Three cheers for Joshua Watson!

THE cost of third-level education is in the news.

The UK government has adopted the recommendations of a committee, allowing universities to charge an annual tuition fee of up to £9,000.

Allied with accommodation costs, and routine travel costs etc, the expense is almost certain to deter all except those who come from the most affluent families. One inevitable result would be to end social mobility and enshrine , rather than extend, privilege.

The argument that repayment of fees and student loans only becomes liable when a graduate ‘s futue income exceeds a certain level, is hardly reassuring. The threat of a massive looming ahead is forbidding even to those who do not swallow wholesale the philosophy of Shakespeare’s Polonius!

We may be living in hard times, but this trend in education is a reversal of centuries of educational progress. King Alfred, he who burnt the cakes, once remarked that the saddest thing one can say about any man is that he be ignorant; i.e. lacking in knowledge.

Melvyn Bragg, in a book celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, has an interesting chapter on the Bible and Education.

Admittedly, there was a religious motivation behind much early educational progress. Harvard University in America was initially founded to provide a trained ministry for the citizens of the Colonies.

In England, the established Church of England founded the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge(SPCK) in 1698 - as worthy of note, perhaps, as the Battle of the Boyne! - and a century later Robert Raikes of Gloucestershire established Sunday Schools, in which, within ten years, three-quarters of a million children were receiving an elementary education is matters other than Bible knowledge.

While there were those who felt that educating the ‘common herd’ might only make them less subservient, others saw education as a necessary duty to all made in the image of God.

Enter Joshua Watson. Having made a fortune as a wine merchant out of the Napoleonic Wars, he retired form business in 1814, and dedicated his remaining 40 years to the provision of a church school in every parish in the land.

Writes Bragg: “Many a village in the remotest parts of the kingdom was to benefit from the small and sturdy little schools which gave the most disadvantaged an educational start in life.”

The poet William Wordsworth so admired the achievements of Joshua Watson that he suggested that the words “and also Joshua Watson” should be added to the petition of the Litany which includes thanks for “all Bishops, Priests and Deacons”.

Wordsworth did not get his wish; be we in our prayers can praise God for those who opened to us the doors of knowledge. Yes, and when we have the opportunity we should not forget to thank them. Many a teacher waits in vain for such appreciation.