Facts About Victorian Schools and Classrooms

In 1880 a law was passed making it compulsory for every child in Britain between the ages of 5 and 10 to attend school.

Lots of new schools were opened in Victorian times, but they were very different from the schools of today.

What were Victorian classrooms like?

  • In the first half of the 1800s, classes were massive. Sometimes there were more than 100 pupils in every class.
  • The Victorian classroom was often referred to as the schoolroom.
  • Victorian pupils sat at iron-framed desks. These were usually bolted to the floor in rows facing the front of the classroom.
  • The walls of a Victorian school were often completely bare.
  • The floor of the schoolrooms were tiered (a bit like in a cinema). The children sitting at the back of the room were higher up than those sitting at the front. This meant that all of the children had a good view of the teacher and the blackboard, but it also meant that the teacher had a good view of them.
  • The windows in a Victorian classroom were high up (to stop pupils looking out of the window) and the rooms were lit by gaslights. As a result, the schoolrooms were gloomy and often stuffy.
  • Sometimes different classrooms were only divided from the others by curtains. This meant that it was very easy to hear noise coming from other lessons.
  • Although lots of schools were built during the Victorian era, not a great deal of money was spent on taking care of the buildings. Victorian schools were often quite shabby and in need of repair.

What did Victorian children learn? What were Victorian lessons like?

Most Victorian lessons involved listening to the teacher and copying sentences from the blackboard. There was very little partner work or group work and very little chance for pupils to discuss their ideas and ask questions.

Here are some more facts about Victorian lessons:

  • The most important lessons were the ‘three Rs’ – reading, writing and arithmetic (maths).
  • Pupils had to chant things (the times-table facts, for example) out loud until they could do it without making a mistake.
  • Victorian pupils also received lessons in history and geography.
  • Some lessons were called ‘object lessons’. Items (such as models, seeds, rocks and pictures) were placed on each pupil’s desk. The pupils were meant to make observations about the object in front of them. Most science lessons were taught in this way.
  • PE lessons were called ‘drill’ and usually took place in the playground. The children didn’t get changed for PE and the lessons involved lots of jogging on the spot, marching, stretching and lifting weights (dumbbells).
  • In the afternoons the girls and boys did different lessons. The boys were taught woodworking (and some schools also taught farming, shoe-making and gardening). The girls were taught how to cook meals, how to do embroidery and how to complete housework (such as washing and ironing).

What equipment did Victorian pupils use? What did they write on?

  • Children often wrote on slates instead of paper. They scratched the letters onto the slate with a sharpened piece of slate (which they held like a pencil). The writing on the slate could easily be removed and slates could be used again and again. This saved the school money as paper was expensive.
  • The very youngest children used to practise writing letters in sand-trays.
  • Older children used pen and ink to write in their ‘copybooks’. Each child had an inkwell and a fountain pen. It was the job of the ink monitor to fill the inkwells each morning.
  • Children were taught to write in a handwriting style called ‘copperplate’ and left-handed children were often forced to write with their right hands.
  • Victorian classrooms often had an abacus and a globe.

How were Victorian pupils punished if they misbehaved?

Discipline in Victorian schools was very harsh.

Here are some examples of Victorian punishments:

  • Teachers often beat pupils using a cane. Canes were mostly made out of birch wood. Boys were usually caned on their backsides and girls were either beaten on their bare legs or across their hands. A pupil could receive a caning for a whole range of different reasons, including: rudeness, leaving a room without permission, laziness, not telling the truth and playing truant (missing school).
  • Victorian pupils who couldn’t keep up in lessons were often made to wear a ‘dunce’s cap’ (usually made of newspaper) or told to put on an armband or badge with the word ‘dunce’ written on it. The Victorian teachers thought that the pupil would be embarrassed into making more of an effort.
  • In some schools (mostly in Scotland), Victorian children were beaten with a ‘tawse’ (a vicious-looking leather strap).
  • ‘Punishment baskets’ were used in some Victorian classrooms to suspend badly behaved children from the ceiling. The pupil was made to sit in a wicker basket and was then raised from the ground by ropes and pulleys.
  • Sometimes pupils were given lines. They often had to write out the same sentence over 100 without making a single mistake.
  • All of the punishments handed out by Victorian teachers were recorded in the school’s ‘punishment book’.

What were Victorian teachers like?

Here are some useful facts about Victorian teachers:

  • In Victorian schools there were more female teachers than male ones.
  • Victorian pupils were expected to call a male teacher ‘Sir’ and a female teacher ‘Madam’ or ‘Miss’.
  • Older pupils were sometimes given the job of teaching the younger pupils. They were known as ‘pupil teachers’.

Click here to find out more about the Victorians.