Thoughts on economics and liberty

Macaulay mistakenly created a role for government in school education, first in India, then in UK

Macaulay was a great reformer and classical liberal, but on one thing he make a huge error of judgement, and the entire world is living with the consequences of his error – even today.


Far from bringing education to India, as the British congratulated themselves on doing, they instead crowded out the already-flourishing private education system.

But the British saw the village schools, and deemed them, as Gandhi put it, “not good enough.” No, the British insisted that “every school must have so much paraphernalia, building, and so forth. . . .” So they established the new, centralized state system emanating from Macaulay. And this is the type of system that is the norm in developing countries today. But this system was simply “too expensive for the people.” As Gandhi wrote, “This very poor country of mine is ill able to sustain such an expensive method of education.”42 It hasn’t led to universal public education even now.

Introduction of government schools in India

Because of the lack of success of Munro’s reforms, a new approach, with a new style of reformer, was introduced. Enter Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), the British poet, historian, and Whig. Between 1834 and 1838, he took up residence in Calcutta, serving as president of the General Committee of Public Instruction for the British presidency. Everyone in India knows his name. For it is to him more than any other that we owe the public schooling system that still prevails in India today.

Macaulay’s famous minute of February 2, 1835, set the seal on a different kind of state intervention in education.39 He was totally dismissive of Indian indigenous scholarship: “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected in all the books written in the Sanscrit [sic] language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.” Indian history abounded “with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long.” Indian astronomy “would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school.” Indian geography was “made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter.” And he totally ignored any contribution that the indigenous private schools might be making to education in India. Instead, he opined, “The great object of the British Government ought to be the promotion of European literature and science among the natives of India, and that all the funds appropriated for the purposes of education would be best employed on English education alone.”

Macaulay laid the foundations for the public education system that is still in place in India today—with similar state systems in place across the developing world where the British had influence. He proposed a new centralized system of education, with publicly funded universities in the presidency towns, publicly funded teacher-training institutions, public funds to maintain existing colleges and high schools, establishment of new public middle schools, and the introduction of grants-in-aid to bring some private schools under government control. It set out completely to supersede any existing indigenous provision.

How did it work in practice? Under Macaulay’s system, the first publicly funded village school was set up in April 1854; by October, there were 54. Even then, some villagers were reluctant to send their children to the new state schools: “The village priests foreboded evil, and their representatives produced an undefined feeling of dread in the minds of the most indifferent and ignorant people of the lower orders.”40 Possibly from what we saw concerning the Munro schools, this sense of foreboding was justified.

By 1858, this new system had delivered 452 schools and colleges with a total enrollment of 20,874 in the 21 districts of the Madras Presidency. But 36 years earlier, Munro had found a total of 11,575 schools and 1,094 colleges, with 157,195 and 5,431 students, respectively! That is, the new system had led to a huge decline in provision (see Table 4).

Now it may be that, just as today, the new inspectors were simply disregarding, either through ignorance or because they weren’t considered appropriate, the indigenous private schools in the villages. In any case, the official figures were certainly nothing to boast about.

By 1879, the official figures had recovered somewhat, but still showed a significantly lower percentage of the population in school than had been found in 1822-1825. Only six years later, in 1885, do we see the figure reaching what it had been over 60 years before. And it continued to grow thereafter. So did British education—Macaulay’s education—increase the percentage of the population in school? Well, yes, it did, at least it did 60 years later.

And so Gandhi apparently said:

the schools established after the European pattern were too expensive for the people. . . . I defy anybody to fulfil a programme of compulsory primary education of these masses inside of a century. This very poor country of mine is ill able to sustain such an expensive method of education. Our state would revive the old village schoolmaster and dot every village with a school both for boys and girls. [Sanjeev: I’ve confirmed this here]

What about England?

The late Professor E. G. West had made his name by suggesting that universal primary education was achieved in the West not through public intervention, as was commonly supposed, but predominantly through private provision. His seminal book Education and the State points to a situation that was peculiarly similar to that which we’ve explored in India before the British took control of education. Before the state got involved, West’s research shows that the vast majority of provision was private—by small-scale entrepreneurs (e.g., “dame” schools), churches, and philanthropy. The state intervened with small subsidies to a tiny minority of schools from 1833, but major state involvement came only in 1870. Long before this, in writing that echoed what the British collectors observed in India only a decade later, James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill, wrote in the October 1813 Edinburgh Review: “From observation and inquiry . . . we can ourselves speak decidedly as to the rapid progress which the love of education is making among the lower orders in England. Even around London, in a circle of fifty miles radius, which is far from the most instructed and virtuous part of the kingdom, there is hardly a village that has not something of a school; and not many children of either sex who are not taught more or less, reading and writing.”41

How were such schools funded? Predominantly, it turns out, through school fees. These were very much private schools for the poor, in Victorian England. Mill noted: “We have met with families in which, for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.” But we don’t have to be satisfied with Mill’s anecdotes. Using official census data and reports, West was able to show that, by 1851, there were 2,144,278 children in day schools, of which over 85 percent were in purely private schools, that is, as the census put it, “schools which derive their income solely from (fee) payments or which are maintained with a view to pecuniary advantage” (see Table 5). The remaining 15 percent were subsidized by government, but only to a minuscule extent. And the “mammoth report” of the Newcastle Commission on Popular Education, convened in 1858 and reporting in 1861, estimated that about 95 percent of children were in school for an average of nearly six years. And it was clear where the funding for this schooling came from: even in the minority of schools that received some state funding, two-thirds of the funding came from nonstate sources, including parents’ contributions to fees, and church and philanthropic funds. Even here, parents provided most of the school fees.

For England and Wales, E. G. West memorably remarked, “When the government made its debut in education in 1833 mainly in the role of subsidiser it was as if it jumped into the saddle of a horse that was already galloping.” Without government, he suggests, the “horses” (private schools) would have continued to gallop.


SOURCE: E. G. West, Education and the State, 3rd ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1994), p. 187.

For our purposes, what is important to grasp is the huge growth of private school enrollment in England, before the state got involved. In the 40 years from 1818 to 1858, enrollment in private schools in England had grown by 318 percent. But in the 60 years from 1825 to 1885, half of which was taken up with Macaulay’s new state system, enrollment in schools in the Madras Presidency increased by less than this, 265 percent. That is, growth was slower in school enrollment under the new British system in India than the equivalent growth in private schools in England.

Sanjeev Sabhlok

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