Skip to main content

School attendance in Victorian times, half timers, compulsory attendance, truancy, attendance officers, 1800's - 1900s

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

I researched the history of this school (St. Michael’s at Bamford, Lancashire) forty one years ago for a long essay as part of my teacher training. I came across it recently and thought that it might be of interest to others. I had access to the logbooks and punishment books. This is one chapter of ten.


It was not until the latter half of the nineteenth century that attendance at school was made compulsory.

The Revised Code of 1862 was the first attempt by the Government to encourage attendance because the payments made to schools (known as ‘payments by results’) were based on the attendance of the pupils and on the outcome of annual examinations of the pupils.

As a result of this method of payment the schools became very much concerned with attendance and the effect of the Revised Code can be seen quite clearly in the logbooks of St Michael’s. The following extracts are typical of the comments which appear in the logbooks frequently –

June 18th 1866. Attendance very small owing to extreme wetness of day ”.

Aug 20th 1866. Attendance very small – two mills stopped ”.

Aug 21st 1867. Number present this morning 47 ”.

The weather affected the number of children in school

The weather played a great part in affecting the attendance, if it was wet or cold the numbers attending were reduced (because the children often had to walk a long way to school). Similarly if the weather was hot, the children often failed to attend, especially at harvest time when they nearly all helped with the harvesting of the hay.

The following figures show how the decline in the weather as winter approached, affected the attendance –

October 29th 1867 - 69 attending

Nov 13th 1867 - 58 attending

Nov 20th 1867 - 58 attending

Dec 4th 1867 - 48 attending

A New Education Act

The 1870 Education Act did not make school attendance compulsory but it did allow School Boards to frame bye-laws for compulsory attendance between the ages of 5 and 13. They were not however bound to use the power if they did not wish to do so. Where there was no School Board there could be no compulsion by the Act of 1870.

In 1871 a new code was introduced by Forster and one of the encouragements given to teachers was a rise in the amount of grant paid for attendance.

However it was not until 1876 and 1880 that measures were taken to make attendance at school compulsory.

In 1876 Sandon’s Acts were passed which compelled parents to cause their children to receive efficient instruction; penalties were imposed upon the parents whose children of 10 and up to 13, did not hold a certificate of proficiency in the “three R’s” or a certificate of due attendance at a certified efficient school. Where there was no School Board a School Attendance Committee was to be appointed to carry out the provisions of this Act.

Attendance at St Michael’s certainly grew around the mid 1870’s but this was probably due to the fact that a new school was built which could accommodate more children and also because there were more children of school age in the area than was the case previously.

Scroll to Continue

In 1867 there were less than 100 children attending the school but in February 1876 there were 129 children in attendance on one occasion. The importance of the Day of the Inspection can clearly be seen by the large increase in the numbers attending school on that day e.g. –

July 19th 1876. The Day of Inspection. Number present 131 boys and 106 girls. 237 total”.

School Registers

Attendance registers were not mentioned in the logbook until September 1877 when H.M.Inspector said in his report –

The Registers should be checked occasionally by one of the Managers”.

As a result –

November 28th 1877. This day I examined the Registers and found them correct. W J Lowenburg.

From that date the Registers were checked regularly.

Half - timers

It was in 1878 that the system of “half-timers” was introduced. Children under ten were debarred from employment in factories and those under thirteen who were employed were under an obligation to attend school either one session per day (i.e. half-time) throughout the week or one full day on alternate days.

The 1876 Act had not however forced the School Boards and Attendance Committees to take action if children did not attend school. Mundella’s Act of 1880 changed this.

!880 Attendance made compulsory.

In 1880 the Liberals came into office. A J Mundella became Vice-President of the Council in the Liberal administration of 1880-1885. The farce of permissive compulsion was ended immediately. A short 3 Clause Act informed the school boards and school attendance committees who had not made bye-laws enforcing compulsion, that they must do so ‘forthwith’. If they did not comply by the end of the year the Education Dept. would do so for them. Moreover, it made the employer of any child between the ages of 10 and 13 liable to a penalty if that child had not got a certificate of education as laid down by the bye-laws.

With some exceptions of School Boards etc. who still had not complied, by 1881 the entire population of England was obliged to send its children to school until they were ten years old, when they could obtain an educational certificate entitling them to leave. The Act also made it impossible for children to leave school at the age of ten on the strength of 250 attendances, known generally as the ‘dunces certificate’. This was now restricted to children of thirteen, with the added obligation that such a child was required to attend as a half-timer until the age of fourteen. So incentives to work hard at school were strengthened, for the only way in which a child could evade this was by reaching Standard V as soon as possible.

Attendance Officers introduced

As a result of the Act, School Attendance Officers were created to check on attendance. The first mention of an Attendance Officer visiting St Michael’s school was not until 1882 –

October 6th 1882. Visited by the Attendance Officer”.

Until the summer of 1880 frequent mention was made of the total number of children present each day and of weekly averages etc. but after July 1880 there is little reference to the actual numbers attending, presumably being due to the fact that the Registers became very important and it was therefore unnecessary to record the details again in the logbook.

On March 23rd 1881 the Registers were checked and two mistakes found –

Visited school in the morning and verified attendances of 3rd and 5th classes, boys and girls. Found two mistakes which were corrected in my presence. – J C Butterworth, Correspondent and Manager”.

Education certificates introduced.

Great importance was attached to the education certificates which enabled a child to leave school. They were known as Labour Certificates and the following are extracts from the logbook relating to the issue of these certificates –

May 1st 1883. Received from Mr Milne, Inquiry Officer, word that Edwin Ashworth, Georgeana Lord, Hannah Turner, Sarah A Whitworth, Frank Taylor, James Holt, have passed the Standard required. E Ashworth for total exemption and the others for partial exemption”.

(total exemption meant that the child could leave school altogether, partial exemption meant that the child could become a half-timer).

May 1st 1884. Received from Mr Milne Certificate (Labour) for Jas. Western, John Clegg total exemption – and Rosa Mousley, Mary Lomas partial exemption. John Lomax’s Labour Certificate is retained by Mr Milne until he is thirteen”.


Now that schooling was compulsory truancy became a problem as can be seen in the following extract –

June 21st 1888 – Lawrence Boff in the first Std. having made 119 out of a possible 357 times and also having been absent the last five weeks has been struck off the books as an incorrigible truant. J C Butterworth. Correspondent and Manager”.

The Headmaster had certain duties to perform in ensuring that children attended school –

August 27th 1888 – Opened school this morning with a very fair attendance. Inquiry notes sent to all absentees”.

Reasons for bad attendance were many, truancy, holidays approaching, harvest, bad weather and parents influences. The latter can be seen in the following extracts –

Jan 9th 1889. The attendance this week is very good, the average being above 160. There is a great tendency to irregularity among the Hooley Bridge children, owing to a strike among the workpeople”.

January 21st 1889. The attendance is suffering very much at present owing to a strike that is going on at Messrs Boothmans’ Works. Many cases of removal having occurred already and there are many probable during the next few weeks”.

The employers seemed to play an important part in the case of half-timers and often encouraged children to leave a particular school –

Nov 6th 1889 ………. Frank Collingwood, 4th Standard compelled to leave school owing to Mr Tattersall not allowing his half-timers to attend school here”.

Nov 21st 1889. Sarah E Jarman was admitted this afternoon. She is working half-time at Crimble Mill and has only passed Standard II. I have written to the Manager”.

Nov 22nd 1889. Sarah E Jarman has left the school till after her examination at her previous school, which is due in January”.

On the same day the following comment was made in the logbook –

The Attendance Officer has furnished me with a duplicate attendance register returnable every fortnight and he will rely more on that than on school visits”.

Prizes for atttendance and progress.

In October 1889 it was decided that prizes for good progress and attendance would encourage better attendance from the children and so –

Oct 8th. I have taught a new song, “Sneezing” to the children in preparation for an Entertainment on Saturday week, the proceeds of which will be devoted to giving to the children prizes for progress and attendance”.

Oct 15th. Prizes to the value of nearly £3.10s. will be distributed on Saturday next”.

Oct 21st. The Children’s Entertainment passed off successfully on Saturday last, and a balance of 17/6d is left, which will be expended at the breaking up. Xmas.”.

The Children’s Entertainment thus became an annual event and it was a chance for the parents and teachers to meet, which itself helped to improve attendance due to the fact that the parents were fully informed of all the requirements of the Act which enable their children to leave school.

After several years letters were sent out with the programmes to the parents and these almost always paid great attention to attendance and usually asked for the parents help.

The following letter was sent to parents in 1896 –

To the parents of the Scholars attending Bamford C.E.School, and other kind friends.

As Christmas draws near we again solicit your sympathy and support on behalf of our Prize Fund. At the last Prize Distributions six Gold Medals, three Gold Centre Medals, and three Silver Medals besides a number of Book Prizes were provided by this fund. There remains a small balance in hand of 7/2d from the Concert Account of 1895.

We are all convinced of the stimulating effect of our Prize Scheme. Teachers, Managers, Parents, and most especially do the Children themselves benefit from it by reason of their improved regularity of attendance. Increased attendance gives increased opportunities for the creation of new thoughts and wider ideas in the child – mind – aye and a score of other advantages might be suggested without a moments thought.

The number of Scholars on the books at the present time is 216 as against 204 last year. The average attendance for the present year so far is 165; last year for the same period it was 150.

We assure you that this improved attendance gives us all renewed hope and energy for the future.

In conclusion we ask you for a continuance of your interest and co-operation in our School-work, that our united efforts to build up the characters of a future generation of honourable and enlightened citizens may be crowned with a great measure of success.

Wish you the Compliments of the Season

We remain

Yours sincerely,

The Teachers

Letter to parents.


More incentives.

In 1897 two further items were added to encourage attendance –

Miss Peters of Ryefield House presented to the school some time ago a beautifully illuminated “Honours Board”. It has been fixed in position behind the Master’s desk and will I feel certainly have a valuable influence on the Attendance”.

The ‘Lee’ Silver Medal has been presented for competition by a friend”.

In 1898 the Teachers’ letter said –

………… On June 1st we distributed the following prizes from our fund.

1 Gold Medal for three years perfect attendance.

6 Gold Centre Medals for two years perfect attendance.

11 Silver Medals for one years perfect attendance.

12 Illuminated Certificates.

Beside a number of Book Prizes.

At our next distribution, Certificates will be presented to all scholars who made 350 or more attendances during the year. Parents will please note that Scholars who gain five such certificates after their fifth birthday will be assured of Full Time Exemption on attaining the age of thirteen years …………”.

Attendance obviously improved as a result of this announcement – 77 Illuminated Certificates were presented in 1899.

Again the letter of 1899 was used to make parents aware of changes regarding leaving ages etc –

On the 1st January, 1900, the age for half-time exemption will be raised to 12 years. After that date half-time exemption at 12 years of age may be claimed on five years of good attendance; as is the case at present for full time exemption at 13 years. This prompts us again to ask all parents to see that the attendance of their children is so good that they may earn at least one of our Attendance Certificates. Five such certificates gained after reaching the age of five years will in future ensure exemption for either half-time at 12, or full time at 13”.

Corporal punishment for truancy

Many parents co-operated with the school staff in ensuring that their children attended regularly but others did not, neither did they co-operate with the Attendance Officer –

March 25th 1890. Mrs Ledgard said her child Fanny would not attend this school again. It is owing to trouble with the Attendance Officer”.

For the children who attended school regularly, prizes were given, but for those who played truant, corporal punishment was administered –

April 10th 1890. Corporal punishment administered to Preston and Goodman (Infants and Standard I) for truancy”.

The Attendance Officer was still disliked by many parents and in 1894 –

May 4th. A child, Elfie Rigg has left school this week. She has attended irregularly for some time past, and parents have taken offence at the Attendance Officer’s warning and threats”.

Some parents however realised that truancy was a problem and brought their child to school for the Head Master to deal with –

May 1st 1895. Marshall Fletcher, a boy who was turned away from Queen Street School some time ago for misconduct has since been admitted here. He has on several occasions given great trouble owing to truancy. After a truancy of a week’s duration his mother brought him to school this morning remarking that she could do no good with him. On this occasion I have administered corporal punishment, as warnings seem utterly ineffective”.

Mother tries to cheat the system.

In 1899 the Master discovered that one mother had been giving incorrect information with regard to the ages of her children –

Have been revising the ages of all the children on the registers. I find in one case the mother of a numerous family invariably sends an incorrect date of birth when the child is admitted in order to keep the child under 5 years of age. At a later period on revision, as the child approaches the age for partial exemption another age is sent which I find discords with the Registrars Certificate. This is a difficulty over which we teachers have no control. Perhaps in the future Registrars may be empowered to supply gratis the ages of children upon the application of the teacher in such cases as this. I sincerely hope so”.

When attendance circulars were issued, attendance improved –

Oct 13th 1899. Distributed to each of the children the circulars which have been issued by the School Attendance Committee”.

Oct 18th 1899. A record attendance this afternoon – 183 children present”.

Oct 20th 1899. The circular sent out by the Attendance Committee has had a salutary effect; the attendance during the past week has reached 173 in average, a record number”.

Nov 3rd 1899. ………… Wrote to the Clerk of the Bury Union School Attendance Committee asking them to consider the advisability of issuing an attendance circular in their district as there is great need for improvement in that direction”.

The Bury Committee agreed to issue a circular on the lines of the Heywood one and once again, attendance improved.

It can be seen that although education was made compulsory, much had to be done during the late nineteenth century to enforce it and encourage it.

The changes which occurred in attendance, i.e. made compulsory, ages of leaving amended etc. were also followed by changes in the lengths of school holidays.

In 1866 the children’s midsummer holiday lasted from 2nd August until 13th August – 11 days. In 1882 it lasted from 4th August until 21st August – 17 days and in 1890 it lasted from 31st July until 25th August, 25 days.

Also in the early years of the school, the children had Christmas Day off but attended on Boxing Day, the holiday beginning on December 27th 1867 and lasting until January 6th 1868.

Related Articles