Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Nonconformists jailed for opposing Education Act and refusing to pay school taxes

This year, when Arthur Balfour introduced the 1902 Education Act in England, self-educated Baptist leader John Clifford (1836-1923) organized a social movement to galvanize opposition. This movement, the National Passive Resistance Committee, was constituted primarily for Nonconformists, that is, Protestants who were not members of the Church of England (Anglicans).

Among Nonconformists were Baptists like Clifford, as well as Quakers, Methodists, Unitarians, Congregationalists and members of the Salvation Army. During the years following the 1902 Education Act, more than 170 Nonconformists were sent to jail by the government for refusing to pay their school taxes. The majority of the rebels were Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists.

What was the 1902 Education Act about, and why did the Nonconformists oppose it? In a nutshell, the 1902 Education Act integrated denominational schools into the state system, and mandated that they would be supported by taxation. Because the Anglicans had the large majority of denominational schools, Nonconformists complained that it was unfair that they should pay for a religious education with which they disagreed.

The Nonconformists had a long history of grievances against the British government. Past legislation had excluded them from holding military or civil office, or from being awarded degrees from higher education institutions like Cambridge and Oxford. They had also been forced to pay taxes to contribute to the maintenance Anglican churches (church rate).

When in 1906 the Liberals returned to power, the Nonconformists (who had supported Liberals in the past) expected that the 1902 Education Act would be abolished. There were two attempts to revisit the Act, but in both occasions the House of Lords managed to curb reform proposals.

For the remaining of his life, Clifford continued leading the campaigns against the 1902 Education Act. A few months before his death, in December 1922, he received his fifty-seventh summons to appear before the magistrates for refusing to pay education taxes.

A century later, the ghost of the debates around the 1902 Education Act is still haunting educational systems around the world. In some countries (including Canada), the government uses public taxes to fund some denominational schools but not others. In a reformulation of Clifford's case, those religious groups who are excluded from state funding (and hence must support their schools through fees) argue that they are subjected to double taxation. The debate is still far from over.


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Daniel Schugurensky, 2002

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