130 years separate the opening of the original school located in the centre of Birmingham and named after George Dixon, and the Academy of today. These 2014 photographs kindly provided by the Academy show what school life is like today.
On first approaching the Academy from the south, the first distinctive feature which strikes the visitor is the large tower which does not appear to serve any immediate purpose. In fact when the Academy was built, it was intended to help the circulation of fresh air within the building and was a distinctive feature of many School Board schools of the late nineteenth century. (This particular photograph was taken by the author in November 2013).
Nationally, the name ‘George Dixon’ is most frequently associated with the BBC television series Dixon of Dock Green, and this plaque on the Academy wall helps explain the connection. Sir Michael Balcon was born just two years before George Dixon died, and the character ‘George Dixon’ first featured in the 1949 film The Blue Lamp. The television series was produced subsequently. Was there any direct connection between the work of the original George Dixon, M.P., and the law and order theme of the television series? It is impossible to say what was in Balcon’s mind when he named his character, but an important factor in the nineteenth century M.P.’s mind when he started to campaign for compulsory and free elementary education in the late 1860s was a sudden serious juvenile crime wave, occasioned by a change in the law which prohibited children from being employed in Birmingham workshops. With nowhere else to go, these children preyed upon the local population. In the rest of the country, other important factors were driving the pressure for improved elementary education: British industry was facing increasingly still competition from abroad, particularly Germany, whose educational system was perceived to be much better; and there were questions as to the wisdom of extending the franchise to many who could neither read nor write, following the passage of the Second Reform Act in 1867.
On entering the school, there is no doubt as to where you are, as demonstrated rather well by the shape of this pair of door handles.
Many of the Academy’s facilities are very modern, not least the Sports Hall. Seen here are the current Headmaster, Anthony Hamilton, and Gisela Stuart, M.P. for Edgbaston, unveiling a commemorative plaque in July 2012. Mr Hamilton is a two times Paralympic Gold Medallist, whilst Mrs Stuart is the seventh M.P. to represent the Edgbaston constituency in Parliament. That constituency was created in 1885 as a result of the boundary re-distribution following the Third Reform Act, and George Dixon was its first representative until his death in 1898. He had earlier been a representative for the multi-member Birmingham constituency from 1867 to 1876, alongside most notably John Bright. A subsequent representative for Edgbaston was Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister at the time of the outbreak of the Second World War in 1945.
Much credit can be given to George Dixon for campaigning for the introduction of compulsory and free elementary education in England and Wales, first through the Birmingham Education Society (1867) and then the National Education League (1869). The legislation came in the shape of Forster’s Elementary Education Act of 1870. Neither compulsory education nor its free provision came immediately, for much work had to be done in building schools and training teachers. George Dixon was chairman of the Birmingham School Board from 1876 to 1896, during which time the school leaving age was initially 10, rising to 11 in 1893. Six Standards (or Grades) were provided in Regulations, but these did not prove sufficiently challenging for the brightest pupils, and largely at his own expense, George Dixon set up the Seventh Grade Technical School in 1884, in Bridge Street. It was the first of its kind in the country.
But what were the options open to pupils who had finished their education there? One progression was to the King Edward VI’s Grammar School, the governance of which was the subject of much controversy for many years. George Dixon wanted to play a bigger part, but his ambitions were thwarted by Joseph Chamberlain, and they were not on speaking terms from 1878 to 1880.
Birmingham University was founded in 1900, two years after George Dixon died, although for many years he had been a trustee of Mason’s College, which was later incorporated into the University. He had thus been personally involved in the provision of all levels of education.
Today, the George Dixon Academy’s Sixth Form prepares students for A Level exams and university education, up to the age of 18 – a far cry from the achievements of the Seventh Grade Technical School 130 years earlier. Indeed, in 1889, all Birmingham School Board pupils were given the day off when one of their former colleagues won fifth place in the mathematics tripos at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge, such was the novelty of the event. He had progressed there through King Edward’s College, and Mason’s College.
Other facilities today would have been beyond imagination in 1884, when pupils often had to study in classrooms which were woefully badly heated. Here is the Assembly Hall.