Monitorial system

Joseph Lancaster and Andrew Bell are usually credited with the 'invention' of this method of teaching. The great advantage was that it was cheap. Lancaster, a Quaker, had opened up a school for poor boys in Borough Road, Southwark, London, in 1801. He found himself too poor to pay assistants so he decided to use 'monitors' - older boys to help teach the younger ones. He put more than 200 children into one long room with only one paid master who divided them up into small groups taught by an older child or monitor. Lancaster soon found that 1,000 boys could be taught by one schoolmaster, using this method. The pupils learned to spell by repeating 60 new words daily in addition to lessons in reading, writing and arithmetic.

This system encouraged orderliness, discipline and cleanliness, which, in the early nineteenth century, were seen as the great virtues to be taught to the poor. It also proved a useful way of recruiting young boys and girls to become teachers. So began a new kind of teaching system which was to have a lasting influence not only on English but also on Irish primary education.

Lancasterian system of education
Lancasterian system of education

A key feature of this repetitive and mechanical system was the memorizing and chanting of endless dates, and lists of Kings and Queen of England, verses from the Bible and other books, and poetry, rather than any understanding of what was taught. While boys and girls were taught the 3Rs, girls were also taught sewing, cookery and housekeeping in preparation for their future roles as wives and mothers.

All embroidery work was considered unsuitable for the poor so the main emphasis was on plain Needlework for girls. They learned to sew on paper before being allowed to use cloth. In all of these schools the poor were taught the virtues of honesty, thrift and hard work, and to accept their lowly place in society.


  1. Refer to Joseph Lancaster writes about his education plan for the poor in Ireland, 1850.


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