8. School attendance medals: a status symbol?

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

In the first decades of mass schooling in late nineteenth-century Britain, attendance was a persistent issue. Parents often resented having to send their children to school, which for many meant forfeiting much-needed income. To improve attendance levels, education authorities rewarded children who had spotless attendance records with medals. A year without any absences would earn a child a medal. Particularly keen students could rack up a whole collection over their school career.

These medals were a marker of status. When deciding which schoolchildren to send to join in Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations in 1887 and 1897 – which were heavily oversubscribed in London – teachers often prioritised medal-bearing children. In 1887, twelve-year-old schoolgirl Florence Dunn, who was given the honour of receiving a Jubilee mug from the Queen on behalf of the capital’s schoolchildren, had no fewer than seven medals. The Illustrated London News depicted Florence displaying these proudly on her dress.[1]

However, by the early twentieth century, the medal craze was beginning to cause concern. Teachers worryingly reported pupils forcing themselves to come to school despite serious illness, so they would not lose out on a medal. In an era where schools regularly faced disruption from outbreaks of epidemics, the medal system could have unintended consequences.

You can view some more attendance medals in the V&A Collection here.

Image: Dudley School Board attendance medals (photograph by Victuallers, via Wikimedia Commons)


[1] ‘The Children’s Jubilee Festival in Hyde Park’, Illustrated London News (2 July 1887).

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