|Trumpington Local History Group
The Education System in England
This introduction to the English education system is based on a
presentation at the meeting of the Group in April 2010.
See the introduction to education and schools for more information.
When we look back to before the First World War, we are mainly concentrating on primary
education. Secondary education beyond the age of 10 was only for the few, either by paying
fees or through charitable endowments. The vast majority of families could not afford to send
their older children out to school, as they needed the income from working children to help
support the family.
At primary level, education was an option until 1880, with many children as young as 5 working
in agriculture or in factories. In the earlier part of the 19th century, there was a wide variety of
different types of primary education available nationally, as well as local variations based on
Sunday Schools were often the only kind of formal education which a child would receive, but
of course this was religious instruction, not what we would call a balanced education.
Dame Schools were so called because they were often privately run by elderly women from
their homes. They catered for the youngest of children, often from the poorest of families, aged
between 2 and 5; children too young to work. These establishments were mainly provided as a
form of child care for parents who had no choice but to go out to work.
The idea of a "Ragged School" was introduced in 1818 by John Pounds in Portsmouth; it was
taken up by Lord Shaftesbury in 1844 when he formed the "Ragged School Union". Over the
next 8 years, over 200 free schools for poor children were established in Britain.
In 1811, the National Society for Promoting Religious Education was founded. The mission of
the Society was to found a Church school in every parish in England and Wales. By offering
grants to prospective founders, on condition that the school would be run in the right way, the
Society funded the construction, enlarging and fitting-up of schoolrooms. It was involved with
the foundation of the majority of Church of England schools, which were originally known as
In 1808, the Society for Promoting the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor was
formed to continue the lead set by John Lancaster in 1798, when he founded a free school in
Southwark in London. In 1814 this was renamed the British and Foreign School Society for the
Education of the Labouring and Manufacturing Classes of Society of Every Religious
Persuasion (snappy title!). Based on non-sectarian principles, the Society started a number of
so-called "British Schools" and teacher training institutions, which in many places maintained an
active rivalry with the National Schools.
Development of education since 1870
In 1870, the Gladstone government passed the Elementary Education Act, drafted by William
Forster. This stated that any area which voted for it could have a school board. These new
board schools could charge fees but they were also eligible for government grants and could also
be paid for out of local government rates. Board Schools provided an education for the 5-10 age
group, but it was not yet compulsory.
By 1880, there were enough schools nationally to make compulsory education feasible, and the
1880 Elementary Education Act was passed. This insisted on compulsory attendance from 5-10
years of age. For poorer families, ensuring their children attended school proved difficult, as it
was more tempting to send them out working if the opportunity to earn an extra income was
available. Attendance Officers often visited the homes of children who failed to attend school,
which often proved to be ineffective. Children under the age of 13 who were employed were
required to have a certificate to show they had reached the educational standard. Employers of
these children who were not able to show this were penalised.
In 1893 and 1899, the school leaving age was raised successively to 11 and then 12, and in
1897 the Voluntary Schools Act provided grants to public elementary schools not funded by
school boards (typically Church schools). In 1902, the Balfour Education Act abolished School
Boards and replaced them with what we still have today, Local Education Authorities.
The Fisher Act of 1918 made secondary education compulsory up to age 14 and gave
responsibility for secondary schools to the state. Under the Act, many higher elementary
schools and endowed grammar schools sought to become state funded. However, most children
attended primary (or elementary) school up until age 14, rather than going to a separate school
for secondary education.
Finally, the 1944 Education Act set up what we are now familiar with, the split between primary
and secondary education at age 11, the introduction of testing (the 11 plus), and raising the
school leaving age to 15. This Act was intended to be implemented in 1939, but the War
intervened; it was eventually enforced in 1947.