Andrew Bell was born in St Andrews in 1753 to a wig maker and his wife. He graduated from St Andrew’s University in mathematics and natural philosophy became a minister with the Church of England and is best known for pioneering a teaching method known as the Madras System.
Whereas in times previous educated Scotsmen took themselves off to the Continent to further their education their lesser educated counterparts were often found in foreign parts fighting wars in defence of Britain’s interests abroad. Andrew sailed to America, working as a tutor in Virginia before returning home to Scotland to avoid becoming embroiled in America’s war for independence from Great Britain in which many of his fellow Scots fought (on both sides.)
Early in 1787 Bell turned up in Madras in India where the East India Company was trying to establish a school to educate the many orphans and ‘distressed’ male children of European soldiers garrisoned there. The East India Company coughed up half the amount required to establish a school with the remainder coming from voluntary subscriptions.
Dr Andrew Bell was appointed its superintendent and being a nice sort of guy he refused to take any salary for the job which was a reasonable 1200 pagodas or £480. Without further ado he set about his task to instil into his young charges the virtues of diligence, industry, veracity, honesty and, hopefully, a little bit of knowledge.
Whether from necessity or because Bell did not get on with adults nearly so well as he did with children he established an ingenious method of teaching using the best pupils, taught by him, to disseminate what they learnt to their fellow scholars. In Scotland we know this method as pupil-teacher practice common in the 19th century which, presumably, was based on Bell’s scheme.
Children taught by Bell initially learned to write in sand, something he had seen done elsewhere in India, in a school in Malabar. All instruction was done slowly and methodically, ensuring each pupil mastered the first elements before being allowed to go onto the next. Reading was taught using single syllable words and only when they were mastered could the pupil advance to double syllables and beyond. Perhaps there are lessons for schools today in this approach.
Possibly out of expediency Bell encouraged the children to do things for themselves and so they learned self-sufficiency and simple skills ; they had to rule their own paper to help keep their writing straight and made their own pens – quills from feathers for dipping into ink. Each pupil kept a register of his own progress which helped with keeping a track of how well each was doing but also informed the teacher who could not have kept so precise a record with so many under his supervision.
A black book was kept by Bell in which offences were recorded and each week these would be read out and the children asked to judge what should happen to the offenders. The very process of establishing responsibility meant that the system worked as a preventative method of keeping control so that there were few cases ever requiring punishment.
There is no doubt that when Bell took up this role in Madras he never approached it as simply a job with a decent salary attached but as a vocation through which he took children whose futures were precarious as orphans and provided them with a basic education which was an opportunity for him to create: good subjects, good men, and good Christians.
Dr Bell’s system of instruction came to be known as mutual instruction or the monitorial system because of the drip-down methods of teaching he employed.
He stayed at his Madras school for seven years but was forced to give up and return to Britain when his health began to suffer in India. He clearly loved the children in his care, referring to them as his own.
‘These children are, indeed, mine by a thousand ties!’
Years later forty-four of his former pupils signed a letter thanking him for the care he showed them as their school teacher.
Back home, Bell published a pamphlet called, An Experiment in Education, based on his experiences at the Male Asylum in Madras with the intention of promoting his method of teaching more generally – suggesting what came to be known as the Madras system could be adopted both by schools and parents undertaking instruction.
From Scotland Bell moved to England and there his ideas were picked up by a couple of schools at the end of the 18th century and from that point the Madras system had people talking.
One man who was listening to the talk was a fellow called Joseph Lancaster. In 1803 this Lancaster published a pamphlet called,
Improvements in Education, as it respects the Industrious Classes of the Community; containing a short Account of its Present State, Hints towards its Improvement, and a detail of some Practical Experiments conducive to that End.
A Quaker, Lancaster saw Bell’s methods as a way of educating the children of mechanics in England in reading, writing and arithmetic cheaply. He adapted Bell’s scheme, adding incentives to learn – prizes and badges of merit and through promoting some boys to become monitors.
Then he got above himself and went onto claim he had invented the whole system with the ‘blessing of Divine Providence’ no less! and referred to his as the ‘British or Royal Lancasterian System’. And he had the audacity to warn off others from pirating ‘his’ work – and as he had pirated Bell’s work in the first place he knew the risks.
His Lancasterian system he suggested could mean 1000 kids could be taught by one master alone and naturally schools took up his system and it became very popular.
As for Bell he continued teaching in a quiet way and, still thinking of the interests of others, he and his wife were instrumental in inoculating people in the area of Dorset in which they lived with the recently discovered smallpox vaccination. Despite Lancaster’s attempt to claim Bell’s system of education, Bell’s was recognised and adopted for the teaching of the poor through Church of England schools in England and around the British Empire.
Bell died wealthy and used his wealthy to establish schools in Scotland; Madras College in his native St Andrews and the High School in Cupar, initially called Madras Academy. Various other schools were named after him.
He died on 27 January 1832 aged 80 years and was buried in Westminster Abbey by which time his method of education was employed in 10,000 schools.
Bell’s innovatory teaching methods, founded in India, became important planks in the education of children during the 19th century until the Education Acts came early in the 1870s. In Scotland the Bell’s monitorial system was replaced by the Glasgow system but that’s another story.