Methodism has been involved in education since John Wesley and other members of the Holy Club taught children of the poor in Oxford. He realised the importance of education, read widely on the subject and visited schools at home and abroad, but was influenced especially by his mother's example. A surprising amount of what he published was educational in purpose, but he is not renowned as an educationalist because his evangelical concern to save children from Hell restricted his view of the scope of education. In the 1740s he founded two single-sex charity day schools and two single-sex fee-paying schools for boarders (including the forerunner of the present Kingswood School) at Kingswood, a charity school in theNew Room, Bristol and another at the Foundery in London. He actively supported the girls' schools founded by Mary Bosanquet at Leytonstone and Batley, the Misses Owen at Publow and Mary Bishop at Keynsham.
In contrast to his efforts, and those of the Irish Mission, the WM Conference took few educational initiatives until the 1830s, when a Methodist Education Committee was appointed. The WM Church from then on made a contribution to national education through its elementary day schools with Bible-based religious teaching, extended its Sunday Schools and founded Westminster and Southlands Colleges for the training of teachers. A 'General Plan of Wesleyan Education' was approved in 1841 and an education fund established in 1844. Schools for ministerial daughters, complementing Kingswood and Woodhouse Grove, were opened in 1869-1872, including Trinity Hall, Southport. At the time of Forster's 1870 Education Bill, providing for universal state elementary education, Wesleyans were divided into two camps: one, led by William Arthur, advocating that all denominational schools should become part of the state system, the other, led by James H. Rigg, recommending that Methodism's day schools (numbering over 1,000) should be retained. A compromise position was achieved with the help of H.H. Fowler.
The opening of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge to nonconformist students in 1871 encouraged the growth of Methodist Residential Schools, although some middle-class Methodists had moral reservations about sending their sons to university. The first to open was The Leys School in 1875. The career of the Sibly family exemplifies the initiative taken by individual Methodists in this period. Later, in response to the provision of state-funded places in independent schools under the 1902 Balfour Education Act, the Wesleyan Board of Management was set up.
There was some Methodist support for the Free Church opposition to the provision under the Education Act of 1902 of rate-aided support for voluntary schools (the majority of which were Anglican) and some individual Methodists became passive resisters of the rates levied. But there was no formal opposition at connexional level. The Wesleyan Conference in 1903 would go no further than to offer sympathy for those passive resisters who refused to pay the rate, with J. Scott Lidgett asserting that many Wesleyans would not tolerate civil disobedience. Primitive Methodists on the other hand generally opposed the legislation and were sympathetic towards passive resistance. In Leeds for example, where there was considerable Free Church opposition, it was joined by Thomas Howdill, a Primitive Methodist local preacher and chapel architect. On four occasions the silver trowel used at the laying of a foundation stone of Rehoboth PM, West Bowling, Bradford, was distrained and returned, on each occasion being appropriately engraved. The first passive resister to go before the magistrates and be imprisoned was Thomas Charles Smith, a Wirksworth farmer and Sunday School teacher. One Leeds PM itinerant spent a week in Armley gaol picking opium. It is believed that such people were freed in time to take their Sunday preaching appointments.
In the twentieth century, with the growth of state education, the emphasis slowly changed. Many day schools were closed or handed over to local authorities and few new ones were opened. Co-operation with other denominations, espcially the Church of England, increased; and from the 1970s Westminster and Southlands Colleges were encouraged to diversify, the purpose and practice of the Residential Schools were subjected to Conference-directed reviews, and children's homes closed as the National Children's Home was refocused on 'Action for Children'.
In response to the Education Commission Report of 2012 and in the light of an observable decline, nationally, in the teaching of religion and the neglect of the spiritual dimensions of education in most schools, Conference re-afirmed its commitment to the provision of schools of a religious character and aspired to increase the number of Methodist schools over the next ten years.
See also Higher Education
John T. Smith, Methodism and Education 1849-1902 (Oxford, 1998)