Adult schools: The organization of the class – J. Wilhelm Rowntree and Henry Bryan Binns

Westminster Friends Meeting House had its own adult school

Westminster Friends Meeting House on St Martin’s Avenue had
its own adult school with an entrance on Hop Alley

infed archives

In this (1903) piece J. Wilhelm Rowntree and Henry Bryan Binns examine the nature of teaching in adult schools in the early twentieth century and recognize the significance of democracy, fellowship and ‘systematic husbandry’.

contents: preface · introduction · class visiting · methods of teaching in adult schools · how to cite this piece

This chapter has been extracted from Rowntree and Binns’ (1903) study – The History of Adult Schools. It was written just as a significant expansion in the numbers of schools and scholars was taking place ( for a discussion of this see the encyclopedia article on adult schools).

The piece makes fascinating reading as it lays bare the processes involved in the conducting classes within adult schools. One thing of particular interest is the way that Rowntree and Binns stress the dual importance of a democratic approach, and attention to preparation and the quality of content. (For more on the thinking behind this see Tom Bryan’s paper on education and civic life). It also needs to be remembered that adult schools were largely associated with the Society of Friends (Quakers) and that there was at this time within the movement, a strong emphasis on relating Biblical teaching to social problems.

The style and organization of adult school classes influenced subsequent thinking and practice in adult education (for example, within the Workers’ Educational Association).


“They that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick.” MATT. ix. I.

[page 61] We have now discussed the need for Adult Schools and traced in broad outline the history, aims, and character of the Adult School Movement.

We did not propose, and have not attempted, an elaborate treatise, but our study would be incomplete without some more detailed description of the inner working of an Adult School class. It may therefore be well, before drawing our conclusions, to devote some further space to the methods of teaching and the system of class visiting, which practical experience commends.

For if we examine the causes of success or failure in any institution we shall continually be impressed with the necessity for organisation.

It may be true in a sense, though the aphorism is not without its dangers, “that the idea creates the organisation ; the organisation destroys the idea”; but it is certainly true, pace Edward Caird, that organisation has its proper function in its own due measure and place.

The organisation of class visiting, for example, draws out sympathy in an effective and practical way. Only when organisation cramps action and limits fellowship is it a menace; not where it tends to what may be called the “conservation of energy.” The successful Adult School worker recognises the radical importance of systematic husbandry. [page 62]

It is an oft-repeated statement that “the basis of an Adult School is the practical teaching of Jesus Christ,”that the Adult School “does not concern itself with the spreading of special theories, but aims at helping the members in their actual lives.” These words draw their emphasis from the contrast so generally afforded between Christian theory and practice. The elaborate discourse, the rigid ceremony, the want of true homeliness which mark so much of our public worship have given the Adult Schools their opportunity.

The men who seek out the Adult Class are seeking, not a doctrine, but a fellowship, not God in His awful dignity behind the clouding incense of some stately ritual, but Jesus as their brother and their friend, the plain working carpenter of Nazareth, the man of sorrows, who, even like themselves, was acquainted with grief.

They are seeking Him in no abstruse formula, but in the sympathetic greeting from human lips and the loving support in hours of temptation, of those who, in the service of their Master, and through years of self-oblation, have grown strong to save. “Love, not dogmas; life, not creeds”; this is the motto of the schools.

They provide a missing link between the churches and the people, an effective means for the translation of Christian doctrine into a living language of experience.

Luther might dub the Epistle of James, an “epistle of straw,” but for the true Adult School “pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction. . . .”

We turn then to the subject of class visiting, duly recognising its fitness and importance in the Adult School polity.

Class Visiting

In discussing this subject we shall best serve our purpose by selecting a concrete instance for description.

Our choice falls on the Barton Hill School at Bristol, but we do not therefore suggest that any one scheme of visiting is the best or that our example stands alone in its efficiency.

We have been influenced rather by the remarkable success of the school and the care with which its visiting system has been developed.

Barton Hill Branch which is described as Class VIII. of the Bristol Adult School was founded in 1894. It stands in the heart of a densely populated artisan district (Coulter Street, Oueen Anne Road, Bristol), the building having been specially erected for the purposes of the work.

The following table, giving the average attendance since the com­mencement, illustrates the excellent percentage of attendance secured. (These are the FFDSA figures, men only).





Average Attendance. Percentage of Attendances.
1895 170






1896 350






















































The Barton Hill Branch (men), represents 35% of the total Bristol Adult School membership.

To understand the visiting system it will be necessary to take a rapid survey of the procedure adopted in the conduct of the class :—Before the opening of school a “fatherly man” lies in wait at the entrance with “a good hand-grip” for all arrivals. By 8.25 a.m. the Secretaries of the Burial, Sick and Coal Clubs, the Savings Bank, and the collectors of the Early Attendance Fund are sitting at the receipt of custom. At 8.30 School commences, a member gives out a hymn at the desk, and after a pause for vocal prayer the large company divide into small groups, each with a leader, to read through and consider the Bible Lesson for the day. The leader is himself ” a scholar,” who has studied the lesson during the week for the benefit of his little circle.

In the meantime the registers of attendance are being marked by men chosen for their extensive personal knowledge of the class members.

The visiting books are now examined and prepared for a fresh week’s work.

At nine o’clock a bell sounds, the little groups merge once more into one large congregation. The class secretary reads out the notices for the week, reports are received from members and deputations who have visited [page 64] other schools, new members are introduced by name, and during the singing of a hymn, the collection is taken. “The axis on which the scheme revolves is the Bible Lesson,” and this is now considered by the united School. Perfect freedom of discussion prevails under the chairmanship of the President, who endeavours to guide the debate to a practical issue, and to draw the conclusions as pointedly as may be.

The lesson at an end, the names of those who are absent through sickness are read, and inquiries as to their health, and visits paid to them are made ; the number present is announced, another hymn is sung, and after a pause for prayer, the class separates about the hour of ten.

A Social Club, Swimming, Cricket and Football, Cycling and Rambling Clubs, a Temperance Society, Band of Hope, Lectures, Excursion and Benevolent Committees, Devotional Meetings upon Wednesdays, not to speak of annual, monthly, and other meetings, provide in a variety of ways for the social and religious intercourse which is the real life of the School.

But behind all this visible display of energy is the quiet yet indispensable work of the visitor. To quote a Barton Hill correspondent, “The importance of this department cannot be too strongly impressed.”

The starting-point of good visiting is a well-kept register of the names and addresses of scholars, and to this end the class is divided into sections, each with an attendance register of its own. The circles are sufficiently small to ensure the proper mutual acquaintance of their members. Each member has a number, as in the time registers of a factory, and during the first half-hour of School a mark is entered against his number to record his attendance. The books then pass to the visiting secretaries who have been entering up in special visiting books from the admittance register the names of any who have been admitted to the school on the previous Sunday.

This admittance register is one into which the name of each new member is entered as he is accepted, together with the name of his introducer, the section he has joined, and the designation of the visiting book to which his name should be allocated. There are one or more visiting books for each section of the class, and the names of members living in outlying districts are placed together in district visiting books in order that the work of the visitor may be simplified as much as possible. At the beginning of each [page 65] visiting book appears an explanatory introduction,(see table below) followed by a full list of the names and addresses of all those for whom the Visitor is responsible, with the number of the class section as well as the member’s number in that section duly set forth. When the Visiting Secretaries receive the sectional registers they at once enter up the visiting books,” the numbers only and not the names of the absentees entered, being given. The list at the beginning of the visiting-book already mentioned, tells the Visitor, should his memory fail him, both the address and the name for which the number stands. The visitor must report in writing before The following Sunday to the Visiting Secretary the reason for any absence recorded in his book, and if a member is absent four Sundays without good reason, his name is handed in writing to the Secretary, in order that special visitors may be sent. Both the ordinary and the special visitors are appointed annually, not to speak of sick visitors to whom all cases of illness are entrusted. A small sum of money is placed under the control of the latter by a “Benevolent Committee,” in order that gifts of fruit and flowers may be made.


Extracts from the instructions which form the preface to the Barton Hill Visitors’ book.


“But ye brethren he not weary in well doing.

Visiting is an important part of our work, and to a large extent the life of the school depends on its regular and systematic carrying out.

Visitors should take care not to let absentees have cause to think of them in the same light as some children look upon School Board Officers.

No two men are alike and therefore it is useless to try the same methods with all men. The Visitors’ duties are to endeavour to get the members on their book to attend school regularly, and if a visitor finds that calling has not the desired effect, try the man some other way—

(i) Put his friends on his track.

(b) Arrange for a neighbour to knock him up on Sundays and bring him to school.

(c) Try and get him to become a member of the Early Attendance Fund.

(d) See if he won’t join one of the clubs.

(e) Be sure to get his wife on your side.

A visitor should never be satisfied whilst he has lame ducks on his book.

The “dot and carry one ” members give the most trouble and the visitor’s aim should be to cure these members of their bad habits.

Some members do not like to be called on too often, and if the visitor knows of such a case it may be sometimes wisest not to intrude.

Visitors should always be living advertisements for the Adult School.




[page 66] Every visitor is supplied with cards* to be left at the houses of members not at home or to be posted in the event of the visitor being unable to call. One of the Class Presidents endeavours to visit each newcomer within five weeks of his joining the school, and also to write to him within a week of his first attendance.



The following further details may be of interest ;—

A President’s letter is sent to all new members, lithographed and signed by the four presidents of the class. The presidents also use lithographed postcards as special whips to absentees. The following is the invitation printed upon the card left by the regular class-visitor when the absentee is not at home.

“Let Brotherly Love Continue.”


Dear Friend,

As we did not see you last Sunday, I have called on behalf of the Class to express our hope that it was not illness which prevented your attendance. We shall be very glad to see you amongst us again next Sunday, and trust that it may very seldom be necessary for you to be absent from our meetings.

On behalf of Barton Hill Class.



In addition to sundry other devices we may mention the “Personal Effort Papers,” sheets printed with the various forms of service (such as volunteer visiting), described in numbered sequence down one column, and with spaces for votes (i.e., crosses made as on a ballot paper) opposite each item. These are distributed to be filled in (luring the week and returned signed ; members are expected honourably to support their “votes.”



Periodical visits are arranged in addition to this normal visiting, when volunteers visit every member of the class, each undertaking twenty or thirty names ; and finally, every two or three years a complete canvass of what is called the Adult School Parish (in this case consisting of 4,000 houses), is entered upon.

A week prior to the canvass the district is paraded, a band and cart proceed with a procession of sympathisers from street to street, handbills are distributed, and speeches explaining the scope and purpose of the school are made at the various halts.

For the canvass itself visitors set out in twos, taking a street at a time and endeavouring to give a personal invitation at each house. Those who promise to come are called for, if considered doubtful, on Sunday morning.

It need hardly be insisted that excellent as this comprehensive system is found to be when it expresses the living energy of brotherly love, it would be futile once it became mechanical. The inner secret of successful visiting is sympathy. [page 67]

Methods of teaching in Adult Schools

In our discussion of the work of visiting we incidentally outlined the conduct of a class which may be regarded as representative of a large number.

There are several systems in vogue, but they scarcely call for separate treatment, as they will be found to group themselves broadly under two main types. These, for the sake of convenience, we will call the democratic and the autocratic.

(a) The “Democratic” Method. The class already described may be taken as an example under this head.

A large congregation of men is split up into small groups, each with its leader, to consider and discuss the lesson. In the united class which follows, the President takes a comparatively subordinate place, presiding rather than teaching, endeavouring to call out and guide the discussion. Any direct contribution of his own, in the form of an address or exposition, is uniformly regarded as subordinate to the idea of free participation by the members of the class.

(b) The “Autocratic” Method. In this, though the title is scarcely fair in its strict application, we have an approximation to the conventional Sunday Bible Class. The procedure is by no means fixed, but the following may be regarded as fairly typical.

At 8.30 a.m. a hymn or prayer will mark the opening, and members will be registered as “early” or “late in their attendance according to their arrival before or after this function.

Any elementary classes, for reading or writing, now collect under their respective teachers, while the central class as it is called, listens to a lecture on some scientific or historical subject, illustrated by diagrams or a lantern. At nine the bell is rung, the lecturer gives way to the teacher, the elementary classes rejoin the central, and a hymn is sung, accompanied perhaps by a volunteer band. The roll call follows, members responding to the Secretary with “before” or after,” according to the time of their arrival, and the register passes into the hands of the visiting secretaries. The teacher—he is not in such a school called the “president”—then gives out the chapter he has selected, which is read round a verse at a time by the men. [page 68]

For half-an-hour or longer the teacher discourses, delivering in a more or less conversational manner what is in fact a carefully prepared address, asking at the close, and occasionally during the course, for questions. If these are forthcoming there may be a short discussion; the notices for the week are then given out, and finally a prayer, which is generally offered by the teacher, and a hymn conclude the morning’s exercise. Under such a system there is seldom any consideration of the lesson by the men beforehand, nor is the use of a lesson sheet by any means universal, the teacher often preferring to select his lesson in connection with some recent or prospective event, which happens to be of immediate interest. A great catastrophe of nature, some bill of importance before the Legislature, the crowning of a monarch, the death of a preacher or statesman, local horse-races, the public-house evil, or some recent book upon social or religious questions are all in their turn suitable to his purpose. On these occasions it is the usual practice to expound the Scripture and make use of the selected events by way of illustration.

These methods may either of them co-exist with more or less social life and work maintained during the week.

A class conducted on “democratic” lines may yet have but little to hold it together between the Sundays; or a class addressed and practically con­ducted by the teacher may be associated with extensive social and religious activities, in which the men take a large and even an independent part.

It cannot be said decisively that the results flowing from these rival systems are always distinct.

The personality of the teacher, the degree of his social earnestness and the range of his spiritual vision, are factors which must upset any attempt at uniform classification. But there is a difference in principle which broadly and in the long run must have its effect. In one method the main idea is to evoke thought, in the other to impart instruction.

In forming an estimate of their relative value it must be recognised that neither method is free from its peculiar dangers.

Puerility or diffuseness in discussion are the snare of the “democratic ” system, and the opportunity that is offered under a weak president to wind-bags and cranks, is not seldom availed of. Somewhat painful if amusing examples have come under our personal notice. What exactly [page 69] it was in the blast of Joshua’s trumpets that levelled Jericho, fantastic speculation upon some obscure passage in Daniel, whether women should wear their hair in accordance with Pauline instruction, are questions which on three several occasions have occupied and divided a class. Schools for rabbinical disputation will do but little to leaven our social life, and this empty discussion upon trivial points can only repel robust and earnest minds. On the other hand, the careful lecture, packed with well-ordered information, unless it be accompanied with a direct individual challenge to mental and spiritual exercise, tends to complacency and the absence of evangelical zeal.

The men will gather for an “intellectual treat,” they become critical and expect much from the teacher. They look with mild contempt upon the ordinary fare which satisfies their fellows, and admire themselves not a little for the nicety of their own taste.

If the “democratic ” method is in danger of Rabbinism, then Pharisaism is the danger of the “autocratic.” The Rabbi splits hairs, the Pharisee thanks God that he is not as his brethren.

We doubt, and the doubt is based upon observation, whether the question of the method as distinct from the subject-matter of teaching has always received proper attention.

Unquestionably the “democratic” principle as shown forth in a class modelled upon the plan of Socrates, is the soundest from the standpoint of the Adult School. It requires, however, great judgment and a large endowment of the gift of sympathy for its true development. The big thoughts which lie embedded in the Scriptures like erratic blocks, must be dug out and the men must dig with the teacher. If the teacher be wanting in spiritual power, and hardly less if he be wanting in bonhomie, and a saving sense of humour, the cranks will master him ; and should he fail in a thorough knowledge of his subject, and lack material and imagination, the hour will be wasted in platitude. It is no light task to undertake the direction of minds untrained to thought and starved by inadequate edu­cation. So great are the difficulties that many teachers abandon the struggle to fall back, not of choice but in despair, upon the “autocratic” method.

To abandon such a task is, however, to abandon one great purpose of [page 70] the Adult School. The lesson should be not so much a sermon that is listened to, as a co-operative exercise of spiritual and mental faculties, under qualified guidance.

Mr. Gladstone used to speak of the ” Divine work of worship,” and the principle he recognised when he coined the phrase, should find its place, if anywhere, in an Adult School.

It is better to teach men to think for themselves upon things vital to the health of their souls, than merely to fill them with information as children are fed with a spoon.

Doubtless there have been occasions where the men have said to the teacher “We do not want to hear each other talk. We know what the others know. We want to hear you. You have had the better education. You have books that are beyond our reach, and knowledge where we are ignorant. You must give us what you have, in simple form, that we may understand and learn.”

There is real force in such a plea, though the remedy does not lie in accepting the “autocratic” method, but in skilfully combining information with question and answer. If, however, the “democratic” principle is the soundest, it is also a prevailing weakness in classes conducted upon the “democratic” plan that the actual substance of the lesson often amounts to very little.

The teacher has not only let the reins fall into the hands of some contentious spirit, but the thought he has put into the lesson has been weak. The big ideas have not been “dug out ;” no proper knowledge has been brought to bear upon the meaning of the texts ; the deductions have not been forceful and the men have not been stirred.

Sometimes the “democratic” system seems to be regarded as if it possessed in itself some quality of magic. It is sufficient to be l( democratic ” and the rest will follow as a matter of course!

But a class must have its message, whatever the system under which it is conducted may be, and in every case it is imperative, whether the teacher gives an address or guides a discussion, that he study his subject carefully beforehand.

It is a dangerous boast that the “democratic” teacher may go to his class with an open mind, and that his very want of preparation is an [page 71] advantage. Where the teacher is rich in spiritual experience and mental equipment, such want of preparation may lie merely on the surface, but where the want is real, nothing but disaster can ensue.

Common sense forbids us to press the “democratic” principle so far as to divest the teacher of his peculiar office and responsibility. He may conceal himself behind the title of ” President “; he may—nay, he must,—efface himself wherever possible, and seek to bring out the best qualities of man­hood in those he meets by every art within his compass ; but he cannot delegate his work, for in the last resort, call him “President” or what you will, he remains a teacher.

No system should ever be made an excuse for avoiding the labour of preparation. Even now slovenly teaching has worked much harm, and not infrequently a lazy dependence upon lesson sheets and platitudes takes the place of strenuous individual effort to grasp and meet the deepest needs of toiling men.

If we offer haphazard ideas, weak thought that has cost nothing, borrowed sentiments from some handy text-book, we give our work the stamp of insincerity.

The remark has sometimes been made that there are schools which attract only the “namby-pamby,” and that the more virile remain outside in the ranks of the scornful and indifferent. This is the consequence to be expected of such slovenliness, and -the Adult School teacher must be on his guard lest he repeat the experience of the Churches.

There are men whose natural bent is piety, they are easily attracted, and on them even the “goody-goody” does not pall; but to attract only the godly is failure. It is not they that are whole who need a physician but they that are sick.

The charmed circle of the public indifference will not be broken with­out hard labour of mind and soul.

He who would break the spell must be baptized into sympathy with the travail of the poor, must know the stress of their temptation, and possess a living gospel ever pressing for utterance ; he must be certain of his aim, clear in his vision ; like Savonarola stern and like St. Francis tender ; in his directness tactful and simple like John Woolman, and in all things faithful to the loving rule of Christ.

How to cite this piece: Rowntree, J. W. and Binns, H. B. (1903) ‘The organization of the class’ being chapter 5 of A History of the Adult School Movement, London: Headley Brothers. Available in the informal education archives: [Retrieved: insert date].

This piece has been reproduced here on the understanding that it is not subject to any copyright restrictions, and that it is, and will remain, in the public domain. First placed in the archives: January 2004

Last Updated on March 18, 2020 by