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Modern Britain

Key Dates in English Education

by Jackie Speel, 31 May 2008

Part 1: Up to 1899

Various types of schooling in England existed up to the early modern period, including, but not limited to, schools in the modern sense, dame schools, monastic provision, tutors and governesses, apprenticeships, and so on.

There was no minimum age limit for the universities. Only a small fraction of the population was ever educated in the sense that would now be recognised, and the curricula in places of learning were somewhat different to the modern system. A certain amount of educational provision - basic literacy and numeracy, etc - was probably more widely available than might be expected. The spread of knowledge was not necessarily confined to the literate: it was common practice to read aloud.

Educational provision was reduced - especially for women - with the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536.

The creation of schools was seen as acts of private munificence - whether by royals (Eton, and the various schools associated with Edward VI, although some may have been more a case of re-founding or renaming rather than the creation of new establishments).

Books on education began to be written from the seventeenth century, and a number of societies were established. The most notable of this today is the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Various policies were advanced - including the establishment of nursery schools, Authors and others advocated policies - educating poor children (there being a continuing debate on the subject, for and against, into the next system), nursery schools, and subjects to be taught.

There were various influences on educational development in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries which was in part influenced by outside aspects: the French Revolution and, towards the end of the nineteenth century, perceptions that other European states (such as Prussia) were moving ahead of Britain in terms of educational provision. Industrialisation, the extension of the franchise by stages in the nineteenth century, and the manpower requirements of the developing British empire, created the requirements for a wider provision of at least basic teaching.

Until the 1870 Education Act and subsequent measures, the provision of educational services was largely carried out as a private enterprise - and private education of various kinds has persisted to the present - albeit with increased official regulation. Educational provision for girls tended to be at a much lower standard than for boys - and testing could be carried out on a more lenient basis. There was, however, a certain amount of higher quality education for girls.

The educational system as it developed in the nineteenth century had a strong class basis - elementary education was aimed at the working classes, and secondary education at the middle classes.

Part 1: Up to 1899
Part 2: 1900-1972
Part 3: 1975-2004


Nonconformists (at that time excluded from parliament, the universities, and other areas) allowed to teach - led to the founding of Dissenting Academies, with an emphasis on practical subjects.


Robert Raikes founded the first Sunday Schools, Gloucester: the movement spread. Initially these handled a range of subjects, as the children were at work for the rest of the week: as educational provision spread they were to become confined to religious education. A surviving example can be seen in Tottenham, North London (see sidebar photo).


Dr Andrew Bell published An Experiment in Education - an account of his teaching experiments, having developed a monitorial system while in India (where the teacher would instruct a small number of more advanced or older pupils who would then teach what they had learnt to others). Joseph Lancaster subsequently developed the system: taken up by nonconformists and then by the Anglicans who obtained Bell's help: various writings on subject, and different models.


Lord Eldon's judgement: grammar schools limited to teaching the classics [Eldon was lord chancellor in Addington's government].

Lancastrian Monitorial System of Education
Boys at reading stations in the Lancastrian Monitorial System of Education, established in the early years of the nineteenth century


Samuel Whitbread Parochial Schools Bill. Andrew Bell became involved in setting up a system of schools based on Anglican principles, and subsequently tried to export his system.


Bell proposed establishing schools under control of parochial clergy. British and Foreign School Society established. Royal Lancastrian Society established: name afterwards changed to British and Foreign School Society, due to differences of opinion with Lancaster. Holland established state based elementary education.


National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church throughout England and Wales formed established, initially for teaching the poor.

Manuals of Health: Food

Albert J Bernays' Manuals of Health: Food, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, in about 1876 (St Thomas' Historical Collection)


The Edinburgh Reviewer praised Lancaster's system. British and Foreign School Society.


Royal Lancastrian Society became the British and Foreign Bible Society.


Henry Brougham Parochial Schools Bill - rejected. Brougham procured the appointment of a general commission of inquiry into endowed charities: continued for many years in operation and activities. Parliamentary inquiry into the Education of the Lower Orders.


Infant Schools Society founded by Richard Wilderspan.


Andrew Bell died: fortune almost entirely left for educational purposes. Government placed on the Estimates a sum of 20,000 for education, beginning an annual grant. Grants confined to the erection of school buildings and were to be administered only through national and British and Foreign School societies.


Committee of Council became Education Department. Home and Colonial School Society founded.


Central Society of Education founded.


First London matriculation examination - only 23 candidates (from University College and King's College). First school candidates in 1839, predominating by 1842 - entrance examination which all students had to pass two years before admittance to BA degrees. National Society began interest in establishment in Middle Schools.


Committee of Council for Education established.


Grammar Schools Act - curriculum limitations ended. Her Majesty's Inspectors of Schools first appointed. Grammar Schools Act, 10 August: minute - Committee of Council concluded what came to be known as the concordat with the church: the archbishop of the province was to approve appointments, which could also be revoked by him. System soon rendered obsolete by developments.


School Sites Act: others followed.


Normal Schools for training teachers began.


Factory Act introduced half timer system of education.


Ragged Schools Union founded, to cater for the very poorest children who would otherwise be excluded. [Ragged School Museum, East London.]


First of four 'commercial schools' established in Manchester. Annual maintenance grants for pupil teachers first granted, including Queen's Scholarships.


Pupil-teacher system set up by Dr James Kay-Shuttleworth.


Committee of Council - minute dispensing schools not connected with the Established Church from inquiries concerning their religious condition: state aid also extended to Wesleyan and Roman Catholic Schools. Jewish schools received similar recognition 1851.


Nathaniel Woodard, A Plea for the Middle Classes (to provide for working class education).


Scheme for examination of schools sanctioned - put into force 1854 (the Middle Class Examinations).


Newcastle Report on popular education.


Borough Bill (as applicable in municipal boroughs) proposed on elementary education 2 April: capitation grants introduced: extended to urban areas by minute of 21 January 1856.

1853 Elementary (Schools Attendance) Act came into force January 1854.


College of Preceptors granted certificates on examinations. Reformatories Act.


Administrative bill established the office of vice-president of the Committee of Council on Education as a minister responsible to parliament: at the same time the Science and Art Department (constituted 1853) transferred from the Board of Trade to the Committee of Council.


Matthew Arnold inspector of elementary schools: he studied European school systems.


It is agreed with the army that candidates who had passed Oxbridge and London matriculation examinations were exempt from Sandhurst entrance examination; other professional bodies following.

Thomas Hare, Charity Commissioner, contributed to Social Sciences Congress a paper entitled On the Application of Endowed Charities in the Improvement of the Education and Condition of the Poor.


Passing matriculation examination required success in four or five subjects from designated groups from this year onwards.

Oxford and Cambridge Local Examinations began. Other examination providers were to emerge: though the provision was aimed at the middling classes. Royal Commission appointed, at instigation of Sir John Parkington, under chairmanship of the duke of Newcastle, to inquire into state of education in England, and consider possible developments. Report issued 1861: rejected parish as unit of elementary education, and rejected free and compulsory education due to religious question. Main introduction the system of payments by results (with complaints, familiar from present equivalents, that too much emphasis was being placed on specified subjects).


The Clarendon Commission - investigated 'The Nine' - Eton, Winchester, Harrow, Westminster, Charterhouse, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Merchant Taylors, and St Pauls. Report published 1864.


Revised Code of Education presented to parliament - set up standards for pupils.


First blind candidates for matriculation.

Girls started being entered unofficially for Oxford and Cambridge Local Examinations, which were opened to them on a permanent basis 1867.


Schools Inquiry Commission, leading to 1868 Taunton Report.


Industrial Schools Act.


Public Schools Act.


Endowed Schools Act - Endowed Schools Commission (later Charity Commissioners) established.


National Union of Elementary Teachers (after National Union of Teachers) founded 29 November, Education Act (Forster Act) - established School Boards: appropriately qualified women had franchise and could be elected. School Boards Chronicle began.


Girls' Public Day School Trust established - first school opened in Chelsea 1873.


LSB insisted that every board of managers for a school must include a woman from this year onwards. Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examinations Board set up. Elementary Education Act.


Technical School started drill classes. First special schools provided by School Board, for blind and deaf children. Higher Certificate Examination (Oxford and Cambridge) first held.


Elementary Education Act Lord Sandon's Act - came into force on 1 January 1877 - duty of every parent to see that children 5-14 receive efficient elementary education in the 3-Rs (reading, writing, and, arithmetic), no employment of children under ten or over that age without a certificate of proficiency or previous due attendance at a certified school in accordance with the Factory Acts or bye-law under Education Acts. Required all School Boards to set up school attendance committees - previously this had been left to local committees.


The livery companies of London invited the Corporation to cooperate in a project for the furtherance of technical education: Court of Common Council approved in principle the scheme they submitted, which led to the development of the City and Guilds of London Institute (founded 1878), the first established centre of the Institute being Finsbury Technical College.


School Board planned classrooms for an average of sixty children. Girls admitted to the Higher Certificate of Education.


Education made compulsory in England and Wales.


Debates on the 'overpressure' of school children, and arguments that other topics were being squeezed off the curriculum to maximise results in the specified areas.


Technical Instruction Act: empowered County Councils and County Boroughs to raise a penny rate for education other than elementary.


New Education code added a Standard VII- led to 'Higher Tops' - advanced classes within a school and Higher Grade Schools: Sheffield being the first and others following. (No details of Standard VII readily available on the internet.)


1883 Reform Act. Lower Certificate Examination began.


Royal Commission on Technical Education in Britain and Foreign Countries - favourable report.


Recreative Evening Schools Association formed.


Royal Commission on the Blind and Deaf: recommendations were the basis of 1893 legislation.


1886 Act made it illegal to employ a person under eighteen for more than 75 hours per week.


First year of the School 'Leaving Certificate'.


1 November: Technical Instruction (England and Wales) Act. Act gave County and County Borough Councils power to raise a penny rate to found schools and provide scholarships. Scheme for polytechnics for London drafted. School Management Committee, London, decided to introduce a special allowance for teachers in 'schools of special difficulty.'


George Kekeworth, Secretary of Department for Education abolished grants for the 3-Rs and provided a fixed capitation grant based on average attendance. Granting of 'Whisky Money' to County Councils to help with technical education.


Assisted Education Act/Free Education Act, correctly the Elementary Education (England and Wales) Act. Schools given a grant of 16/- (shillings) per annum to replace 'school pence' of 3d (pennies) per week paid by parents for most elementary schools.


Education Department - Separate Code of Regulations for Evening Schools to be established.

Sir John Lubbock - Public Libraries Act. Arthur Acland 'Studies in Secondary Education.' Centres for mentally and physically handicapped children provided.


Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act.

LCC set up Technical Education Board, with Sidney Webb (later Lord Passfield) as first chairman.


The 1894 New Educational Code and Instructions to Her Majesty's Inspectors issued - provisions made for lessons on temperance to be made in elementary schools.


Board of Education Act: abolished Committee of Council and established Board of Education.

Report of the Royal Commission on Secondary Education.


John Gorst's Education Bill - withdrawn: main problems the issue of religious instruction and lack of unanimity in voluntary schools partly on where funding would come from, and a range of issues covered.

Local Taxation Act - 'Whisky money' from certain beer and spirit duties - should be allocated to councils for educational purposes. TUC - motion put forward for educational system reform for equality of opportunity.


Education Act of 1896 resubmitted in an altered form and passed.

Grants for tests in specific subjects in schools disappeared.

Voluntary Schools Aid Grant Bill.


Elementary School Teachers' (Superannuation) Act. University of London Act. Vice-regal commission into Irish education.


Board of Education Act - first serious attempt to deal with secondary education. Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act. First school for crippled children established, provided by Mrs Humphrey Ward of Passmore Edwards settlement. School leaving age raised to twelve.

Half Timers Act, coming into force 1 January 1900 - earliest time at which children permitted to leave school raised from eleven to twelve, with certain exemptions.



Text copyright © Jackie Speel. An original feature for the History Files.