While writing the Broad Curriculum set of articles I became pre-occupied by two questions. The first was “What is the point of education?” which I address here. If we know what the point of education is everything else should fall into place; the curriculum, the structures, the sponsorship, and so on. But it seems we don’t. Which led to the second question; “Why is education such a mess?” Nothing in the media makes me feel positive about our education system. I hear plenty of sneering, claims and counter claims, and reports of system failure and disenchantment. I don’t see long term consensus, strategy or momentum. So, I started to read some history of education books to understand, at least at a superficial level, how we got here. Because history has a habit of repeating itself.
What follows below is the briefest summary of Acts of Parliament or periods of history that have shaped the education landscape. It seems to me that the history of education in England is a 1,500 year evolutionary quest to answer five major questions;
- What is school for?
- Who is school for?
- What should the curriculum be?
- Who should control and manage schools?
- Who pays for schools?
The history of education for priests started in 597
St Augustine gets the credit for starting the history of education in England. In 597 he founded King’s School, Canterbury and 604 King’s School, Rochester. He established two types of school; grammar schools for teaching Latin to priests and song schools for training “sons of gentlefolk” to sing in cathedral choirs. The curriculum of grammar (Latin), with occasional rhetoric and logic was to last for at least 1000 years. The model was rolled out to all cathedrals and large churches by 1100.
Education was limited to male nobles and gentry who wanted to enter the priesthood. The age range was typically 11-14. For nobles who didn’t want to be priests there was home tuition followed by placement at a noble house for chivalric training.
As well as the language of the Bible and religious service, Latin was also the language of law, diplomacy and trade. As towns prospered through trade so the demand for grammar schools increased. But trade also led to more secular requirements such as philosophy, medicine, law which were outside the church’s supervision. Some “free grammar schools”, free from church control, and free to teach other subjects, started to appear from 1150 onwards.
In 1391 Richard II outlawed education for serfs unless permitted by the lord of the manor. Serfs were a valuable economic commodity, so unlikely to receive educational encouragement from their masters. This attitude was to persist for another 500 years.
The history of education for the elite started in 1382
Following the decimation of the priesthood as a result of the Black Death, Winchester College was established in 1382. It was to replenish the ranks by educating scholars (poor) and commoners (gentry). The education of scholars was without charge. The commoners paid. Winchester was the feeder school to New College, Oxford. Universities were new independent learning institutions, independent from church control.
Winchester changed the grammar school model in several ways. Firstly, it was free (independent from the Church). Secondly, it was linked to an institution pursuing academic excellence (a university). Thirdly, its pupils were boarders so came from far beyond the immediate. Fourthly, it used a prefectorial system of control (power vested in senior pupils). And fifthly, it was wealthy due to its endowments. As a result it became popular with the wealthy and the ruling class. The boarding and prefectorial aspects prepared pupils for posts at Court, diplomacy and the army. The model was adopted in 1440 by Eton College, endowed by King Edward VI. Seven others followed.
The history of education from Henry VIII to the Industrial Revolution
Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries meant the refoundation of their associated grammar schools as free or joint Church/State enterprises. The compromise suited Henry as head of both State and the Church and enabled him to retain teaching clergy. But even though Church influence reduced dramatically, the curriculum did not change.
William Tyndale’s English Bible, the first in English, was distributed widely through churches. Albeit for only three years during Henry’s reign. Some sources suggest that Tyndale’s Bible contributed to the history of education because it was the first incentive to encourage the poor to read.
There were about 400 grammar schools in 1519, when Henry came to the throne. In the 16th and 17th centuries the number of grammar and schools grew to nearly 2000 with sponsorship (endowments) from philanthropic merchants. In the majority of cases, the size of the endowments paid for little more than the schoolmaster’s salary. The terms of the endowment also restricted the curriculum to Latin and Greek, though some may have ventured into the Trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric). However, for most, the curriculum stayed narrow and failed to adapt to the evolving needs of science, maths and languages teaching.
The narrow curriculum also blighted the fee-paying charity grammar schools (public schools). Twinned with corruption, they fell into disrepute in the decades leading up to the early 1800s.
Grammar school pupils were still predominantly male. Girls education, if any, was little more than Bible reading and homecraft.
The history of education for the masses started around 1750
The Industrial Revolution brought a profound change to British society. The population doubled from 1750 to 1820, and then doubled again to 1870. Many moved to the industrial cities and cheap child labour was prevalent. Laws passed in 1802 required apprentices and children to receive some form of basic numeracy and literacy schooling. However, only the most enlightened factory owners observed them.
For children aged 7 to 11 schooling expanded through this period. But it was random and informal. It consisted of a mixture of “petties” (small schools linked to the grammar schools), writing schools, private schools, Dames Schools, Charity Schools, Sunday Schools and Ragged Schools. The curriculum rarely ventured from reading the Scriptures.
The quality of education and the curriculum certainly didn’t promote the Industrial Revolution and British Empire. But sustaining them would make demands of the curriculum.
National Schools (from 1811) and British Schools (from 1808)
The National Society was established in 1811 with the ambition of establishing a National School in every English and Welsh parish. The Society built schools next to parish churches. Charitable in purpose, affiliated to the Church of England, the curriculum majored on religious education. The established Church had returned to the history of education. Charitable and missionary.
The Royal Lancastrian Society (later the British and Foreign School Society) had a similar mission but was non-denominational, and less extensive.
Both sought to provide elementary education for the poor, and on a very limited budget. Similarly, they both used a monitorial teaching style. Older and more able pupils were taught with standardized repetitive exercises. And they in turn taught the younger and less able pupils. As a result one teacher could teach a class of hundreds of pupils.
The curriculum was basic but it was the first attempt at universal education. Access to elementary education rose from 58% in 1816 to 83% in 1835. But average attendance was for one year only. Their legacy is as faith schools within the state system.
Grammar Schools Act 1840
This Act represents the beginning of active State intervention in the history of education. Up until now education had been the preserve of the Church, religious charities, and philanthropic individuals.
Grammar schools were in crisis with too narrow a curriculum to cater for the needs of a growing manufacturing economy and Empire. The 1840 Act made it lawful to apply the income of grammar schools to purposes other than the teaching of classical languages, with the schoolmaster’s consent.
Now that grammar schools could teach new subjects, they could charge a growing and wealthy middle class for schooling in subjects of value such as English reading and writing, maths, science and languages.
It led to a new breed of fee charging grammar school. Sometimes founded by non-conformist religions (Methodist, Quakers), they had headmasters with high Victorian moral purpose. Academic exams were introduced. And, this being the age of railways, and Empire, they were boarding schools, preparing pupils for careers in administration and the Services.
Boarding and, especially, sport became the most important element of education at these schools. H.H. Almond, the headmaster at Loretto, famously listed the educational priorities at his school as “First character, second physique, third intelligence, fourth manners, fifth information”.
Public Schools Act 1868
The decline in standards and competitiveness of the nine leading independent Charity Schools (Eton, Charterhouse, Harrow, Rugby, Shrewsbury, Westminster and Winchester, St Paul’s and Merchant Taylors’) led to the Clarendon Commission report into their conditions and finances. The Act led to the reconstitution of the first seven of those schools. They were to have independent governing boards, independent of the Crown, clergy or government.
The Taunton Report 1868
The report published by the Taunton Commission which stratified educational need according to social class. It was to influence educational policy for nearly 100 years.
It divided parents into three “grades”, in effect, gentry, middle and working classes;
- The “first grade” who wished for their children to be educated up to and beyond the age of 18, and who had “no wish to displace the Classics from their present position in the forefront of English education”.
- The “second grade” who wished their children to be educated to the age of 16. These parents would “approve of a curriculum which included not only Latin, but also a thorough knowledge of those subjects which can be turned to practical use in business”. Meaning English, maths, science, and a modern language.
- The “third grade” who wished for their children to be educated to the age of 14. These parents belonged to “a class distinctly lower in the scale”, and who wanted a curriculum with no Classics but only reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The Endowed Schools Act 1869
Acting on the Taunton report of 1868 the Act established the Endowed Schools Commission. The Commission had the legal authority to change the terms of the endowments of individual schools to address the uneven distribution of (endowed) grammar schools throughout the country, and the paucity of education for girls.
It formalised the stratification of education into public schools (mostly boarding with a classical education, preparation for university), grammar schools (day schools to age 16), third grade schools sending children into employment at 14.
It also established the fee paying academic grammar school for middle classes. Which led to a growth in grammar schools under the auspices of Victorian principles of self-improvement.
Elementary Education Act 1870 (The Forster Act)
For the first time, the government mandated the provision of elementary education for children aged 5-13. Attendance was compulsory for boys and girls, aged 5-10, thereafter until attainment of the “educational standard”.
As stipulated by Taunton (1868) the curriculum was limited to the 3Rs (reading, writing, ‘rithmetic). The schools were all fee paying, with exceptions for qualifying “poor”.
Board Schools were to be built where current provision by Church and private schools was inadequate. Board schools were funded by the state, secular, and managed by locally elected school boards. By 1900 Board Schools accounted for half of all elementary schools. An unexpected consequence of this new school building initiative was that Church schools doubled in number (to 12,756) by 1895, capitalizing on the 50% maintenance grant. But they overstretched and ran out of money.
There were attendance exemptions for illness, children in employment, and those living too far from the school. But exemptions were revoked in 1880 and enforced by School Attendance Officers.
There was a prevailing sentiment that universal education was probably a good thing to keep Britain competitive in manufacturing. But this is still a time when the idea of education for the masses was controversial. If working classes could think, then they might consider their lives unsatisfactory and revolt.
Some Board Schools established higher age range classes; “higher tops” and “higher grade” schools. This was beyond their remit.
Education Act 1902 (The Balfour Act)
By the turn of the century, Church schools taught one third of elementary age children. The schools lacked cash, were “appallingly old and out of date” and “pigsty schools”. Trading cash for influence, control and “efficiency” the Balfour Act was highly controversial.
The Act established the Local Education Authorities (LEAs), with the ability to raise local taxes to fund schools and disbanded school boards. Church, board and endowed grammar schools now came under the supervision of one of 328 LEAs.
LEAs paid for the teachers, maintenance of all schools, but if the Church schools wanted a denominational curriculum, they had to pay for their own new buildings. The Act didn’t include non-conformist schools, only Catholic and Church of England.
The Act also led to the establishment of over 1000 new “municipal” or “county” secondary schools, including 349 girls’ schools.
The LEA was responsible for secular curriculum in all schools. The curriculum for the county and municipal schools now included science and languages. In 1904 the Board of Education mandated a four year subject-based course of English, geography, history, foreign language, mathematics, science, drawing, manual work, physical training, and, for girls, housewifery. For the first time in the history of education the broad curriculum was available to all.
The school leaving age had been raised to 11 in 1893, 12 in 1899 and then to 14 in 1921.
Education Act 1944 (The Butler Act)
In the spirit of post war consensus and the desire for social reform the Butler Act created an educational landscape that is recognizable today. State education was now free for all children.
The Act created separate primary schools (5-11) and secondary schools (11-15). LEAs also had to ensure nursery provision, disability provision and boarding. The compulsory school age was raised to 15, then 16 in 1973.
Secondary education, stratified in the Taunton Report (1868) became formalized in the Tripartite system consisting of grammar schools, secondary modern schools and secondary technical schools. Selective entry to grammar schools was to be based on the Scholarship Exam (later 11+). 1951 saw the introduction of national exams, the General Certificate of Education “O” and “A” Levels.
Another Church school compromise traded funding for control of admissions and the RE syllabus to give rise to Voluntary Controlled and Voluntary Aided Schools.
Some independent schools, particularly in the North of England, became Direct Grant schools, funded directly by central government to provide free places for many but still charge others. They became the most academically successful grammar schools.
The School Health Service was established, requiring the provision of school meals, free milk, medical and dental care. Now schools were responsible for more than just teaching.
Circular 10/65 (Comprehensive schools)
The Tripartite system was deeply unpopular and socially divisive. Some LEAs abandoned it in favour of comprehensive education in mixed ability schools. A 1965 government circular encouraged others (rather than compelled them) to do likewise. The result was a mixed implementation. Some LEAs retained the 11+ and grammar schools, most went fully comprehensive abandoning the 11+ and streaming.
By 1975 Direct Grant funding ended. Of those grammar schools, 100 schools became fully independent, 50 became comprehensive schools.
1967 Central Advisory Council For Education Report, Children and their Primary Schools (The Plowden Report)
The Plowden Report was important because it was a state of the nation report on education in England. It was optimistic and did much to promote new ways of teaching; Progressivism. It espoused humanism and child-centred approaches; “at the heart of the educational process lies the child”. In other words, individualized teaching and learning with teachers responsible for the curriculum.
If the 60s represents a high water mark for post war educational experimentation and idealism the 70s were a turning point in the history of education. Education policy starts to convulse from one political leaning to another with no clear direction or momentum. It started through the 70s and 80s when a popular consensus of declining standards and school discipline led to a new measurement and results oriented culture at the Department for Education.
Education Reform Act 1988 (The Baker Act)
The Act introduced a compulsory National Curriculum consisting of 14 subjects. Teachers were no longer in charge of the curriculum. But they were accountable for it through the introduction of compulsory assessments (SATS) at ages 7, 11, 14 and 16 (GCSE). League tables became the evidence of excellent teaching or otherwise. Independent schools and grammar schools came to dominate these tables raising questions and feelings of resentment.
The Baker Act marks the beginning of a long process to wrest control of schools away from LEAs and teachers to an alliance of parents and central government. The aim was to boost standards by creating a market in education of competing schools. Parents could choose which school to send their children. Schools with declining headcounts would have to improve or shut down. Market forces were to determine the history of education.
Schools were now to receive funding relating to the number of pupils at the school. Grant Maintained status gave a school more generous funding from central government if the school’s parent body voted to opt out of LEA control. The Act also saw the introduction of City Academies. These were state schools outside LEA control with autonomy in budget control and curriculum. They became prominent as academies and “academisation” in the subsequent Blair, Brown and Cameron administrations.
And so did “Specialist schools”, which were first established by the 1988 Act. With the aim of improving achievement, specialist status allowed state secondaries to specialise in an area of the curriculum. Though they still had to observe the National Curriculum. 88% of schools participated. Specialisms were one of; the arts, maths and computing, business and enterprise, music, engineering, science, humanities, sports, languages, or technology.
1992 Education (Schools) Act
The 1992 Act established Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education). Ofsted was to ensure compliance by inspecting schools on a six yearly cycle. It would publish its reports and it had the power to name and shame underperforming schools.
Together with the imposition of the National Curriculum, testing and league tables, the bureaucratic burden of Inspections starts the steady demise of morale in the teaching profession.
History repeats itself. The history of education repeats itself.
Today we find ourselves in a funding crisis. Who will pay for our schools? Central government? LEAs? The Church? Other religious denominations? Charities? Businesses? Wealthy individuals?
We find ourselves in a curriculum crisis. Child-centred or teacher-led? Fact-based or skills-based learning? Exams or course work? SATs or a broader curriculum?
We argue about who should be controlling our schools. Central Government? LEAs? Academy Trusts? Charities? Businesses? Teachers? Parents?
We hear daily and weekly reports about skills gaps, falling standards, grade inflation, declining social mobility, overstretched, understaffed, plummeting morale.
The education debate seems to focus on knocking independent schools, educational fads, silver bullet “one size fits all” solutions, and the whims of a here-today-gone-tomorrow education minister with a vanity project for their CV.
We’ve been here before. Many times.
The history of education shows that up to 50 years ago, education was principally geared towards getting a job. That’s no longer the case, it seems. If we could agree the purpose of education (and I return to the opening sentence of this article), then we can agree the curriculum to fulfill that purpose. Everything else follows. And there may be more than one purpose and there may be more than one curriculum. One size doesn’t fit all.
I’m sure there should be a call to arms here, a manifesto. For the moment, rather than admit to not being smart enough, I’ll sleep on it, let the dust settle, get on with being a parent.
History of Education; Further reading
I have skated over a great deal of detail. If I have piqued your interest in the history of education I can recommend three sources in particular;
- Gillard D (2011) Education in England: a brief history www.educationengland.org.uk
- David Turner (2015) The Old Boys: the decline and rise of the public school
- Leach AF (1915) The Schools of Medieval England