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The effect of industrialisation on education policy and the school system

Updated: Dec 23, 2022

“If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s we rob them of tomorrow.” 


Dewey’s observation from 1923 is often cited in contemporary debates about the relationship between industry, education and the economy in the twenty first century. Binkley et al (2011) noted another exponential shift in economic growth from manufacturing to information and knowledge services at the beginning of this decade which has impacted and transformed the nature of the modern-day workplace. They argue that employees need to be adaptable with the relevant communication, complex problem solving and innovation literacy skills to respond to new demands and changing circumstances in the labour market and expand the power of technology to create new knowledge and increase productivity.  

As debate builds again about the need to adapt to new environments with technological advancements, education and curriculum reform are often cited as necessary to equip a modern workforce for the learning and innovation skills needed in the digital economy of today (Kivunja, 2015). It is too simplistic to compare today’s model of mass education to ‘factory education’ from the industrial era during debate into examples of rote learning or lack of personalisation today, and I intend to bring historical dimensions to this contemporary debate and acknowledge the need for more education research into opportunities for maker pedagogy to prepare students for lifelong learning.

Industrialisation and Public Education

The phrase ‘Industrial Revolution’ was popularised after an Oxford lecture in 1884 by Arnold Toynbee and has consequently been used to describe Britain's economic development from 1760 to 1840 (Hudson, P., 2014). This document will examine socioeconomic variables impacting on the education system in Britain through periods of industrialisation from the eighteenth century as a critical analysis of reflection towards a future positioning of maker education pedagogy and curriculum.

Technological innovation during the twenty-first century is recognised as increasing the demand for skilled workers by industry, but historically such advancements have been associated with ‘de-skilling’ (de Pleijt, Nuvolari and Weisdorf, 2018) and should be considered in relation to education reform and quality of learning. Current research highlights interest and conflict between economic growth and education, particularly in relation to contemporary challenges of what Klaus Schwab (2017) has called a fourth industrial revolution (4IR) that we are on the cusp of living through today. He argues that the world has experienced four industrial revolutions: the first with the invention of steam engines for mechanical production; the second adopting electricity and division of labour to create mass production and the third period with the rise of digital technologies to automate production processes. The German Government put forward the concept of this fourth industrial revolution at the Hanover Fair in 2011 and Schwab claims that 4IR is different in scale, scope and complexity from previous eras and cautions that advancement in technology including the emergence of artificial intelligence has the capability to ubiquitously impact on government, industry and civil society.

Since the beginning of industrialisation the introduction of new technology has often been cited as a catalyst for paradigm shifts across socioeconomic and political boundaries, but careful consideration should be given to evaluate the education policy of the time. Toynbee (2011) was critical of the notion that Britain’s national wealth had increased during the early decades of the nineteenth century with the detrimental effect on many individuals and it is important to understand the true impact on education for everyone. He described the first industrial revolution as disastrous and a period leading to “a rapid alienation of classes and the degradation of a large body of producers”. Research from Peters (2017) also suggests that ‘our newest technologies have the clear potential to eliminate many more jobs than we create’ and mirrors Toynbee’s work that highlights the disappearance of low-skill, low-wage jobs in favour of automation during historic industrial revolutions. Milanovic, Lindert and Williamson (2010) similarly confer that income inequality in pre-industrial countries today is no different from inequality in distant pre-industrial times, leading to a notion that greater inequality at the start of each period of an industrial revolution followed by periods of political and institutional change is nothing new.

de Pleijt, Nuvolari and Weisdorf (2018) examined the effect of technical change on human capital formation as steam engines were introduced into Britain’s manufacturing processes during the first industrial revolution. Whilst their introduction into factory settings stimulated the formation of working skills, a negative effect was evidenced on the formation of primary education captured by literacy and school enrolment rates and recognising higher gender inequality in literacy. Despite one in seven boys entering secondary school education at the end of the seventeenth century, this had decreased to one in thirty by the 1880s and overall trends in data suggest that education was beneficial to pre-industrial economic growth but was not sustained following the initial stage of the industrialisation process.

The Purpose of Education during Industrialisation

As industrialisation creates economic growth (Carl, 2009) so too does the demand for the improved education but with contrasting ideologies and philosophical reasoning referenced over time. The economist Adam Smith’s viewpoint that government should increase the provision of universal education was based on crime reduction because ‘an instructed and intelligent people, besides, are always more decent and orderly than an ignorant and stupid one’. Kandel (1933) also shared a contrasting function of education as supporting society to adapt and change, particularly in times of incremental innovation and revolution when new vocabulary in language and interpretations emerge constantly. The positioning of this historical context will support my EdD literature review in relation to the emergence of maker pedagogy and the place of makerspaces in the school curriculum. It is widely argued that formal education must adapt to offer new forms of learning to support the acquisition of twenty-first century competencies and skills but there is still a need for more educational research to examine how best to teach these skills and adopt contemporary pedagogies which support their acquisition by students (Luna Scott, 2015).

Another viewpoint sees Williams (1961) share the purpose of education as two identifiable strands of 'the idea of education for all and the definition of a liberal education'. Acknowledging a complex discourse, Williams argues that curriculum evolution during the nineteenth century was a compromise between the three groups of ‘public educators, industrial trainers and old humanists’. Interestingly the views of industrial trainers became prominent and that was cited as damaging both to general education and to the new types of vocational training needed to equip workers in the industrial era, drawing parallels to the Marxist theory of education and modern day examples when industry have influenced the reform of ICT in the curriculum (Williamson et al. 2019).

Finally, much has been written about the purpose of education to accelerate economic development and although human capital is one of the strongest predictors of growth in the British economy today, its importance for the industrial revolution was minor (Squicciarini and Voigtländer, 2014). Human capital corresponds to knowledge or characteristics that a worker acquires and is a contribution to their productivity but within an educational context Sonnentag (1998) explained how pedagogy of education is significant to show how human capital development formation is attained. Okeke and Yong (2016) introduced two types of human capital in a model of industrialisation that differentiates between traditional and modern manufacturing, which is an interesting study in relation to thinking about digital making, technology and fabrication knowledge and skills development in the curriculum. While average worker skills are more important in traditional manufacturing environments, scientific knowledge raises entrepreneurial efficiency in the latter. Measured changes in literacy levels, however, correlate strongly with the polemical debate between historians about the impact of the industrial revolution with Michael Sanderson arguing that literacy rates dropped off in the 1790s as children spent less time in school and increased their working hours (Mair, 2018). Allen (2013) concluded that ‘literacy was generally unimportant for growth’ and this will be an insightful study to contrast alongside the work of De Pleijt and Van Zanden (2016) to research the opportunities of maker pedagogy towards the new professional skills of the modern labour market demanded by industry.

Types of School

In order to understand how industrialisation and policy impacted on education, the quality of provision, curriculum and equity in education I have considered parts of the evolving school system during the first and second industrial revolutions in Britain (1760 - 1914) and used relevance of that provision to contextualise thinking into the positioning of makerspaces in education today.

Family Learning

The expansion of factory-based manufacturing processes during the first industrial revolution was a catalyst for widespread social change that affected every age group. From a sociology perspective Parsons (1951) argued that the process of industrialisation led to huge changes in both the structure and the role of the family and the roles of family members. Taking urbanisation as a linked process to industrialisation with relocation from rural communities into cities and factory towns, Parsons held a view that this had a transformative effect on families and created the smaller ‘nuclear family’ from a previously wider and intergenerational support network.

In pre-industrial times the family was the education provider for children and John Dewey (1923) noted the practical life skills acquired from intergenerational learning of production methods on the farm at home. Children were able to experience the industrial and farming processes themselves from raw materials to end product stage and understand the purpose of their actions and learning, and recognise the value of other people’s contributions to the overall process. Learning was family-led, relevant, practical and experiential to the point that industrialisation changed the relationship between employment, family structures and the formal education system, with some saying that nursery provision caused the breakup of the family as home life and work life became separated (Medick, 1976). From this viewpoint it is apparent that opportunities for practical learning cited by Dewey declined during the industrial revolutions, bringing my own thinking back to the purpose of education and how we measure the quality of provision and progress.

The Sunday School Movement

Thomas Laquer (1977) suggested that the key element in the success of the Sunday School movement was that it provided the education and human capital that working-class parents wanted for their children as they began in the 1780s. They were originally schools where poor children could take the opportunity to improve literacy and religious knowledge and also where both adults and children could enhance their culture of working class life after spending all week working in the factories. Sunday school literacy teaching focused purely on reading the Bible, and not the writing or arithmetic associated with the 3Rs in education which Williams (1961) referenced as the ‘more dangerous subjects’, and were a mechanism for Christian philanthropists to equip all children with the literacy and other skills including character building thought necessary for life in the industrial era (Mintz, 1989).

Robert Raikes is documented as the pioneering founder of the Sunday School movement, using his position as editor of the Gloucester Journal to publicise the education cause and starting a first school for the children of chimney sweeps in Sooty Alley, Gloucester in 1780. By 1784 there were one thousand and eight hundred pupils attending Sunday School classes in Leeds, Manchester and Salford after the ‘Sunday School Society’ had been established to coordinate and develop the work started in Gloucester. Closer reading into Reverend Griffith Jones’s work to launch the Welsh Circulating Schools in 1737 sees the model of Sunday School from Raikes implemented earlier and at scale. These schools were established to educate adults and children using the Welsh Bible and prayer books as textbooks and provided a weekday evening or Sunday curriculum taught over three months. During the period between 1737 and 1761 three thousand Welsh Circulating Schools provided education programmes to over one hundred and fifty thousand adults or children, not only predating the Gloucester model but eclipsing the number of learners on roll within the school system.

Between 1789 and 1799 the teacher, writer, evangelist and philanthropist Hannah More established nine Sunday Schools with her sister Hannah, which were located in Somerset amongst the rural poverty and social depravity of the Mendips Region. She was a social reformer who wanted to improve the world by changing the educational practices of the British upper, middle and lower classes, as well as transforming the role of women in forming national culture (Gilmartin, 2003). Her methodology to transform education and make social reform happen was to empower the working classes to achieve mobility as sober, industrious, thrifty, healthy and religious citizens with a call to action for the rich and powerful to act as role models for the lower classes with increased social responsibility to set a good example.

More and her sister educated over a thousand adults and children a year and was considered an innovator and contentious in education, implementing new pedagogies into Sunday School teaching to ‘bring literacy, Christianity, sobriety, industry and good health to the rural poor, combining vocational training with religious instruction’ (Stott, 2000). Her teaching differed from previous delivery, sometimes with the inclusion of singing to increase pace, and focused wider than increasing literacy skills by additionally promoting moral character in the context of her Christian beliefs but was viewed by historian Linda Colley (2008) as the ‘politicisation’ of children. More’s Strictures on the Modern System of Female Education (1799) set out another controversial programme for the education of ‘excellent women’ using Bible and literature reading with extension through group discussion, and again it was her approach shaped by beliefs in Evangelical Christianity that received criticism as she redefined feminine virtue, contradicting Mary Wollstoncraft’s viewpoint that both sexes had the same capacity for morality (Nardin, 2001). She argued that if a national revolution of manners was to occur it would be borne out by women educated through different pedagogy away from rote learning to ‘contribute to form the mind and enrich the judgment (O’Brien, 2009).

Schools of Industry

Language is indicative of the philosophy of education during industrialisation as the Industrial Schools Act was passed in 1857 and gave magistrates the power to sentence children between the ages of seven and fourteen years to a period of education in an industrial school. These institutions were established to provide a co-educational solution to a social problem by offering industrial training and residential care for destitute and vagrant children, but it is the inclusion of practical learning activities and the opportunities for active experimentation (Kolb, 2005) that are of interest to my own EdD reading.

Sometimes called industrial feeding schools, referring to the belief in an education production line of children from ‘the back door of the school lead to the front door of the factory’, the first industrial school opened in Aberdeen in October 1846. They provided children with vocational, manual and social training alongside a curriculum based on the ‘three Rs’ of education (reading, writing and ‘rithmetic) plus geography and religion, introducing a much broader and practical programme of study that had previously been seen in schools. Older female students were employed in knitting, sewing, spinning and housework competency and male counterparts were taught shoemaking and manufacturing skills. According to Michael Ignatieff (1981), industrial schools formed part of a new social history of the control institution, when increasingly the distinction made by magistrates between the industrial and earlier reformatory schools was blurred. Often sponsored by the same philanthropic and social reformers of previous education provision, industrial schools enforced similar surveillance systems and hard labour as seen in the penal system, questioning their purpose as a school or prison.

Monitorial Schools

Contemporary discussions about a curriculum to address the challenges of a twenty-first century society recognise the relevance and importance of personalised and contextual learning skills to equip students in a modern world (Kaufman, 2013). It is the positioning of maker pedagogy within this discourse that is of interest to my own research methodology and consideration of how these skills or competencies can be effectively taught. In researching the challenges of the education system in a digital era it has become apparent that some of the criticisms around rigidity in seating, assessment and rote learning are the same features that gave the monitorial school system its reach into mass public education in the nineteenth century but with questions about the quality of education and impact on learning outcomes.

Monitorial schools were designed to manage the learning of large numbers of pupils in a single space and proved to be efficient by reducing costs but not necessarily effective as a method of instruction for large numbers. School discipline was grounded on industrial assumptions with set places for children and the school bell signalling time changeovers in the same way they had been installed in factory settings. Joseph Lancaster and Andrew Bell introduced two rival monitorial school systems that were similar in structure and approach and referred to as 'a piece of social machinery that was both simple and economical, an instrument suited to the needs and outlook of the times' (Lawson and Silver, 1973). Bell first wrote about teaching with student monitors in India during 1797, which was adopted as his Madras system, and he described it as ‘the steam engine of the moral world' in an interesting analogy of mass education against the backdrop of the first industrial revolution. The model was still based on using the Bible as the main teaching resource but industrialisation of the education system saw older deployed students as monitors and standard repetitive exercises to enable one teacher to teach hundreds of children at the same time in one room. The curriculum in these monitorial schools resembled that from the schools of industry – the ‘three Rs’ of education plus practical activities and the classroom was arranged informally (Harwood, 2015).

Joseph Lancaster’s monitorial schools became known as the Lancasterian System and were more rigid in terms of layout of each establishment with the first opening in Southwark, 1798. An optimum learning space was even regimented and described as being a parallelogram the length about twice the width with window positioning six feet from the floor and the teacher's desk in the middle of a platform erected at the lower end of the room. Student desks were fixed firmly to the ground, children formed semicircles for reading and memorisation of subject matter was advocated and the preferred method for teaching.

The quality of education offered by the monitorial system was first questioned by Samuel Wilderspin who argued that pupils needed more direct teaching from the adult (McCann, 1966). Monitorial teaching by drill was pedagogically limited and learning by rote in the most basic sense, with Gislason (2009) imagining that it was Lancaster’s strong reinforcement of a supervision, rewards and punishment system that stopped any rebellious behaviour from students.


In 1839 James Kay-Shuttleworth was appointed first secretary of the committee formed by the British Privy Council to administer the Government grant for public education and served in this role for ten years. It was over this time, in parallel with the emergence of mass education, that he established Battersea College as the first teacher training college in Britain and created a school inspection system to provide accountability for quality of education provision, design of school buildings and structure of the teaching profession. Kay-Shuttleworth had been a Poor Law Commissioner in the previous decade and insisted that objectivity in social matters was possible, noting that policy could be based on scientific information to avoid prejudice or partiality. It is this consideration of equity in education and his desire to experiment with new theories, pedagogy and approaches from European reformers that have influenced my own thinking, particularly with the introduction of Pestalozzian teaching methods into inspected elementary schools. These schools were created to address the question of how to educate children above the age of six years by David Stow who believed that free play and oracy were important components for primary education and that the living voice was more important than the printed page. In opposition to the approach of mass education, Stow’s system was costly and needed specialist teachers (Pound, 2011) and as a result only a small number of schools were adopted using his methods.

Johann Pestalozzi’s philosophies and writing on educational practice constituted a major influence on Kay-Shuttleworth’s vision for education in Britain, including the inclusion of the system of ‘object lessons’ to teach maths which Pestalozzi designed to help children learn to observe and analyse the world around them (Paroissien, 2004). He opened his first school in Yverdon, Switzerland during 1805 and based the ‘Pestalozzi Method’ on Rousseau’s social contract philosophy of natural education to promote inquisitiveness of children. Pestalozzi wanted education to become relevant to the working class by preparing children in the context of lifelong learning and integrating his three domains of learning: cognitive (head), affective (heart) and practical (hands) and recognising the potential of experiential and active learning to support children. As children took an active part in the acquisition of their own knowledge they increased their own understanding of the world around them, integrating facts from interdisciplinary areas and developing scientific knowledge. In reading ‘How Gertrude Teaches Her Children’ (Pestalozzi, 1898) the four tenets of his educational philosophy become relevant for my own educational research today around the inclusion of maker pedagogy in the curriculum, particularly the active, child-centered teaching practices adopted in activities using physical computing devices as a contemporary object to think with. Translating the tenets into actionable ideas for classroom practice as Freire referred to as praxis in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Darder, 2017), draws further parallels with the constructionist theory of teaching programming from Papert (1970) with Logo and ‘objects-to-think-with’ and Kolb’s experiential learning theory from 1984.

The growth of the Maker Movement over the last decade has been described as having tangible evidence of a socio-technical transformation process that Polanyi (1944) classified as “The Great Transformation” during the period of a third industrial revolution. Digital makers have been described as independent innovators able to concentrate on personal-collaborative design skills, scientific-technological skills, entrepreneurial skills, and communication skills that are encompassed into twenty-first century competencies and skills demanded of the modern day education system (Bloem et al, 2014). In ‘head, heart and hands’ Pestalozzi established a psychological method of instruction placing special emphasis on the ‘laws of human nature’. Two centuries later, Schwab (2017) has now argued that the fourth industrial revolution may have the potential to “robotize” humanity and thus deprive us of our heart and soul. In a speech as Executive Chair of the World Economic Forum, shared his view that technology can complement the ‘best parts of human nature: creativity, empathy and stewardship, and lift humanity into a new collective and consciousness based on a shared sense of destiny’. The language is striking in style to that used by Pestalozzi during the nineteenth century when he shared an education framework based on social, emotional and cognitive objectives.

I am more inclined to name this so called fourth industrial revolution an algorithmic era and it is essential that we have a curriculum to equip a competent and diverse workforce with the knowledge and skills needed to design those algorithms now and in the future. We know from previous periods in history that the mass education model can bring efficiencies over quality of provision but now is the time to bring research into the structuring and purpose of maker education as the fourth industrial revolution has the capacity to change the way we live, work and learn. Equipping young people for their own futures needs a true understanding of the social, emotional and cognitive skills required now and how best to teach them.


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