Cobden regarded education as being critical for both democratic and industrial development and believed that education was the key to solving many of the problems facing the working population. By the mid-1830s, however, Cobden had become convinced that the voluntary system of education was no longer sufficient and that, as a result, the English people had become the least instructed of any Protestant community in the world. He also became disillusioned with the idea of tying universal education to religious movements.
He therefore lent his support to the Lancashire Public Schools Association which was set up in Manchester in 1847 to promote the introduction of a national system of free secular schools. At its annual meeting in January 1851 (the movement was renamed the National Public School Association in 1850), Cobden highlighted his frustration with the lack of progress in education, saying that he had ‘passed beyond the time in which I can offer any opposition to any scheme whatever which proposes to give the mass of the people of this country a better education than they now receive’. In a speech at the Mechanics Institute in Barnsley in October 1853, he declared: ‘I do not care whether instruction comes voluntary or from an organised State education. I want education’. Yet Cobden himself acknowledged that, if you establish free state schools in every parish, then you will ultimately close all of those fee-paying schools which currently serve the poor, resulting in a state-controlled monopoly service.
Richard Cobden’s views did not escape the attention of those who continued to support the voluntary principle and resist further government intervention. For example, in a letter to Cobden dated 30 April 1851, Edward Baines (editor of the Leeds Mercury) argued that the only way in which the government could legitimately promote education would be by removing all taxes on knowledge including excise duty on paper and stamp duty on newspapers and periodicals. Baines also reminded Cobden of the enormous improvements in education that had occurred and warned that it was not possible to ask the government to do something without also giving it the power and authority to regulate. Presciently, he explained that as soon as schools started to receive government grants, they would become dependent on the government, giving its inspectors arbitrary control over the nation’s schools. Indeed, Baines stated that ‘any man who lends himself to the support of such a measure, will be a means of doing greater mischief to the people than even the repeal of the Corn Laws did good’!