Chapter 1 – Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 20 in the series A Short History of Technical Education

I have undertaken to write a short history with a personal point of view of technical and vocational education, with a particular emphasis on work-based education and training. Bearing in mind the current debates about the importance and position of vocational education within the overall education system I feel an historical perspective could be useful for the following reasons:

  • In recent times very little attention has been paid to the historical context of our current quandaries/dilemmas over technical education and training.
  • It will hopefully provide a host of insights into this country’s current struggle to confront and tackle skills shortages and gaps and our ability to respond to and compete with the emerging global economies.
  • It will provide pointers to the lessons and strategies for technical education aimed at industrial growth that have been spelt out over the last 200+ years but which successive governments and educationalists have continued to neglect or discard.
  • It will illustrate the extent of industrial and economic decline both in relative and absolute terms in Britain over the past 150 years and what it would therefore be unwise to repeat in the future.

I hope that the history and analysis will be both interesting and illuminating to readers by providing additional information about this very important, fascinating and yet often neglected aspect of the education system.

This introduction will set the scene and provide a backdrop for the later chapters, which will cover the various historical stages beginning before the first Industrial Revolution up to the present time. One challenge when writing a history of technical education, say, when compared with the history of other sectors of education, is the difficulty of getting hold of the existing literature which is both relatively sparse and little referenced – thus again reflects the Cinderella image of the subject. Because of limitations of time and space I cannot hope to do full justice to this complex and fascinating topic so the major focus will be on England. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each merit their own histories reflecting as it were their own unique, fascinating and interesting past. The Republic of Ireland and graduates from Trinity College Dublin (see picture below) also made major contributions in astronomy, mathematics and the physical sciences. Trinity College, Dublin, was and is still a very highly regarded university and introduced examinations long before their counterparts in England. Also notable Irish individuals who made important contributions to public and technical examinations include James Booth (see biography).

Trinity College Dublin shown opposite.

Trinity college Dublin

England has never fully recognised the achievements and contributions that the other home countries have made to education including technical education, preferring to look beyond our shores, particularly to America and this approach still continues currently. This has been certainly true over the last few decades with the imitation of a number of work based models e.g. Training Enterprise Councils (TECs) which ultimately failed and again showed that the American system had little to offer. Interesting to note that Scotland and latterly Wales have for instance developed some very innovative programmes in vocational education and modular credit based systems which in many ways are more impressive than those in England.

In addition to the contributions to science and technology across the home countries I am also acutely aware of the contributions made from further a field both within Europe and beyond. One only has to read the remarkable and seminal works of Joseph Needham (1) on the history of Chinese science and technology to realise the significant contributions that this civilisation made to these important bodies of knowledge. China made an immense number of discoveries and inventions centuries before the European countries including gunpowder, the magnetic compass and printing. It is only recently following the pioneering work of Needham and his co-workers that the world has recognised these scientific and technological achievements. A remaining mystery is why China did not continue to build on these amazing achievements. Another outstanding example was the Khmer Empire, (now known as Cambodia), with its canal system and civil engineering feats at the Angkor Wat Temple. One must also remember the massive achievements to mathematics, science and technology made by the Middle Eastern countries and civilisations and the Greek and Roman empires. Also the Islamic civilisation (9th to 14th century) preserved, recorded and translated key works in chemistry, engineering, mathematics, robotics, science, technology. water engineering for future generations as well as adding further significantly to these and other subjects. The Islamic civilisation made massive contributions to architecture, astronomy, mathematics, navigation, science and water engineering creating a golden age of science. Their influence in Spain and Sicily laid the foundations for the Renaissance and the scientific revolutions in the Middle Ages. his period between the 9th and 14th centuries was a truly golden age for science and medicine  Charles Singer and this co-workers (2) in their seminal seven volume series on the History of Technology fully explored, recorded and acknowledged the major achievements and contributions made by these and other earlier civilisations. Singer and his co-writers in a sense paralleled and complemented the work of Needham by covering these earlier and other civilisations.

These perspectives always need bearing in mind when evaluating the directions and decisions of UK education policy.

Gradual economic and industrial decline and the inadequacy of technical education

One irrefutable truth that history highlights is this country’s gradual industrial and economic decline after the heady days of the first Industrial Revolution often taken to be the period between 1780 to 1850. There were a number of factors that contributed to the economic and industrial decline and these will be discussed in greater depth in chapter 2. One important factor contributing to this decline and one that is a major focus of this history was the long time it took to realise and develop a national strategy and system for technical education and training and the resultant failure to provide adequate resources to establish a network of technical education institutions. This failure was in terms of the number of technical/training institutions, their geographical spread, appropriate facilities and the low numbers of student numbers recruited. This failure meant that the growing demand from industry for these facilities and resources throughout most of the period covered by this history was not satisfied. One can identify this issue at all three levels of the education/training system namely:

  • at elementary school level
  • at university and latterly at the higher polytechnic level,
  • at the secondary and private/independent/public school level where with very few notable examples the teaching of science and technical subjects was non-existent
  • across the heterogeneous array of institutions offering technical education/instruction such as Mechanics’ Institutions, working men’s colleges and day and evening institutes.

Criticisms during this time also centred on weak institutional management as well as the quality of the provision and the ability of the teaching staff again at all three levels of the education system. Criticisms highlighted both qualitative and quantitative deficiencies. This state of affairs makes a poor comparison with other European countries even at the beginning of the nineteenth century. For example France, Germany and Prussia had already established technical universities in the early 1800s whilst little happened in England until the turn of the 20th century and then only to a limited extent.

Institutions regarded as the pinnacle of intellectual challenge and achievement such as Cambridge, Oxford and the private/independent/public schools continued to neglect science and technology providing instead a classical education. A few exceptions did exist in the public school sector e.g. Oundle, Shrewsbury introduced mathematics in 1836 and Rugby introduced physics in 1837 but overall they were few and far between.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge were preoccupied with creating a national elite with an emphasis on liberal education. It was only after 1860/70 that industrial cities like Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester and Sheffield established institutions that introduced scientific and technical education at the higher levels and only through the efforts of such local business people as Josiah Mason and Joseph Chamberlain, William Wills, John Owen and Mark Firth. In fact universities contributed very little to creating qualified workers in technical disciplines until the final quarter of the 19th century.

However in spite of the lack of technical education at university and school level technical and scientific institutions were established early in the 19th century e.g. Mechanics’ Institutions, working men’s colleges’ that offered provision for artisans and workers. These were established by a few enthusiastic merchants, manufacturers and industrialists. The foundations of technical education and indeed the industrial revolution itself were based on the skills, experience, farsightedness and enthusiasm of practical individuals and the commitment and capital of a few successful business people. These will be described in later chapters and the short biographies of some of these farsighted individuals will be provided in a separate section on this website.

As already mentioned France, Germany, Prussia had rapidly established technical education institutions including universities in order to develop people in higher-level technical skills and knowledge thus creating a population of technocrats who would lead on their countries’ industrial developments and production. The English universities only very slowly and often reluctantly introduced vocational and technically related programmes into their provision. Many European countries had developed national systems for elementary/primary and secondary education long before England. However it must be stressed that Scotland within the British context was an outstanding exception – but more of that later. One of the few examples of Scottish influence on the English technical educational system was the adoption of the mechanics’ institutions movement into England inspired and developed from the Scottish model initiated by John Anderson and George Birkbeck (see biographies and pen portraits on this website). A portrait of John Anderson who established the first technical education in Britain is shown opposite and set the stage for George Birkbeck to continue the development of technical education in Scotland and England.

John Anderson


Some key historical issues.

This historical perspective identifies a number of recurring critical factors that have blighted and slowed down the development of an effective national English technical education system at all levels. Problematic factors identified include:

  • A philosophy of laissez-faire and the subsequent acquiescence into voluntarism across the field of technical education.
  • The reluctance of the State to get directly involved in the management of technical education guided by the principle that the State might subsidise but not direct provision.
  • Preoccupation with educational elitism which always valued the academic over the practical subjects. The education provision was structured on a hierarchical and differentiated system reflecting class divisions which basically meant different class’s experienced different provision. See the viewpoint on the Academic vs Vocational Debate on this website and the issues around parity of esteem.
  • The urge to push and subsume practical subjects into an academic subject culture i.e. academic drift.
  • An education system for most of the period covered by this history that did not create a culture of innovation and competition that are elements that are critical to economic success.
  • What some historians and commentators refer to as low social capability*, (see comments at end of this chapter), namely this country does not possess the ability or desire to more fully exploit existing scientific and technological knowledge. Social capability depends critically on the quality of education and training especially technical and vocational and its management. Social capability has an impact on economic growth of a nation.
  • Neglect of commercial/technical/vocational qualifications by successive governments and the majority of educationalists which reinforced basic hostility about the validity and credibility of the more technical and practical aspects of the curriculum. Over much of the period covered by this history no sustained or concerted effort was made to integrate technical and practical elements into the school curriculum. The crucial issue of how to achieve an effective balance between the teaching of general principles and the work- based specific skills remains unresolved even today.
  • During the critical period from 1870 to 1914 British employers many of whom were not educated in technical and pratical subjects were reluctant to recruit people with formal technical qualifications. They preferred to emply people were had ‘sat next to Nellie!’
  • The relatively late development of an effective national elementary* school system. Without this national system the subsequent stages were most certainly undermined, namely secondary, technical and higher education. A prevailing view that practical and technical skills were of limited value with little credibility and possessed little or no kudos.
  • Although the Victorian educational system may have created empire-builders, soldiers and administrators, it failed to produce great engineers. Because, in the minds of gentlemen, business professionalism was tainted with trade, the system produced amateurs on the model defined by Thomas Arnold in which high principles and gentlemanly conduct and a classical education was considered essential.
  • For most of the period under consideration no real attempt was made to define technical education – a classic example of this is to be found in the 1944 Education Act that did not provide precise guidance on the organisation of technical education nor any definition of technical education within the secondary school and further education sectors.
  • Arrogance, complacency, inertia and indifference among employers about international competition, particularly in the 19th century, which was largely engendered by the benefits of the empire and a false belief in the supremacy of their products. Matthew Arnold referred to the attitude of British industry as ‘blunder and plunder.’
  • The misguided belief that persisted after the demise of the British Empire about Britain’s greatness and the subsequent subservience to America.
  • The avoidance of warnings given by a succession of royal commissions, reports and influential individuals who had as early as 1851 highlighted future problems which in turn led to the failure to improve the situation.
  •  seems as if Intellectual Failure was and continues to be a permanent characteristic of successive British governments and many politicians. It seems if they never learn the lessons from history – expressed another way – do the same thing the same way and expect  a different result!

*Now referred to as primary education but in the 17th and 18th centuries would be seen as the beginning of the very basic elements of learning then available for the majority of the population. I will attempt to identify and systematically cover all these critical factors in the later chapters of this history.

These factors largely explain why such issues as the so-called academic/vocational divide and the value of parity of esteem between technical, work-based and other qualifications still plague and dominate political and educational debates even today. The divide between technical and vocational education/training continues to be ill defined and confused. No concerted effort was made to integrate/assimilate aspects of technical education into secondary education – the first real attempt was in the late 1970s and 1980s, namely the Technical Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI).

No one can refute that the education system is central to any society and that its effectiveness is reflected in a country’s strengths and weaknesses both domestically and abroad. Education and training is a fundamental element of society and key to its ultimate success in competing economically in the world. The quality of the education and training system both conditions and is conditioned by a wide range of interrelated elements including economics, advances in scientific, technological and industrial knowledge and practices, politics, social and even the religious cultures. This history highlights how these interacting elements influenced developments and attitudes to technical education at various times during the period before, during and after the first Industrial Revolution and up today.

Accepting that the relationship between education and industrial growth is a complex matter mainly because of the multitude of variables that are involved, should not deter us from trying to make the correlation or causation between these two key parameters. Cause-and-effect explanations can inevitably oversimplify the analysis and as a result can only hope to provide a partial explanation of the situation. A great deal of evidence shows that the rapid industrialisation in Britain in the early 19th century was not matched by any significant development let alone improvement in the existing education system. The Industrial Revolution, in many instances, highlighted the inadequacies of the education system in Britain especially in England. This mismatch is both paradoxical and perplexing as Britain did become the first industrial nation and at one time was acknowledged as the workshop of the world. Paradoxically the country’s success in leading the world into the industrial age was achieved in spite of the lack of a national education system and most certainly no effective technical education or training system.

It must be remembered that Britain developed a national school system late and before 1833, elementary education had been left very much to the church or private agencies. Grants for elementary education only started in 1834 with £20,000 a year being allocated by the government and by 1846 this had risen to £ 58,000 but this was totally inadequate for creating and extending educational opportunities for the working classes. It took even longer to develop a national system for secondary education to be established. The State took the first faltering steps to intervene in elementary and technical education in 1833 and 1853 respectively and only in 1902 did it create a national system for secondary education. Little wonder technical education suffered in the early stages of its development and that movements like the Mechanics’ Institutions struggled to survive with inadequate feeds from elementary and secondary schools.

When Victoria came to the throne in 1837 25% of children did not receive any instruction and as the House of Commons reported 49% of boys and 57% of girls between the ages of 13 and 14 could not read whilst 67% of boys and 88% of girls could not write. Only following the Forster Act of 1870 was compulsory education introduced and even then after a delay of eleven years was the Act finally enacted in 1881 did the situation gradually improve. The Act created a national system of elementary schools divided into school districts and the schools were run by school boards. Fees were levied for pupils and attendance was required by pupils aged between 5 and 13. Eventually in 1891 elementary education became basically free following the 1891 Education Act. Sadly the late development of elementary education coupled with the high levels of illiteracy and innumeracy and the lack of basic science knowledge undermined many of the early attempts to develop technical education e.g. Mechanics’ Institutions – this will be considered later. Obviously there needs to be an effective system of elementary/primary education in order to develop and sustain effective and efficient secondary and post-secondary sectors but the evidence shows that during most of the 19th century that this was not the case.

Although many historians have written about the negative effect of the inadequate education system as a contributory factor to the industrial and economic decline at the time of the Industrial Revolution other historians have presented a different view. West (3) for example provides a fascinating analysis of the relationship between education and the process of industrialisation during the 19th century. One aspect West explores is the reliability and quality of statistical data during the 19th century and equally importantly how it was managed and used by the governments of the day and as a result highlights the dangers of drawing conclusions or making judgements from the historical data. West carries out a brilliant analysis of the relationship between education and industrial progress but stresses the difficulties in gaining reliable statistical evidence in order to come to firm conclusions. He makes the distinction between demonstrated correlation and proven causation especially when analysing the statistical evidence and other information and how the government departments recorded and published it – so what is new! The difficulty of statistical analysis was even more problematic when attempting to make international comparisons in the 19th century because of the different methods used in different countries.

He argues strongly that a vigorous education system did develop in England during the 19th century but the inadequacy of statistics and often misinformation provided especially by the Education Department which was often partial and selective complicates any analysis. He concludes that the two revolutions namely the Industrial and Educational were interrelated and significantly benefited each other. Hobsbawm (4) also warns about the dangers of accepting ‘simple sociological explanations’ that many other historians have offered when attempting to provide explanations of Britain’s historical performance in the past.

Other perspectives and views have been presented by others writers referenced at end of this chapter who considered in detail the relationship between technical and scientific education and industrial growth and the influence of the English culture. Barnett (5) highlights the impact of successive British governments on their continued anachronistic commitment to a military-political role as a (supposed) world power. This aspect is demonstrated very effectively by Barnett (5) who presented very detailed data and subsequent analysis that showed how budgets were skewed and ring fenced towards military research and development that most certainly diverted essential funding from education, particularly technical education and training during the 20th century.

Another interesting example of how governments have exercised preferential funding has been identified by Wilkie (6). Wilkie considers the rise and fall of science in relation to government policy since 1945. The government’s commitment to invest heavily in so-called big science and engineering e.g. Concorde, channel tunnel, nuclear power etc with the resultant neglect to fund blue sky research and development.

Weiner (7) in his seminal book analyses and explores the area of the British class system and the prevailing culture and beliefs that demonstrated an antipathetical view of manufacturing, science, technology and most certainly towards entrepreneurial and competitive activity. The education system in Victorian times was instrumental in creating a national elite with its emphasis on liberal education primarily based on the classics and humanities. His analysis continues beyond the Victorian age up to 1980 and shows the same attitudes persist in terms of the negative view of manufacturing. Levine (8) makes the same criticisms about the negative views of industry pointing out the stark contrasts with the performance of other European nations. One major reason which will be picked throughout the history is the class ridden nation and the resulting snobbery towards manufacturing and manual work – academic subjects are perceived as better than technical subjects. Similar views have been expressed by Landes (9) who pointed to the ‘library of lament and protest about the failure of British educational institutions to turn out applied scientists in numbers and of a quality comparable to those produced in Germany.’

Bernal (10) brilliantly explores the subtle relationship between science, technology and industry during the 19th century. I will refer to all of these critiques in greater detail in later chapters.

English culture

A number of historians have provided a fascinating insight into how English cultural elements influenced industrial and economic life arising from the class structure, which has determined so much of English history. These writers have highlighted in particular the reaction, largely one of suspicion, of the upper classes to the consequences of the industrial revolution and the rise of the ‘industrialist class’. Interesting to note also that much has been written about the destructiveness of the trade unions toward industrial progress but the so-called English elites have proved far more obstructive particularly during the critical and formative period of the first industrial revolution and beyond. Weiner (7) brilliantly examines the economic and industrial decline in England and its inter-relationship and complex interactions with the social, political and psychological elements.

Britain’s industrial decline was first identified following the Great Exhibitions of 1851 (London) and 1867 (Paris) when it became evident that the country was beginning to lag behind France, Germany and the USA. Britain’s primary energy strength, namely coal, as the symbol of her industrial might was not sufficient to keep her in the lead as a manufacturing nation. Our competitors had more quickly realised that investment in people as well as plant and machinery was equally important and this was apparent when comparing products at both of these great exhibitions. The quality and range of products from our competitors was superior to our own and reflected the beginning of our decline. In addition it must be noted yet again that England was one of the few major competing countries that did not have an organised system of technical education. The decline accelerated during the latter part of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century as we lost the highly questionable benefits arising from the empire/commonwealth namely access to plentiful and cheap resources both human and materials and the protected and given markets for our own domestic manufactured products e.g. cars, fork lift trucks, machine tools, motor cycles etc. Even with the clear advantages afforded by that fact we created the first industrial revolution – it was evident by the end of the 19th century that our productivity was declining and we were losing our international market share in a wide range of products and services. Equally concerning was our failure to develop and exploit the newer technologies associated with chemical and electrical engineering. In addition the traditional industries like shipbuilding were failing to invest in research and development and replace machinery that had become dated and inefficient. One major disadvantage of being the first industrial country was that other nations could more quickly develop and introduce the newer industrial techniques and were able to invest in new plant and equipment.

One depressing and perplexing fact emerging from historical analysis is that even when the problems were identified no real action was taken to redeem the situation. Two typical quotes reflect the growing concerns about the quality and relevance of technical education:

“The excellence of the foreign goods is due, not to the workmen, but in great part to the superior training and attention to the general knowledge of their subject, observable among the managers and sub-officers of industry. No candid person can deny that they are far better educated, as a general rule, than those who hold similar posts in Britain.”
(Lyon Playfair 1867 after visiting the Paris Exhibition).

“…evidence appears to show that our industrial classes have not even that basis of sound general education on which alone technical education can rest… our deficiency is not merely a deficiency in technical education but in general intelligence and unless we remedy this want we shall gradually but surely find our undeniable superiority in wealth…and vigour will not save us from decline.”
(Schools Enquiry Royal Commission 1868).

A portrait of Lyon Playfair is shown below (See biography on this website).


Both of these quotations sadly reveal truths that are as valid today as when they were first stated. These quotations were made at a time when there was still no national framework for technical education. In spite of some worthy attempts to develop technical education and instruction e.g. through the Mechanics’ Institutions movement progress was painfully slow and no real vision was created by the governments of the day and more depressingly most governments since.


This introduction has begun to identify some of the key issues that will be explored more fully in later chapters. Already one is confronted with differing views about whether or not the quality of the education system, where it existed, particularly in the 19th century contributed to Britain’s economic and industrial decline. Although I am not an historian, after reviewing the evidence and having had direct experience of studying and working in technical education I have come to the view that it is the prevailing culture and class structure in this country over many centuries that has created a negative attitude towards technical and vocational education/training and this persists even today. I will attempt in the following chapters to justify this view. As mentioned above many notable social and economic historians share this view but this is my version based on my own research and direct experience of technical education from 1959 to 2001.

The next chapter will consider the impact of the Industrial Revolution and the influence of the advances of scientific and technological knowledge prior to and during the first industrial revolution. The impact of the industrial revolution will then be explored with the transformations that it brought about as people moved into the rapidly developing industrial cities and the growing interest and motivation of the workers to understand the science and technology that underpinned the industrial processes. The chapter will also explore the fascinating relationship between science and technology and the resultant attitudes and perception of the relative importance of scientific and technical education.

References for chapter 1

A more comprehensive book list is provided in a separate book lists.

  1. Needham. J. ‘Science and Civilisation in China’ CUP. 1954+.
  2. Singer.C. Holmyard. E.J. Hall. A.R and Williams. T. I. ‘ History of Technology’ 5 volumes. OUP. 1954+
  3. West. E.G. ‘Education and the Industrial Revolution.’ Batsford. 1975.
  4. Hobsbawn. E.J. ‘Industry and Empire. From 1750 to the Present.’ Penquin 1990.
  5. Barnett. C. ‘The Audit of War.’ ISBN 0-333-43458-7. Papermac.1987.
  6. Wilkie. T. ‘British Science and the Politics since 1945.’ ISBN 0-631-16849-4. Blackwell. 1991.
  7. Weiner.M. ‘English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit.’  CUP.1981.
  8. Levine.A.L. ‘Industrial Retardation in Britain 1880-1914.’ Basic Books. 1967.
  9. Landes. D.S. ‘The Unbound Prometheus.’ CUP. 1969. 
  10. Bernal. J.D. ‘Science and Industry in the 19th Century.’ RKP. 1953.

Other references that might be helpful:

Hill. D ‘A History of Engineering in Classical and Medieval Times’. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-15291-7. 1996.

Landels. J. G. ‘Engineering in the Ancient World’. Constable. ISBN 0 09 477280 0. 1978.

Masood, E. ‘Science and Islam’. Icon Books. ISBN 978-184831-081-0. 2009.

Williams.T. I. ‘A Short History of 20th Century Technology’ OUP. ISBN 0-19-858159-9. 1982.

Derry. T. K. and Williams. T. I. ‘A Short History of Technology’. OUP. 1960.

* Additional note.

Abramovitz .M. ‘Thinking about Growth.’ CUP. 1998. Abramovitz explores the interesting distinctions and relationships between growth and social capability.

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