The Education System in England

Howard Slatter

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.

Primary education

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 charitable foundations.

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 National Schools.

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.

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.