Dickens Programme

Celebrating Dickens

The Price and Value of

Education, education, education



Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870) Dickens left school to work in a factory after his father was thrown into debtors’ prison. Though he had little formal education, his early impoverishment drove him to succeed. He campaigned vigorously for the rights of the poor, for children’s rights, women’s rights, free education, and other social reforms, including a ban on the death penalty. In the year of Dickens’ death, the Elementary Education Act 1870 was passed. It set the framework for free schooling of all children between ages 5 and 12 in England and Wales.


* some of the texts from Dickens have been simplified for pedagogic purposes


Oliver Twist wants some more


‘You have come here to be educated, and taught a useful trade’, said the red-faced gentleman in the high chair.


1. Where does the scene take place?


(a) a school (b) a workhouse (c) at home


2. What does Oliver want some more of?


(a) lessons (b) work (c) food


3. How do the ‘gentlemen’ react to Oliver’s request? They are


(a)  delighted (b) puzzled  (c) horrified


Q: what kind of education did the children get in the workhouse?


David Copperfield and Dickens’s dad


Background: Dickens’ father was imprisoned for debt. This experience inspired several characters in his novels:


Listen and fill in the gaps:


‘Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen ninety six, result: (1)___________. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result: (2)__________’


Q: is this still true today? How important is debt in the lives of individuals, households, countries?


The Old Curiosity Shop: the power of debt


Plot: Nell Trent, 14, an orphan, lives with her grandfather in his shop selling odds and ends. Her grandfather does not want Nell to die in poverty; so, to make Nell a good inheritance he gambles. He borrows money from the evil moneylender Daniel Quilp. In the end, he gambles away what little money they have, and Quilp seizes the opportunity to take possession of the shop…


Fill in the gaps with the words given and then practise the dialogue with a partner:


debts interest loan investments property


Quilp: Here, sign

Grandfather: What is this?

Quilp: Read.

Grandfather: It’s an agreement; it says I must hand over the shop to you!

Quilp: Correct. This is the last money I will give you. And I’ll make this (1)_______on the understanding that you will pay me back for everything – but  with my (2)__________doubled or even trebled. Should you fail to do so, the shop legally becomes mine. .

Grandfather: Everything I own becomes yours?

Quilp: All your (3)_________.

Grandfather: The Old Curiosity Shop? Why do you ask me to sign such a document now? Haven’t I always paid you back?

Quilp: Your (4)_________ are getting bigger and bigger; and I need some kind of guarantee.

Grandfather: I will not do it, Quilp. Everything I own is for Nell’s future.

Quilp: Very well, then; you have deceived me; you assured me you would treble and quadruple my loans by the (5)_________ you paid me; there’s nothing more to say…



Q: (1) In what ways do moneylenders affect our lives today? (2) What might the ‘Old Curiosity Shop’ symbolize today? (3) Who could little Nell symbolize today?


Observation 1: David’s new school


Plot: Little David meets his new teacher, Mr Creakle, the head of Salem House school.


1. What is the classroom like?

2. What does the placard say?

3. What is David afraid of?


Q: How does Mr. Creakle’ school violate Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?


Observation 2: Nicholas Nickleby, trainee teacher


Plot: Nickleby becomes a teaching assistant at Dotheboys Hall, a school run by the cruel Squeers. The children are thin as scarecrows. In this extract, Squeers is demonstrating his teaching ‘method’ to the new teacher, Nicholas.


1  Which lesson is Squeers teaching?


(a) botany  (b) Latin (c) spelling


2  The lesson ends with:


(a) games (b) horse-riding (c) stories


3. Squeers’ approach  is


(a) CLIL (b) communicative (c) TPR

Observation 3: a hard educational philosophy


Plot: Mr Gradgrind runs a school in Coketown, an industrial town in the north of England. .He is explaining his educational principles to an assistant teacher. Sissy Jupe works in a circus with her father, who trains horses. Bitzer is another pupil. A good pupil.


Before you listen: write your definition of a horse: _________________________________.


1 Mr Gradgrind’s teaching method is based on


(a) scientific information (b) imagination  (c) using pictures


2  Gradgrind tells Sissy she must not


(a) paint  (b) play  (c) fancy


Q: Are schools today in any way like that in Hard Times?


Hard Times: Mr Bounderby


Plot: Mr Bounderby, a rich banker and mill owner, is a friend of Mr Gradgrind, the school owner and politician. Bounderby is the man Gradgrind would like  his daughter to marry. In this scene, he remembers his childhood.


1. Mr Bounderby says he was born in a


(a) cottage (b) bank (c) ditch


2. As a baby, Mr Bounderby says he slept in


(a) an egg-box (b) a cot (c) a bed


3. What’s Bounderby’s opinion of the workers in his factory? They are


(a)  healthy (b) well-paid (c) well-fed


Q: What is the reputation of bankers today? Why?


Hard Times: the good pupil again


Bitzer, the star pupil, says: ‘The whole social system is a question of ________. ‘


(a) solidarity (b) self-interest (c) competition


Hard Times: Louisa’s Marriage


The missing word is:


(a) rights (b) body (c) fancy


If I had been free to exercise my _____________ I should have been a million times wiser, happier, more loving, more contented, more innocent and human than I am now.



Further Reading


Collins, Phillip 1963. Dickens and Education (Macmillan)

Hartely, Jenny. 2008. Charles Dickens and the House of Fallen Women. (Methuen)

Hughes, James 1901. Dickens as an Educator (Elibron Classics)

Manning. John 1959. Dickens on Education (University of Toronto Press)

Maslow, Abraham. 1954. Motivation and Personality (Harper)

Tomalin, Claire 2011. Charles Dickens: a life (Penguin)

Tomalin, Claire 1991. The Invisible Woman (Penguin)


On Malala Yousafzai:




On inequality today and a return to the bad old Victorian age: