School Attendance Medals in the Museum of Childhood
The British state first became seriously involved in the schooling of its citizens in 1870. A series of inquiries and investigations over the previous decade had revealed an education system of great complexity, supported by structures of inequality and incompetence. To resolve this, the Elementary Education Act of 1870 took the responsibility away from families and gave it to local councils. It was now down to these elected officials to ensure every child had access to a school place (and not just those children from professional or artisan families). In order to provide these places, local authorities were required to establish School Boards, which in turn could build and staff new schools.
In the capital, the School Board for London rushed into action, starting with the boroughs judged most deprived and in need of intervention. In a matter of months, over sixty schools were built throughout Finsbury, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Southwark and Lambeth. They also came up with a great idea to get children into these new schools – prizes. This wasn’t a complete innovation; the Museum’s collection includes examples as early as 1808 awarded by the fee-paying ‘public’ schools to middle-class scholars.
But in 1886, a system of prize medals was introduced which offered every child – even those in the slums of the East End – a beautiful, heavy, shiny medal hanging from a brightly coloured ribbon. Even better, each one was engraved with your name! The medals featured a portrait of the monarch on the front, and on the back, the inscription: ‘Awarded to [pupil's name] for punctual attendance during the year [date]‘. As children completed consecutive years of full attendance, their medals changed from tin to bronze, then silver. Even today this is a compelling thought, so I don’t wonder that in the last years of Victoria’s reign the scheme became a huge success.
Board Schools were paid by result. The money they received was dependent on how many children were regularly attending. So awarding medals was a profitable exercise financially as well as educationally. Students were encouraged to attend more, and so the schools received higher grants from the government.
To ensure that medals were being given out fairly across the jurisdiction of the School Board for London, head teachers were issued with strict instructions regarding how attendance was to be measured and recorded. The minutes of the Board meetings, now held at the London Metropolitan Archives, can tell us how discipline and attendance were enacted across the city.
The registers, or rolls, had to be called at exactly 9 o’clock in the morning and 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The teacher was to read out the names, and mark all students present in red pen. He or she would then start again and mark in black pen all those who had arrived in the meantime. To get a medal, children had to be at school at the first roll call. (To me, this begs the question whether children with surnames early in the alphabet were worse off than the Smiths and Webbers who came later down the list!)
In 1904 the School Board for London was integrated into the newly formed London County Council. Most of the London medals continued to be produced by Spink & Son, a company established in the seventeenth century and still trading medals today.
The emphasis on 100% attendance wasn’t actually welcomed by all; a 1907 review of the medal system revealed that many children were coming into school with diphtheria and scarlet fever, so reluctant were they to give up their prefect records and the chance of a prize.
In fact, the criteria for a medal changed throughout the programme, in a process which demonstrates the increasing power of schools – and the appeal of the medal programmes. Quite early it was decided that it wasn’t enough for children to only be at school; they should also be clean and tidy. To encourage this, ‘cleanliness’ was introduced as a requirement for a medal. Next, ‘good conduct’ became necessary (no longer just the physicality of the child, but its morality was being judged).
By 1907, the onerous list of criteria included the child’s ‘industry’, at a standard to be judged by the head teacher. So a good relationship with authority became necessary; boys and girls (however clean and punctual) who challenged the system and questioned the teachers would not be recognised in the same manner as their peers who did as they were told. By 1912, the format of the scheme had been transformed. The importance of attendance was side-lined in favour of achievement, and the number of medallists was limited to six per class, to be chosen by the head-teacher. The changes were materialised in the medals, as the child’s name was no longer engraved, and the inscription changed to: ‘Awarded by the London County Council for attendance, conduct and industry during the year’.
London County Council were not the only purveyors of prize medals. Other school boards across the country, who had broadly the same aims and certainly the same responsibilities, initiated their own prize schemes.
The Education Act had given local authorities legal power over the physical whereabouts of the children in their district. Through the Board Schools, they had the power to provide and therefore control children’s material surroundings. Mechanisms like the medals scheme made explicit the moral demands of this new system. The schools aimed to shape a particular kind of citizen: punctual, tidy and placid. As time went on, the medals ceased being available to everyone who met the criteria, and instead were awarded only to the favoured few. The children who followed the scheme would grow into adults who would support the status quo, and contribute their individual ‘industry’ to the wider commercial ‘industries’ that dominated the economic landscape of twentieth century Britain. Was this industry in conflict with individual agency?
What makes these medals so appealing to me is probably what made them so attractive to children over a century ago: the engraved names and dates. These numismatic markings allow us to fix a particular moment in history to a specific child. And we can use these traces as a starting point to investigate the unique lives which came into contact with the systems outlined above.
 The Work of Three Years December 1870 – November 1873, Report of the School Board for London.