England, History of Education to 1818 (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Education[edit | edit source]

History of Education System[edit | edit source]

There is a huge literature on the history of English schools available from public or university libraries. Some of the better materials are available from the Family History Library under FamilySearch Catalog - ENGLAND - SCHOOLS and FamilySearch Catalog - GREAT BRITAIN - SCHOOLS, but not all are microfilmed yet. The histories of individual schools are covered in the Victoria County Histories where the topographical volumes have been published. Hey devotes over five pages to a concise history of British education, giving further references for schools and schooling.

Chapman’s cameo contains considerably more detail and excellent discussion of the history of British education and its records than is covered here. Here we have a briefer overview of a rather complex situation, and then concentrate on practical examples which give names of teachers and pupils.

5th Century-1530s Religious Education[edit | edit source]

The first school in England was probably set up by Ninian at the beginning of the 5th century. Chapman has an interesting discussion of this very early period. There followed a few other schools founded by the Roman Catholic church and attached to monasteries or cathedrals to train boys for the priesthood and administrative duties.

In addition, small chantry schools tended to grow around an endowed chantry, where priests prayed for the benefactor’s soul. Almonry schools attached to cathedrals offered scholarships for boys aged 10 or over who could already read and sing. Their board, lodging and education was provided in return for singing in the cathedral choir and running errands for the monks. The curriculum consisted of Latin, grammar and music.

According to Chapman the Danish invasions slowed down educational progress, but King Alfred the Great tried to improve reading skills in English, and by the late 10th century many school books in Latin and Anglo-Saxon were available. The monastery schools which taught Latin for the priesthood continued, but other schools were established during the Middle Ages by trade guilds and by private benefaction.

Post-Reformation - Grammar Schools[edit | edit source]

After the 1530s most of the monastic and chantry schools were refounded as grammar schools, many from sales of monastic lands (the Anglican King’s Schools), but many were lost. Education for girls in the nunneries simply ceased after the 1530s for several generations! Private individuals and organizations such as guilds endowed these new grammar schools during the 1550s, thus providing free, or inexpensive basic, classical education for a few poor bright boys as well as children of wealthy families. The development of printing during the late 15th and 16th centuries enabled books to be circulated, although mostly just for the teachers. The students kept paper journals or common place books in which they copied selected texts. There were about 300 grammar schools by the mid-16th century.

By the 17th century there were boarding as well as day grammar schools. Besides the three R’s the emphasis was on the classics and the Latin language. In Tudor and Stuart England there was an increasing need for secular administrators, drawn from the middle as well as upper class educated youths. Latin continued to be important as a basis for mathematics, medicine and law, but was also the European language of diplomacy and trade.

When new subjects were introduced they were not covered by the terms of the original benefaction, so grammar schools charged fees for science and other new subjects. This was rectified by the 1840 Grammar Schools Act which allowed the teaching of subjects not in original school statutes. Several of these ancient grammar schools still exist, albeit in modern buildings. Carlisle’s mid-19th description of the endowed grammar schools by county and parish has been reprinted and is available on film.

In 1858 grammar schools were given a boost with the introduction of external examinations set by universities and new funds were provided from certain charities from 1869.

From 17th Century - Public Schools[edit | edit source]

These are independent, private, fee-paying schools, mainly in the south of England, and known as public schools because they are good enough to attract pupils from far away. About one third of the 200 still in existence derive from grammar schools founded between the 14th and 17th centuries, especially those that accepted boarding pupils. Some of the best larger ones are household names: Charterhouse, Eton, Harrow, Merchant Taylor’s, Rugby, St. Paul’s, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester

Charity and Endowed Schools[edit | edit source]

From the 17th century it is common to find the salary of a schoolmaster, or a parish school for poor children set up, with bequests from the local worthies, or those who remembered their home village after making their fortune in London. At Birdham, Sussex 150 children were in need of education in 1816 and the local people combined their efforts to build a school and schoolmaster’s house. Lord John Lennox donated land; the nearby Chichester Blue Coat School trustees donated timbers from a recently-demolished barn; local farmers transported them; £200 for building was raised by donation from individuals and organizations, and over £56 promised in annual contributions. 113 children were admitted in November 1817, their names and sponsors listed by Dewey.

Quite often the local cleric was also the schoolmaster who taught the children in the church itself or in a little room over the south porch specifically designed to house the parish library and school. The status of village schoolmasters was low and many taught no more than reading, writing and simple accounts. The attitudes of frugality, gratitude and subordination were emphasized and this set the pattern for 19th century charity schools. However, there was a wide variety and some of the best charity schools were in rural areas. Many cities and towns had charity schools provided to educate the poor free of charge in order to alleviate poverty. Some were specifically for city orphans and thus provided boarding (hospitality) and were referred to as hospitals, for example Christ’s Hospital, London. Other charity schools wore specific uniforms and were known respectively as Bluecoat, Greencoat or Greycoat Schools.

From 17th Century - Non-Anglican Schools[edit | edit source]

Various nonconformist and Jewish groups started schools and training academies for their own ministries and these blossomed after the Act of Toleration of 1689. Some became leading educational institutions providing a broad syllabus, including science, which attracted those from other faiths including the established church. The best, such as those at Warrington, Northampton and Hackney, were considered superior to the (Church of England) universities. It should be noted that non-Anglican families tended to prefer practical training in industrial, business and scientific fields, whilst Anglicans concentrated on classic academic education. However, many schools set up by, for example, Quakers were sufficiently excellent to attract children who were not of that faith. Likewise non-Catholic girls were sent to convents as they were perceived to be superior to local alternatives. In many cases, less affluent parents might sacrifice their religious preference for a less expensive education provided by another institution.

Voluntary Schools - SPCK (1698)[edit | edit source]

The term voluntary refers to the fact that such schools were voluntarily provided by various societies usually of a religious nature. The most prominent early one was theSociety for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, created in 1698, which had founded at least 1500 schools for the industrial poor by 1750. There was no charge for the pupils as the schools were funded by voluntary subscriptions. Many thousands of children, including girls, aged 7-11 or over were given a basic education, but still the SPCK reported in 1810 that two-thirds of poor children had no schooling at all. Many SPCK schools were taken over by the National Schools movement in the first half of the 19th century.

Private Schools[edit | edit source]

There was a great variety of small private schools ranging from mere child-minding facilities to superior private academies listed in trade and commercial directories. The 1870 Education Act, as well as a growing awareness of the necessity of teachers having knowledge and training, brought about the demise of all except the very best. Private schools did not, on the whole, teach religion, and this made them attractive to many parents. There were several types including:

  • Dame schools for those aged 3-7 or 8 run by a local woman usually in her own home; one of the few ways that a spinster or widow could earn a living. The fee was 3d or 4d a week but there was no guarantee as to the quality of instruction. They have had a bad press but in fact some were good (Stephens).
  • Common day schools, usually run by a man, which took children from about ages 5-12 at a low fee.
  • Local craft schools were available in some rural areas teaching straw-plaiting, knitting, lacemaking or glovemaking. They took children from age 3 with the intention of providing useful family income.
  • Tutors and governesses. In the mid-19th century the upper classes may have received private education at home from a tutor; the younger ones and the girls would have had governesses. English tutors and governesses could earn 10 times as much salary serving abroad, either with families or in English schools (Hall).
  • Girls’ schools. During the 19th century there was a greater demand for education of girls and many quality girls’ day- and boarding-schools were patronized by the upper-middle classes. The curriculum included reading in Latin, Greek, French and Italian, as well as music, dancing, household management skills and English.

From 1763 - Sunday Schools[edit | edit source]

Sunday Schools that taught reading so that children could read the bible probably started in Catterick, Yorkshire in 1763. Robert Raikes helped to spread the movement, hiring women teachers in Gloucester in 1780 and charging pupils 1d a week. Five years later the Society for the Establishment and Support of Sunday Schools throughout the Kingdom of Great Britain became active. Its grandiose, patronizing aims were to encourage industry and virtue, dispel the darkness of ignorance, diffuse the light of knowledge [and] bring men cheerfully to submit to their station.

The inter-denominational Sunday School Union was founded in 1803 to foster such schools in and around London. Initially Sunday schools were a middle-class institution but rapidly became essentially working class in character. Sunday schools were of great advantage to the poor, who needed to work during the week for the household budget. They could learn to read on Sundays since paid work was rarely available on that day, and they were taught by volunteers, who probably brought more enthusiasm to a task they enjoyed. Whether or not they attended a day school, nearly two-thirds of the population aged 5-14 attended a Sunday school by 1851, and at the peak in 1906 this rose to over 80%.

1808 British Schools (Nonconformist)[edit | edit source]

In 1797 an Anglican, Dr. Andrew Bell, and in 1801 a Quaker, Joseph Lancaster, both proposed an inexpensive monitorial system of education where paid staff supervised older pupils who taught groups of younger ones. In 1808 the latter’s followers formed the Royal Lancastrian Society, later the British and Foreign School Society; their archive is listed under Addresses. Most pupils came from nonconformist families and by 1851 there were 1500 British Schools. Methodists and Baptists also established their own schools, and all are classed as voluntary schools. Government funding aid and supervision of standards were provided from 1833, but the number of British Schools dropped after the 1870 Education Act.

1811 National Schools (Church of England)[edit | edit source]

Rising to the challenge of the successful nonconformist British Schools movement, the National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church provided alternative voluntary schools in 1811. This organization gradually took over the former SPCK schools, and by 1851 had over 17,000 schools. Government funding aid and supervision of standards were provided from 1833. The Society started to decline after the 1870 Education Act.

1818 Ragged Schools[edit | edit source]

John Pounds, a Portsmouth shoemaker, started a free school for the poorest children in his neighbourhood; his story is related by Schollar. Others followed his idea and in 1844 Lord Shaftesbury organized a union of Ragged Schools which provided a basic education and industrial training for the urban poor in England. Similar schools were offered in the evening and on Sundays, and there were about 200 Ragged Schools by the time Forster’s 1870 Education Act arrived. Montague’s history of the Ragged School Movement can be consulted for details.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course English: Education,Health and Contemporary Documents offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.