Early Years Pioneers: Robert Owen

The founder of Britain's first infant school promoted learning for its own sake in ways that are meaningful to young children, as Professor Tricia David explains


Robert Owen was born in Newtown, mid-Wales, in 1771. Newtown was then a very small market town with little industrial development other than a few flannel looms. He was the much loved youngest child of a saddler and ironmonger father, who was also the local postmaster. Owen's mother's family were numerous and 'respectable farmers' in the area.

As a result of an early scalding accident and its consequences, Robert believed himself to be good at observing and reflecting on people and life.

Being an avid reader from quite early in his childhood and being known to the whole town, the young Robert Owen borrowed books from all the educated homes in Newtown. These studies convinced him, among other things, that religious divisions in society were wrong and that religious education should be improved.

What did Robert Owen achieve?

At the age of ten, Robert undertook the long journey from Shrewsbury to London alone. He was surprisingly composed about being sent to live with his eldest brother in that distant city and to work with a friend of his father, who was a lace merchant. This early position set Owen on the career path as a draper, mill manager and owner, which would take him from London via north-western England's heartland to New Lanarkshire and riches.

While working and starting up his own business in Manchester, he became a member of a debating group that included the famous scientist John Dalton.

Owen was said to have had considerable social skills as a result of his experience in retail and he continued to be diligent in his search for knowledge through study and discussion. He had worked with Richard Arkwright, inventor of the spinning jenny.

Robert Owen himself attributed his achievements and his ideas to his early experiences and he came to believe that nurture, the way in which children are brought up and taught, is the key to their later morality, sociability, and success in life. Some of his biographers suggest that the self-educated Owen was influenced by ideas circulating at the time - works by William Blake, Tom Paine and William Wordsworth would have been available, as well as Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile with its central thesis overthrowing contemporary thinking about childhood.

Owen is known to have visited Johann Friedrich Oberlin's and Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi's schools in Switzerland. Pestalozzi had collaborated with Friedrich Froebel and they shared a conviction that the education of young children should be based on real, or 'concrete' experiences.

Above all, Owen wished to develop a model community, one in which the mill workers had decent homes, fair pay and better working hours and conditions; a place where they and their families were treated with respect. It was to be 'an image of an alternative system of society'. Thus it is no surprise that Robert Owen founded a school for the children in New Lanark, in which he stressed they must not be 'annoyed with books' but learn through play, conversation, music, dance, geography, history, 'the basics' and natural science. It was the first infant school in Britain.

Owen also insisted that control be achieved through kindness and affection.

No punishment or rewards were permitted, the emphasis being on learning for its own sake and sharing in the process. While he found it difficult to recruit teachers who truly understood and could apply his principles, visitors who wrote about the school were clearly impressed by the children's knowledge, politeness and charm. The school obviously 'worked'.

History, politics and early childhood services Robert Owen was largely deleted from the history of school development until the twentieth century, when several writers reinstated him in his rightful place as an important pioneer of appropriate early childhood education.

Biographers suggest that the reason for the earlier neglect of Owen's achievements was his political activity and writing. He was a radical, a founder member of the Co-operative Society, involved in early socialism and the Chartist movement, and he had challenging ideas about religion. His utopian dreams were apparently too advanced for the capitalist Victorian society in which he lived.

Later in his life Owen went to America with four of his sons to found an Owenite community. Although he returned to Britain with one son, the others remained and made significant contributions to American social legislation.

Sadly, several of his followers' experimental communities broke down, and his influence on the field of early childhood education became tainted by what was seen as his eccentricity. In 1858, as he was dying in his birthplace of Newtown, Owen refused the ministrations of a clergyman, saying that his life had not been useless, he had simply been ahead of his time.

What can we learn today from Robert Owen's work?

Owen's main messages lie in his belief in the learning potential of every child - that every person should be valued and cherished equally and that if we strive against degradation and neglect of our fellow human beings, we can create a better world.

He was staunch in his continuing adherence to the importance of nurture over nature and to the importance of the earliest years of life. Owen's deliberations about the theory and practice of teaching young children led him to insist that they should be taught in ways that are meaningful and enjoyable to them and which on no account involve cruelty.

Essentially, Robert Owen's life and work are still celebrated in numerous publications and websites. His name is still fondly remembered in some museums and early childhood centres. Such breadth is apt, for Owen's vision was holistic, embracing every aspect and every phase of human life in industrial Britain.

Tricia David is Emeritus Professor of Education at Canterbury Christ Church University College

Suggested reading

  • Owen, R (1971) Life of Robert Owen by himself. London: Charles Knight & Co Ltd (originally published in two parts in 1857 and 1858)
  • Pollard, S and Salt, J (eds) (1971) Robert Owen: Prophet of the Poor London: Macmillan
  • Royle, E (1998) Robert Owen and the Commencement of the Millennium Manchester: Manchester University Press
  • Siraj-Blatchford, J (1997) Robert Owen: Schooling the Innocents. Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press

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