15 Crucial Events in the History of English Schools

Image shows a black-and-white photo of Eton boys in boaters.Here in the UK, we’re famous for our education system and for our historic schools.

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But the journey our education system has taken to get to where it is today has been a long and interesting one, starting with the educational provisions of monastic establishments and growing into the world-class system we know today. In this article, we highlight some of the most important events in the history of English schools, from the opening of the country’s oldest and longest-running school in 597, to the establishment of the National Curriculum in 1988.

1. 597 – England’s oldest school established

Image shows the King's School, Canterbury.
The King’s School in Canterbury is remarkably ancient.

In AD 597 a school opened that many claim is England’s oldest surviving school: The King’s School in Canterbury, founded by St Augustine. In its earliest days it was a cathedral school, of the sort that could be found across Europe during this period, when schools were closely associated with monastic establishments and often focused on the teaching of Latin. At this time, many schools were charitable foundations, which, much later, would adopt the term ‘public schools’ to indicate their openness to the public, whatever their religion.

2. 1440 – The opening of Eton College

England’s most famous school opened its doors in 1440, having been founded by Henry VI as a charity school designed to prepare poor boys for university education at King’s College, Cambridge (founded by the same monarch a year later). The King modelled his new school on Winchester College, which he visited many times; he even pinched its headmaster and some of its top pupils to start Eton.

3. 1536-1541 – The Dissolution of the Monasteries

Image shows Netley Abbey.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries left astonishing ruins across the UK.

Because schools during the Middle Ages had been established as part of monasteries, Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries spelled disaster for English schools. With monasteries, friaries, convents and priories across the country being forcibly disbanded – stripped of their assets and income – a vast source of education, particularly for younger scholars, was gone. However, the monasteries had also established grammar schools – originally for the purpose of teaching Latin – for older students, and many of these did survive the Dissolution by being refounded, some privately and some at the order of the King.

Image is a button that reads, "Browse all English Schools articles."4. Edward VI – Free grammar schools

Only a few years after the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII, his son became King Edward VI. This king reorganised the aforementioned grammar schools, as well as setting up new ones, and made them free, meaning that anybody could attend them, even if they couldn’t afford school fees. However, although the tuition was free, the overwhelming majority of children did not go to school; they were of more use to their parents if they were sent out to work to supplement the family income.

5. 1780: The Sunday School Movement

Image shows a gloomy-looking churchyard, chapel and Sunday school.
A Sunday school building in the UK.

Instigated by a man named Robert Raikes in the 1780s, the Sunday School Movement started off as a means of teaching very poor boys, who worked 13-hour days in factories six days a week, meaning that Sunday was the only time they had available for learning. Initially, Raikes focused his attention on poor boys who were imprisoned in workhouses, seeing education as a cure for vice. Most were focused on teaching children to read, as well as studying the Bible and the catechism, though the teachers were non-religious, teaching older boys who would coach younger ones (girls didn’t attend until later). Raikes described the teaching schedule as follows:
“The children were to come after ten in the morning, and stay till twelve; they were then to go home and return at one; and after reading a lesson, they were to be conducted to Church. After Church, they were to be employed in repeating the catechism till after five, and then dismissed, with an injunction to go home without making a noise.”
What started as a small-scale initiative grew rapidly, and within four years 250,000 children across the country were being educated in this way. By 1831, that figure had grown to 1.2 million. This is astonishing in view of the fact that education at the time was not compulsory, and was mostly reserved for the wealthy (who could afford to send their boys to boarding school and educate younger children and girls at home with governesses or tutors).

6. 1833 – Parliament designates money for schools

Image shows a sketch of the interior of Westminster Hall in the early 19th century.
Parliament changed schools funding in 1833.

1833 saw the first state involvement with education (at least in England and Wales; it had begun much earlier in Scotland), with the voting in Parliament of sums of money to be designated for the building of schools catering for poor children. This was the beginning of decades of change that would see the state become increasingly concerned with education, widening access to education for even the country’s poorest people.

7. 1840 – The Grammar Schools Act

In 1840, the curriculum at the country’s grammar schools was expanded from the Latin and Greek that had been its exclusive focus, to include a wider range of subjects, with the introduction of science and literature. Though the Act had made it lawful to teach these subjects alongside the classical languages, it was still up to the school’s headmaster to condone the teaching of science and literature in his school.

8. 1844 – The Ragged School Union

Image shows a caricature of the Earl of Shaftesbury; he looks grim and austere, with a sizeable nose.
A contemporary caricature of the austere Victorian Earl of Shaftesbury.

Alongside the grammar school, another feature of education in 19th-century Britain was the ragged school. These were charitable schools for destitute children and catered mainly for the urban poor of the nation’s industrial cities. 1844 was a significant year for these schools, as the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley-Cooper, established the Ragged School Union, which allowed such schools to pool their resources and offer not just free education, but also free clothing and lodging for the poorest children. 200 such schools were established in Britain over the next few years.

9. Victorian public school reforms

The Victorian period also saw the reform of education at the opposite end of the social spectrum. Public schools underwent a period of change during this period that saw them evolve into the institutions we would recognise today. Forward-thinking headmasters started realising that education went beyond academia, and began encouraging participation in sport, music and drama to provide a well-rounded education that focused on the individual. Competition and physical activity were introduced alongside education, though the classical languages were still a heavy focus of the academic curriculum.

10. 1880 – The introduction of compulsory education

Image shows a child labourer in a mill, dwarfed by the size of the machinery.
Child labour was the norm in Victorian England.

In 1880, a law was enacted that made it compulsory for children aged between five and ten to attend school. This was the Elementary Education Act 1880, and it saw the introduction of so-called Attendance Officers, whose job it was to go round to the houses of children who hadn’t turned up for school. However, it was hard for poor families to comply with this law when the income they could gain from sending their children out to work was so valuable. In an attempt to combat this, employed children who were under the age of 13 were obliged to have a certificate indicating that they had reached a certain level of education, with penalties in place for those employing children who lacked this certificate. In 1893, the school-leaving age was raised to 11, and it was also made compulsory for blind and deaf children to receive an education (until then, they had not been catered for at all). The school-leaving age rose again to 12 in 1899.

11. 1902 – The Balfour Act

Sweeping changes to the education system in England and Wales were brought about by the 1902 Balfour Act, which saw the introduction of Local Education Authorities taking over the previous system, under which many schools had been managed by the Church of England while others had been run by school boards (committees). Local Education Authorities would, by 1906, also provide school meals, and the year after that would introduce medical inspections. The Act resulted in the opening of over a thousand new secondary schools by 1914, 349 of which were for girls.

12. 1918 – The Fisher Act

Image shows the signing of the Treaty of Versailles.
The aftermath of the First World War had consequences for education.

In 1918, the school-leaving age was raised again to fourteen by the Fisher Act. Secondary schools were handed over to the state, and some grammar schools became state-funded secondary schools. At this time, unlike in the present education system, most children remained in primary education up to the age of fourteen, rather than attending a separate secondary school. Interestingly, the Fisher Act also contained the first provisions for compulsory part-time education for children aged fourteen to eighteen; planned expansions to tertiary education were abandoned due to post-First World War spending cuts, but it was an important step in thinking about education continuing to eighteen.

13. 1944 Education Act and the Eleven Plus

In 1944, an Education Act commonly known as the Butler Act was passed, imposing sweeping changes to the education system. It created a tripartite structure of grammar, secondary modern and secondary technical schools, as well as cementing the split between primary and secondary education. The Act also resulted in the creation of the Eleven Plus exam (an entrance exam designed to test academic ability), the background to which was the 1938 Spens report, which had advised that grammar and technical schools should impose intelligence testing as part of their admissions procedures. Children who failed the Eleven Plus went instead to secondary modern or technical schools.
In addition to these changes, the 1944 Act also raised the school-leaving age to 15, which came into force in 1947. It was a difficult balancing act in the sense that keeping fifteen-year-olds in education rather than employment reduced the size of the country’s workforce; but the benefits of creating a more skilled workforce were seen to outweigh this disadvantage. Post-war spending cuts, as with the 1918 Act, again limited plans contained in the 1944 Act for compulsory part-time education up to the age of eighteen, though its provision in the Act was a clear indicator that the state recognised the value of a good education.

14. 1965 – the introduction of the Comprehensive System

Image shows a 60s comprehensive school building.
A typical 1960s comprehensive school building.

A Government circular issued in 1965 saw an important change in the country’s education system: the conversion of secondary schools to the Comprehensive System. A comprehensive school is a non-selective school that accepts pupils regardless of their academic ability, with no entrance exam. The circular – known as Circular 10/65 – abolished most of the old grammar schools and secondary moderns, as well as the Eleven Plus, forcing many Local Education Authorities to convert to the Comprehensive System through refusing funding for new secondary schools unless they were comprehensive. An important follow-up to this circular came five years later, when a new circular was put forth by Margaret Thatcher, who was the Education Minister at the time, allowing local authorities to make their own minds up as to which system they used. As a result, some grammar schools survive to this day, though in somewhat smaller numbers than in days gone by.

15. 1988 – The National Curriculum

The final landmark in our history of English schools came in 1988 with the introduction of educational reforms that aimed to make schools more competitive among one another, so that they would strive to improve themselves in order to attract pupils. One of the most important reforms was the introduction of the National Curriculum, which imposed a set curriculum for primary and secondary schools to follow. This meant that schools had less choice about what subjects they could teach, as certain subjects were required to be taught by law. Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) were introduced to test pupils at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16; these are now called Key Stages 1 to 4, Stage 4 being GCSE exams. For the first time, league tables were introduced that ranked schools’ performance, allowing parents to make informed choices about where to send their children to school. In 1996, another Education Act redefined the school-leaving age as the last Friday in June in the year of a child’s 16th birthday, and home education was given legal standing with the stipulation that parents provide an education for their children through school or “otherwise”.
So, as we’ve seen, the English education system has been a long time in the making, and these days, there’s no denying that it’s up there with the best in the world. If you’d like to experience a little of what an English education has to offer, why not book your place on an Oxford Royale Summer Schools course?


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Image credits: banner; King’s School; monastery; Sunday school; Parliament; Shaftesbury; child labour; Versailles; comprehensive school.