Dancing on the rates

In the run-up to Balfour's hotly-debated 1902 Education Act, which introduced significant changes, Sir John Gorst [left] made sarcastic criticisms of some of the evening classes on offer in London schools, for which funding had been cut. He regarded them as recreational rather than educational, and singled out drama (on which he corresponded extensively with the Rev Stewart Headlam [right], a keen advocate) and dancing, claiming that at St George-in-the-East Highway School they had even held an end-of-term ball.

Sir John Eldon Gorst (1835-1916) was a 'Fourth Party' Conservative minister, serving as the VIce-President of the Committee on Education from 1895-1902 (a non-cabinet post - which after 1902 became 'President of the Board of Education).

For this he was taken to task: he had, said one commentator,

...yielded to his besetting sin of raising a laugh at the expense of the great public department over which he presides. Nothing could be more cheap and unworthy of a public official than to play the jester in this fasion. The attack in this case was especially cruel, for the school to which he referred was the St. George-in-the-East Highway School, which according to H.M. Inspectors' Report, 'is a large school in a difficult locality admirably carried on.'

What was Sir John's object in making this gratuitous attack on the recreation given in evening schools? In the eyes of a great many people, who regard him as a responsible Minister, his ill-timed satire has had a most disastrous effect in discrediting the work of these schools. Does Sir John, who no doubt from his nocturnal visit to the East-end school knows something of slum life, think that the young people would be better employed holding a ball outside a public-house to the tune of a barrel-organ? Perhaps he has admired the graceful movements of the growing girls who may be frequently seen footing the latest music-hall step in these gay parties. But surely it is better for our young people to be taught to dance decorously under the guidance of a teacher, and in the sympathetic presence of the managers of the schools, than outside the public-house! And if a small portion of the hour devoted to the ball should be part of the time paid for by Government grant, is none of our public money put to worse use? The fact is that this dancing has been ridiculously exaggerated, and that largely by Lord Hugh Cecil's nominees, with their usual object of thwarting the work of the School Boards. Perhaps Lord Hugh thinks it wrong to dance! Just as unreasonable are the criticisms levelled at play-acting in London board schools. As if there were something pernicious in the endeavour to foster a taste for good dramatic literature, and as if we did not owe a great debt of gratitude to Mr. [sic] Stewart Headlam and his committee for having started such a movement.

from The Twentieth Century vol 50 (The Nineteenth Century & After Ltd 1901)

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