charity Schools”:

…[The Voluntary Society] assisted some failing Schools by the help of a Collection about once in two Years made in one of the Churches of Dublin….

The second oldest search result for the term, “failing schools,” is in the June 21, 1885, British publication, the Guardian. In this case, the “failing school” is one that does not make efficient usage of its financing. In this extensive article, the author mainly argues for the consolidation of the financing of individual schools and for the establishment of a “slush fund” to assist schools when extenuating fiscal circumstances arise.

The third oldest search result for “failing schools” is from April 29, 1896, also in the Guardian.

The third article is apparently an editorial, written by a man named Jasper Nunn; it concerns an education bill that apparently had two parts: one was an offering of facilities in order to enable the “federation” of individual schools. The other was the offering of a one-time stipend to schools as a substitute for regular, public funding of the schools by “Church rate-payers in school board districts.”

In the context of Nunn’s commentary, it appears that “failing schools” refers to the financial state of the schools:

SIR — It seems desirable that I should reply to the two questions that you are inclined to put to me. The first is whether I contend “that the voluntary schools will be worse off” with an additional grant of 4s. [shillings] per annum, “even though that grant has to be spent upon the improvement of staff and apparatus.” The second is whether the facilities given in the Bill for federation are of no value to poor schools.

I may say that I have long endeavoured to understand the alleged benefits of federation, and, though my mind is open to conviction, I have never yet been able to comprehend them. A number of failing schools are not, like a bundle of weak though sound sticks, stronger by being tied together. They are rather like a number of bankrupt societies gathered under one syndicate, and ripe for the official receiver. But I am open to enlightenment.

With regard to the 4s., if this sum had been put into the Code this year as an addition to the general grant, to meet the increased expense due to recent and impending government requirements, I should have regarded it as a proper concession, and as a token of a friendly hand guiding the Government. But given as it is in the form of a final dole, an excuse for not doing justice, as a professed compensation for continuing to deprive Church rate-payers in school board districts of their share in the rate they are compelled to pay, it should be rejected with indignation.

The Guardian has one other article predating 1900 and in which the term “failing schools” was used: June 14, 1899.

As you might have guessed, a “failing school” was again one in dire economic straits. In short, it appears that legislation had put schools in the position of incurring a new expense in place of what appear to be free or modestly-paid “pupil teacherships” (which sounds like students who are tutors/assistants or possibly what is equivalent to student teachers/apprentices). As a result, it seems that a supervisory positions of oversight of groups of schools might not be possible and that such a loss would remove “efficient help” for fiscally-struggling schools.

Even without a detailed study of the history behind the four articles above, what is clear is that the term, “failing schools,” is not one in which schools– particularly teachers–  are themselves being singled out as failures.

The message behind these articles was one of trying to figure out how to adequately financially support schools.


Want to read about the history of charter schools and vouchers?

School Choice: The End of Public Education? 

school choice cover  (Click image to enlarge)

Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?.

both books

Don’t care to buy from Amazon? Purchase my books from Powell’s City of Books instead.

  1. A while back, a former grad student of mine did a nexus-lexis search on the term failing schools, and found that it was seldom used before the late 1990s. Then it became ubiquitous. NCLB created failing schools.

  2. stiegem permalink

    It’s always about money, isn’t it?

  3. Jeff permalink

    I like Big Picture. Try this on for size.

  4. stiegem permalink

    Great Jeff! You sound a lot like John Holt, and even Greenspan. Play is the work of the child. But it is also the work of happy, successful adults who love what they are doing. If we could sell this truth to the reformers, we could drop all the rigor and standardize testing on these unfortunate students who aren’t even motivated to learn. Good stuff.

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