When the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, arrives in Birmingham this week, to chase Trojan Horses, I suggest that he gets hold of a round table and a medium.

Before he interviews any school governors, he may wish to have word with George Dixon and Joseph Chamberlain, who will have much to tell him.

Back in 1867 Messrs Dixon, Chamberlain and Collings established the Birmingham Education League, which two years later had become a national organisation.

Their mission was to establish compulsory schooling in England.

Given that an Elementary Education Act was passed in 1870, this looks like a highly successful bit of lobbying. So why the look of disappointment on their three men’s faces, when their motion became law?

For one thing, the new schools set up under the Act would not be free. For another, and more crucial reason, the Act failed to outlaw denominational education.

Practically all the schools set up before 1870 had been established under Anglican or Catholic rules, thereby smuggling denominational education into the curriculum.

And by the 1860s these schools were receiving state funding.

It was the aim of Dixon and Chamberlain effectively to nationalise the system, and to veto the teaching of any form of sectarian doctrine.

The local school boards, created under the Act, would then take over or build a network of non-denominational schools across the country.

It was a battle they lost.

Forster’s Education Act of 1870 ended up as an uncomfortable compromise, allowing for additional schools to be established, but leaving the former church schools in place.

Thus in 1870 England turned away from a secular model of education, and embraced instead one of religious diversity. And we have never looked back (or, indeed, forward) from that point.

While they lasted, the election of school boards became a regular platform for sectarian division and controversy.

No doubt when Sir Michael opens a channel to George and Joe, they will knock the table, shake their heads, and tell him, unhelpfully, that they would not be starting from where he now is.

But they will probably also say that they’re perfectly happy with the segregation of girls and boys. That was a part of Victorian schooling too.

  • Dr Chris Upton is hearing voices at Newman University Birmingham