Education in England:
a brief history

Introduction, Contents

Chapter 1 600-1800
Chapter 2 1800-1860
Towards a state system
Chapter 3 1860-1900
Class divisions
Chapter 4 1900-1944
Taking shape
Chapter 5 1944-1951
Post-war reconstruction
Chapter 6 1951-1970
The wind of change
Chapter 7 1970-1979
Recession and disenchantment
Chapter 8 1979-1990
Thatcherism: marketisation
Chapter 9 1990-1997
John Major: more of the same
Chapter 10 1997-2007
The Blair decade
Chapter 11 2007-2010
Brown and Balls: mixed messages
Chapter 12 2010
What future for education in England?


Organisation of this chapter

600-1100 The earliest schools
St Augustine
Grammar schools, song schools
The Vikings and King Alfred
The Normans

1100-1500 Expansion and development
Church control of education
Independent schools
Growing public interest

1500-1600 Renaissance and Reformation
The English Reformation
The English Renaissance
Apprenticeships and chivalry
New types of school
Elizabethan England

1600-1800 The concept of universal education
Grammar schools
Dissenting Academies


Education in England: a brief history
Derek Gillard

copyright Derek Gillard 2011
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Chapter 1 : 600-1800


600-1100 The earliest schools

There were almost certainly schools in Britain during the Roman occupation, because towards the end of the first century Juvenal relates that eloquent Gauls were teaching Britons to plead causes and Thule was discussing the establishment of a Rhetoric School. But when the Romans left Britain, so did civilisation - at least for the next couple of centuries. As AF Leach (1915:1) puts it, 'whatever other institutions of Britain, if any, survived its conversion into England, churches and schools did not'.

St Augustine

So when St Augustine arrived in England in 597, schools were unknown. He needed priests to conduct church services and boys to sing in the choir. 'As there were no schools any more than there were churches in England, Augustine had to create both' (Leach 1915:3). He and his successors established two types of school: the grammar school to teach Latin to English priests, and the song school (which some cathedrals still have today) where the 'sons of gentlefolk' were trained to sing in cathedral choirs.

Thus the earliest schools in England - at least, those we know anything about - date from the arrival of St Augustine and Christianity around the end of the sixth century. It seems likely that the very first grammar school was established at Canterbury in 598, endowed - along with Augustine's church - by King Ethelbert, who was baptised in June 597:

It may be safely asserted then, that in this year, 598, as an adjunct to Christ Church Cathedral, or rather as part of it, and under the tuition of himself and the clerks who came with him and whom Ethelbert endowed, Augustine established the Grammar School which still flourishes under the name of the King's School, not from its original founder, Ethelbert, but from its re-founder, Henry VIII. (Leach 1915:3)
Similar schools began to be established in other parts of England. In his Ecclesiastical History the Venerable Bede, the eighth century Northumbrian monk, writes that in 604 Augustine ordained two bishops - Mellitus at St Paul's in London and Justus at Rochester in Kent. Leach (1915:6) argues that it is a 'perfectly fair inference' that associated schools were founded at the same time. Bede suggests that another school was founded in East Anglia - probably at Dunwich - in 631 by Sigberct, who presided over the kingdom of the East English, and Bishop Felix, a Burgundian who had come to England and been consecrated by Archbishop Honorius, one of the last survivors of Augustine's original band of missionaries.

Bede also records that in 634 a Song School was established at York, where James, the deacon who 'though an ecclesiastic, was also a saint ... acted as master to many in church chanting after the Roman or Canterbury fashion' (quoted in Leach 1915:6).

Grammar schools and song schools

Leach (1915:6-7) notes that grammar schools and song schools 'have often been confounded as if they were one school' but he argues that they were 'distinct foundations, completely differentiated in function as they were in their teaching, and generally in their government', though 'In small places they were sometimes united under one master'.

Song schools 'were in essence special or professional schools for those engaged in the actual performance of the services', whereas grammar schools 'gave a general education, as much needed by the statesman, the lawyer, the civil servant, and the clerk as by the priest or cleric' (Leach 1915:7).

Augustine's concept of education derived from the Roman and Hellenistic schools of rhetoric. It comprised the seven liberal arts and sciences - grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy - which were regarded as a preparation for the study of theology, law and medicine.

However, the only subject taught systematically in the grammar schools was Latin grammar and literature, because the aim of the schools was strictly vocational: to prepare pupils for entry to the Church. 'The conscious object of these early schools, attached to cathedrals and to monasteries, was to train intending priests and monks to conduct and understand the services of the Church, and to read the Bible and the writings of the Christian Fathers' (Williams 1961:128).

Thus 'grammar' at this time did not mean learning about the structure of language - that meaning did not develop until the middle ages. Rather, it was 'a preparation for reading, especially reading aloud, and was taken to involve comprehension and commentary, so that content was inseparable' (Williams 1961:129). This caused problems for the church because, while it was essential that Latin should be understood, there were concerns that students would read a wide range of Latin literature and 'pagan' philosophy. Thus it was that Pope Gregory wrote to Bishop Desiderius in Gaul (France):

A circumstance came to our notice, which cannot be mentioned without shame, namely that you, our brother, give lessons in grammar. This news caused us such annoyance and disgust that all our joy at the good we had heard earlier was turned to sorrow and distress, since the same lips cannot sing the praises of Jove and the praises of Christ. Consider yourself how serious and shocking it is that a bishop should pursue an activity unsuitable even for a pious layman. (quoted in Williams 1961:128)
Some idea of the curriculum of these early schools can be found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History. He notes that at Canterbury Theodore and Hadrian taught 'the rules of metric, astronomy and the computus as well as the works of the saints' (quoted in Williams 1961:129) and speaks of Tobias, Bishop of Rochester, who died in 726, as being 'a most learned man, for he was a pupil of Theodore and Hadrian, and so together with a knowledge of literature, ecclesiastical and general, Greek and Latin were as familiar to him as his native tongue' (quoted in Leach 1915:33).

Many schools were founded in the century after Augustine's arrival, including those at Dorchester in Oxfordshire (around 634), Winchester (648), Hexham (probably 678), Malmesbury in Wiltshire (possibly founded by Aldhelm, who died Bishop of Sherborne in 709), Lichfield, Hereford and Worcester.


In the eighth century the focus of development in English schools moved from Theodore and Aldhelm in the south to Bede and Alcuin in the north.

Alcuin, a Northumbrian, was the schoolmaster in York from 776. Under his leadership the school 'set a new standard of culture' (Fisher 1936:161). Indeed, Fisher argues that:

To the influence of this robust, studious and convivial Englishman we may fairly trace the legislation which defines the educational responsibilities of the church and the episcopal and monastic schools which resulted from it. (Fisher 1936:161)
Alcuin's school taught 'grammar, rhetoric, law, poetry, astronomy, natural history, arithmetic, geometry, music, and the Scriptures' (Williams 1961:129). On the face of it, this seems a pretty broad curriculum, but it should be remembered that everything was centred on the church:
Scripture was the central subject, and rhetoric teaching was mainly a study of verbal forms in the Bible. Grammar was the teaching of Latin, and versification was in the same context, though at times it extended to relate to poetry in the vernacular. Mathematics, including astronomy, was centred on the intricacies of the Church calendar, simple general exercises being an introduction to the all important 'computus' centred on the controversy about the date of Easter. Music and law were vocational studies for the services and administration of the Church, and the natural history, by contrast with the Aristotelians, was literary and anecdotal. (Williams 1961:129)
Alcuin himself described the curriculum of the York school under Ethelbert, his successor as schoolmaster:
There he ... moistened thirsty hearts with divers streams of teaching and varied dews of study; busily giving to some the arts of the science of grammar (grammaticae rationis artes), pouring into others the streams of the tongues of orators; these he polished on the whet-stone of law, those he taught to sing in Æonian chant, making others play on the flute of Castaly, and run with the lyre over the hills of Parnassus. But others, the said master made to know the harmony of heaven and the sun, the labours of the moon, the five belts of the sky, the seven planets, the laws of the fixed stars, their rising and setting, the movements of the air and the sun, the earth's quake, the nature of men, cattle, birds, and beasts, the different kinds of number and various (geometrical) figures: and he gave sure return to the festival of Easter; above all, revealing the mysteries of holy writ, for he opened the abysses of the old and rude law. (quoted in Leach 1915:58-59)
Alcuin left York in 782 when Charlemagne persuaded him to work for the Frankish court - to 'prescribe for the intellectual wants of a great empire fallen from civilisation to barbarism' (Fisher 1936:161).

The Vikings and King Alfred

The development of schools in England was interrupted by the long series of Viking invasions which began around 866. The Norsemen were pagans who 'loved war and women, wassail and song, pillage and slaughter' (Fisher 1936:177) and their raids caused 'immense havoc' (Fisher 1936:180).

The one part of England which successfully resisted Viking control was Wessex, where Alfred became king in 871 at the age of twenty-three.

A gloomy interval in the history of English education ensued after the death of Offa and the widespread devastation caused by the Viking invasions. When the curtain rises again, the scene has shifted from the North and the Midlands to the South, and centres in the great figure of Alfred. (Leach 1915:67)
There are many stories about Alfred (the burning of the cakes being the most famous) and it is difficult to separate fact from myth. He may have been educated by St Swithun at Winchester, or at Sherborne (Leach argues that the latter is more likely). He appears to have spent several years in Rome, where he learnt Latin. He translated Pope Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care from Latin into English and sent a copy to every cathedral in his kingdom. In the preface to this book, written around 893, he laments the decline of learning in England which he blames on the Danish invaders. The churches which had once been 'filled with treasures and books' had been 'all ravaged and burnt' (quoted in Leach 1915:73).

Alfred took 'delight in the songs and literature of his people' and showed 'concern for education' (Fisher 1936:183). His own children were taught English literature and Latin, and it was under his influence that England's system of schools began to be reconstructed. 'The influence and the example of Alfred in his insistence on the importance of education continued to be felt and followed in the reigns of his son and grandson, Edward the Elder and Athelstan' (Leach 1915:76).

Alfred drove the Norsemen out of Winchester, Southampton, London, Oxford, and Chichester, but the invasions continued for another century or so. In 1011 the Danes besieged Canterbury and captured Archbishop Elphege (or Alphege). He - and the monks who came out of the burning cathedral with him - were all murdered.

But the invaders weren't all bad. In 1016 Canute, who had previously become a Christian and married the widow of his predecessor Ethelred the Unready, became king of England. According to Herman, the historian of Bury St. Edmunds who wrote towards the end of the eleventh century, Canute was concerned about the education of poor boys:

whenever he went to any famous monastery or borough he sent there at his own expense boys to be taught for the clerical or monastic order, not only those whom he found among freemen but also the cleverer of the poor, and with his own hand in kingly munificence he also in his progress made some free. (quoted in Leach 1915:91-92)
Under Canute, England became part of a great Scandinavian empire until 1042.

Two other notable figures in English education during this period were Dunstan, born in 925, who abhorred the widespread practice of flogging and sought to protect the boy monks at Canterbury 'from excessive chastisement' (Leach 1915:81), and his pupil Ælfric, who wrote three educational works: the Anglo-Latin Grammar, Glossary and Colloquy (Dialogue).

The Normans

The next invasion was that of William the Conqueror and the Normans in 1066. According to Leach (1915:96), one of the worst effects of the Conquest was 'the foisting of the Italian adventurer Lanfranc into the See of Canterbury':

It was a misfortune for the school at Canterbury and elsewhere that this late converted monk became archbishop. For a determined effort to expel the monks from Canterbury and the other monastic cathedrals in England and to reinstate the seculars was frustrated by the now monkish Lanfranc. So the school, instead of being restored to its position as a part of the cathedral foundation, as at York and St. Paul's, where it was taught and governed by a resident member of the Chapter, was left to the care, necessarily intermittent, of the generally non-resident and roving archbishop, who was more often than not a busy statesman. (Leach 1915:98)
Indeed, Lanfranc seems to have been remarkably uninterested in schools or schoolboys. Of the 107 pages in his 'Constitutions', which were apparently accepted as a Rule for the whole order of Benedictine monks in England, just two and a half pages were about the boys, and even these 'imply no learning whatever beyond knowing the psalms and services by heart' (Leach 1915:100).

However, following the Norman conquest secular schools began to flourish and French replaced English as the vernacular medium for teaching Latin:

The main difference caused by the Conquest was the gradual substitution of Norman for English schoolmasters and the translation by the schoolboys of Latin no longer into English but into Norman-French, which, till the reign of Edward III, was the vernacular of the upper classes in the country, of the middle classes in the towns, and of the whole cultured and clerkly class. (Leach 1915:103)
Education was still largely about vocational training and most pupils were still intending monks or priests, though 'there was probably an occasional extension, and there are certainly some recorded cases of the education of young members of royal and noble families' (Williams 1961:129-130).

1100-1500 Expansion and development

Church control of education

By about 1100 all the cathedrals and collegiate churches had schools: the schoolmaster was one of their most important officers and teaching was one of their most important functions.

But new schools were springing up, not all of them provided by the churches: 'On the contrary, in every town of considerable population there was a demand for, and consequently a supply of schools' (Leach 1915:115).

Some schools - like those at Bedford, Christchurch and Waltham - were removed from monastic control and handed over to secular canons. Bury St. Edmund's School, for example, which had probably been founded as part of a collegiate church before Canute's time, was given an endowment at the end of the twelfth century to convert it into a 'free or partially free grammar school' (Leach 1915:119).

The monasteries fought back and tried to regain control of the schools. In Bristol, for example, the city grammar school was transferred from the governance of the seculars to the regulars on the foundation of Keynsham Abbey in 1171 (Leach 1915:128).

And what of the teaching in medieval England's schools? Leach (1915:136) says they 'gave no education fit to be called a liberal education'. And in his 1895 book Social England, Cambridge University historian Bass Mullinger, wrote:

We hear but little concerning schoolboy life in medieval times, but that little is generally unfavourable. ... The average attainments were limited to reading and writing, to which in the cathedral schools there were added chanting and an elementary knowledge of Latin. (quoted in Leach 1915:136)
However, the school curriculum was beginning to change. For younger pupils rhetoric became as important as grammar, while for older students the increasing availability of Aristotle's works led to a greater emphasis on logic.

Perhaps most importantly, while education was still seen as a Christian enterprise, the concept of a liberal education - a preparation for the specialised study of law, medicine, or theology - began to develop:

The concept of the Seven Liberal Arts (the trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, the quadrivium of music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy) goes back to at least the fifth century, but it was only now that it began to be realised with any adequacy, as new material from classical learning, and new attitudes towards it, flowed in. (Williams 1961:130)
And change was not limited to the schools: by the beginning of the 13th century universities were beginning to develop.



There is evidence of some teaching in Oxford as early as 1096. This developed rapidly after 1167, when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. In 1188 the historian Gerald of Wales visited Oxford to speak to the dons and two years later Emo of Friesland became the university's first overseas student.

By 1201, the university was led by a 'magister scolarum Oxonie' and in 1214 he was given the title of Chancellor. The masters were recognised as a universitas or corporation in 1231.

Rioting between 'town and gown' (the townspeople and the students) resulted in the establishment of primitive halls of residence which became the first Oxford colleges - University College was established in 1249, Balliol in 1260 and Merton in 1264. These early colleges were founded by bishops and catered exclusively for wealthy graduates.

Less than a century later, Oxford had achieved eminence above every other seat of learning, and won the praises of popes, kings and sages by virtue of its antiquity, curriculum, doctrine and privileges. In 1355, Edward III paid tribute to the University for its invaluable contribution to learning; he also commented on the services rendered to the state by distinguished Oxford graduates. (Oxford: A brief history of the University)

Some Oxford scholars, however, became tired of the hostility of the townspeople and in 1209 they moved to Cambridge. At first they lived in lodgings, then houses were hired as hostels with a Master in charge of the students. By 1226 the scholars had formed themselves into an organisation, represented by an official called a Chancellor.

They studied what we might now describe as an 'arts foundation course' in grammar, logic and rhetoric. Further studies - in arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy - led to the degrees of bachelor and master. There were no professors: the teaching was conducted by masters who had themselves undertaken the course and who had been approved or 'licensed' by their colleagues (the universitas). Thus the role of teachers began to be formalised: they were licensed rather than simply appointed, and university degrees were licences to teach. Some of the masters went on to advanced studies in divinity and law, and a few studied medicine.

In order to avoid abuse of the royal privileges which were conferred on scholars, steps were taken to identify and authenticate those who had gained degrees. The first step was enrolment with a licensed master - called 'matriculation' because the scholar's name had to appear on the master's 'matricula' or roll. The university itself later assumed this duty. Stages in a scholar's progress were marked by 'graduation' ceremonies, with the grades differentiated by variations in the gown, hood and cap. Reminders of these terms and practices survive to this day (University of Cambridge: a brief history).


The establishment of these university colleges was quickly copied around the country. New colleges or collegiate churches of secular canons, each with its schools of grammar and song, sprang up. Among the earliest were those of Howden in Yorkshire (1266), Glasney, now part of Penryn in Cornwall (1267), Lanchester (1283) and Chester-le-Street (1286).

From this time to the dissolution of colleges in 1548 scarcely a year passed without witnessing the foundation of a college at the university, or a collegiate church with its grammar school attached, generally in the native place of its founder. The only difference between the university college, with its church attached, and the collegiate church, with its schools of grammar and song attached, was that the latter were primarily for religious services and secondarily for education, and the former were primarily for education and secondarily for religious services. The collegiate church was ad orandum et studendum, the house of scholars at the university ad studendum et orandum. Both were indifferently spoken of as colleges. (Leach 1915:167)
The Black Death of 1349 and the two further plagues which followed in 1361 and 1367 profoundly affected the universities and schools. At Oxford no colleges were founded between Queen's in 1340 and New College in 1379. At Cambridge no new colleges were created between 1352, when Corpus Christi College was founded 'expressly to repair the ravages created by the plague of 1349' (Leach 1915:201), and 1439, when God's House (now Christ's College) was founded to restore the supply of grammar masters, the shortage of which had caused dozens of schools to close. The epidemics also severely reduced the number of scholars.

Independent schools

As we have seen, the control of the church over education was beginning to diminish during this period. (It was, of course, never removed entirely: indeed, religious provision of schools is still a significant - and growing - feature of education in England today).

There were a number of challenges for the church:

  • first, the development of philosophy, medicine and law, together with the needs of a developing secular society, removed parts of the curriculum from church supervision;
  • second, the new universities were determined to be independent 'corporate learned bodies deciding their own conditions for granting degrees and hence licences to teach' (Williams 1961:131);
  • and third, by the end of the 15th century the network of grammar and song schools had been joined by a number of 'independent' schools.
Benefactions to monasteries dwindled in the late 14th century, so wealthy benefactors or guilds began to establish 'chantries', each with its own priest, to celebrate masses for the repose of the benefactors' souls, and, in many cases, to conduct a school. The first of these chantry schools was probably the grammar school at Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, founded in 1384 by Katharine Lady Berkeley (Taylor 1977:142). Chantry schools were effectively independent of the church. (Nowadays the term 'independent school' indicates independence from the state).

More independent schools began to open, for 'ruling class boys' who paid fees, and to 'poor and needy scholars, of good character and well-conditioned, of gentlemanly habits, able for school, completely learned in reading, plain-song and old Donatus [Latin Grammar]' (unknown source quoted in Williams 1961:132).

Because they were independent, admission to these new schools was not restricted to one locality but was on a national basis. They drew increasingly on a single social class, combining the educational methods of the grammar schools and the social training of the chivalric system (of which more below). They developed into the 'public schools' (ie private or non-state schools) which still exist today. In view of their close connection with the colleges of the new universities, their development had a profound effect on the educational system as a whole.

Two of the earliest independent schools were Winchester and Eton.


Winchester College was founded by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor to Richard II. The charter of foundation was granted in 1382, the buildings were begun in 1387, and the first scholars entered the school in 1394. At the same time, William of Wykeham also founded New College Oxford, to provide for the further education of his seventy Winchester pupils (Winchester College: History).

Winchester's special significance was that, though connected with New College, it was a separate and distinct foundation for boys, 'a sovereign and independent corporation existing by and for itself, self-centred and self-governed' (Leach 1915:208).


Henry VI founded Eton College (pictured) in 1440, followed a year later by King's College Cambridge, which was to be supplied with scholars from Eton. The school was to be part of a large foundation which included a community of secular priests, ten of whom were Fellows, a pilgrimage church, and an almshouse. Provision was made for seventy scholars to receive free education (Eton College website).

Growing public interest

The growing interest of the laity in education at this time can be seen in the licences granted to two Trinity gilds in Oxfordshire to maintain schoolmasters, one at Deddington in 1446, and the other at Chipping Norton in 1451.

And the great schoolmaster William Wayneflete founded Magdalen College, 'and attached to it not one but two schools, one at his native place, Wainfleet, in Lincolnshire, in 1459, the other Magdalen College School, by the gates of the college at Oxford' (Leach 1915:270). At the latter he provided for a master to be paid 10 a year and an usher (his deputy) 5, 'to teach all comers freely and gratis without exaction of anything' (quoted in Leach 1915:270).

1500-1600 Renaissance and Reformation

Two forces reshaped Europe during this period.

The Renaissance (literally 'rebirth') was a cultural movement which began in Italy in the 14th century and spread across the continent during the following three hundred years. It is mainly thought of in relation to artistic endeavours - the development of linear perspective in painting, for example - but it also encompassed a resurgence of learning from classical sources and more general 'humanist' educational reform based on reasoning and empirical evidence. Pico della Mirandola's famous public discourse of 1486, De hominis dignitate (Oration on the Dignity of Man), has been seen as the 'Manifesto of the Renaissance'.

The Reformation, which established Protestantism as a branch of Christianity, was prompted by discontent at the perceived worldliness of the Papacy and the financial demands it made. As early as the 14th century the Lollards, led by John Wycliffe, and the Hussites, followers of the Czech reformer Jan Hus, began to attack the hierarchical and legalistic structure of the church. But the Reformation is usually reckoned as beginning in 1517, when Martin Luther famously protested at church corruption and the selling of indulgences. The movement against Rome spread across Europe over the next two centuries.

The English Reformation

In England, the Reformation was a much more localised affair, which centred on King Henry VIII's disputes with Rome over the status of his various marriages.

In fact, at first Henry (pictured - from the portrait by Hans Holbein) opposed the reforming movement and dedicated his book Assertio Septum Sacramentorum (Defence of the Seven Sacraments) to Pope Leo X, who rewarded him in 1521 with the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith).

But by 1527 Henry wanted his marriage to Catherine of Aragon ended so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. He was also anxious to extend the sovereignty of central government. So for both political and personal reasons he overthrew Papal power and dissolved the monasteries.

Henry was born in 1491. Under the direction of John Skelton, Bernard Andre and others, he received the best grammar school, song school and university education of the day. He studied Latin, literature, rhetoric, dialectic, music, French, Italian and Spanish. He became king at the age of 19 in 1509.

He was undoubtedly a remarkable man. Leach could hardly be more fulsome in praise of him:

Henry VIII was, perhaps, the most highly educated person for his time who ever sat on the throne of England. ... Hence his zeal for learning and for education. No king ever showed more desire to promote learning and learned men, and none was more impressed and desirous of impressing on others the advantages, or did more for the advancement of education. Whether in the statutes of the realm or in the ordinances and statutes of the many foundations of his time, he was never tired of expatiating on the necessity of education and the benefit that educated men were to church and commonwealth. (Leach 1915:277)
Leach estimates that at the start of Henry's reign England probably had about 400 schools for a population of 2.25 million, or one school for every 5,625 people (Leach 1915:331). He does, however, warn that 'It is difficult to arrive at a precise estimate of the proportion of schools to population, because, while it is hard to ascertain the exact number of schools, it is even harder, and perhaps impossible, to ascertain the population of England at any given date in the Middle Ages' (Leach 1915:329).

Under Henry's leadership, the English Reformation affected education in a number of ways. Some of the old foundation schools were closed and an equal number of new ones were opened. Many older schools were revived, expanded, or converted into free schools. The grammar school remained central to the system, but there was an important change in its sponsorship. Whereas the typical medieval grammar school had belonged to the church, the new grammar schools were mostly private foundations 'supervised in variable degree by Church and State' (Williams 1961:132).

The abolition of the greater monasteries in 1540 resulted in the refoundation of twelve grammar schools as part of the 'new foundation' cathedrals. Here the monks, who had turned out the canons 600 years earlier, were now turned out to make room for canons. 'In all the new cathedrals established in 1541 ... a grammar school, with a master and usher paid on the highest scale of the day, was included' (Leach 1915:312).

In the Statutes of the refounded school at Canterbury, the last chapter concerned 'The Method of Teaching'. It provided for six classes, three under the usher and three under the head master:

The lower books were Cato, Æsop and Familiar Colloquies. In Form III, Terence and Mantuanus' Eclogues; in the Fourth Form, they began to practise writing Latin letters; not until the Fifth Form did they begin to write Latin verses, and polished themes and translated poets and historians. In the Sixth Form, they read Erasmus's Copia Verborum and made 'varyings', that is, turned sentences of Latin from the oratio obliqua to the oratio directa, and from one tense and mood to another, 'so as to acquire the faculty of speaking Latin as well as is possible for boys'. (Leach 1915:316)
These refounded schools would provide 'the greater part of the education of England till the eighteenth century' (Leach 1915:316).

Another significant outcome of the Reformation was the translation of the Latin Bible into the vernacular. In 1535 Henry VIII's Vicar-General and chief adviser Thomas Cromwell ordered that copies of William Tyndale's new English Bible were to be placed in every parish church.

Parliament was clearly unhappy with this decision, because in 1543 (three years after Cromwell had fallen from grace and been executed) it passed an Act which banned artisans, husbandmen, labourers, servants and almost all women from reading or discussing the Bible.

The prohibition proved impossible to enforce. Indeed, the brief availability of the English Bible had already encouraged many to learn to read and had made them think about the nature of society and the church. 'This was indeed a cultural revolution of unprecedented proportions, and one whose consequences stretched far beyond the period of the Reformation and the English Revolution' (Chitty 2007:14).

The English Renaissance

The Renaissance came relatively late to England. It is generally viewed as being a feature of the Elizabethan period in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, with writers like William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Sir Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Sir Philip Sidney and John Milton, architects such as Inigo Jones, and composers Thomas Tallis, John Taverner and William Byrd.

However, while the Reformation resulted in changes to the structure of the English school system, the Renaissance appears to have had little effect on the curriculum. As Williams (1961:132) puts it, 'while the schools were reorganised by the Reformation their teaching was not redirected by the Renaissance'.

Greek and sometimes Hebrew were added to the main Latin curriculum (to assist correct understanding of the scriptures), and there was more study of literature. But the education provided by the grammar schools - and by the universities - remained 'rigid and narrow' (Williams 1961:132). Thus:

The major achievements of the Renaissance, in the vernacular literatures, in geographical discovery, in new painting and music, in the new spirit in philosophy and physical inquiry, in changing attitudes to the individual, had little effect on the standard forms of general education. (Williams 1961:133)
However, the Renaissance did have the effect of extending education to the laity, while Henry's reforms reduced the control of the monks:
... as long as the clergy was sterilized, and yet monopolized a large and ever-increasing proportion of the territory and wealth of the world, progress was checked. The quiet thinker was lured into the cloister, the progressive thinker was under a ban, originality was a crime, and repression prevailed especially in the region, in which it is most dangerous, of religion and philosophy. In Italy, Spain, Portugal, Flanders, the most populous and naturally the richest countries, the Renaissance was strangled almost in its cradle by monasticism in its most formidable development, the Inquisition: while its growth was stunted in France and Germany by the prolonged series of wars and massacres between the upholders of monasticism and the friends of free thought. Its full development was reserved for England and Scotland, where the monasteries, and with them clerical celibacy, were suddenly and wholly swept away. (Leach 1915:331-2)
Williams (1961:133) argues that the period was a complex one, but with three clear trends: 'the increase in vernacular teaching, the failure of the traditional institutions to adapt either to a changing economy or to an expanding culture, and the passing of most of the leading schools from sponsorship by a national institution to private benefaction.

The main educational theories of the Renaissance - especially the ideal of the scholar-courtier - had little effect on English schools. In fact, Williams argues that they had 'the paradoxical effect of reducing the status of schools' in favour of an alternative pattern, 'drawing in part on the chivalric tradition, of education at home through a private tutor' (Williams 1961:133), a preference which, for many families, would last well into the nineteenth century.

Apprenticeships and chivalry

As early as the 16th century - and more so in the 17th - there was much criticism of the limited curriculum of the grammar schools, based as it was on the requirements of the universities and the learned professions. In particular, it no longer suited the needs of the upper classes, who wanted their sons trained for posts at Court, for diplomacy and for higher appointments in the army.

As a result, two other types of educational provision became popular with the upper classes: apprenticeships in crafts and trades, which were standardised in the Elizabethan Statute of Artificers in 1562; and the chivalry system, which enabled noble families to send their young sons to be pages at great houses and undergo a course of training for knighthood. Williams (1961:131) points out that:

The existence of these two systems, alongside the academic system, reminds us of the determining effect on education of the actual social structure. The labouring poor were largely left out of account, although there are notable cases of individual boys getting a complete education, through school and university, by outstanding promise and merit. For the rest, education was organised in general relation to a firm structure of inherited and destined status and condition: the craft apprentices, the future knights, the future clerisy.

Elsewhere in Europe - in France and in the German and Scandinavian states - knightly or courtly academies were being founded to give instruction to young nobles, not only in horsemanship and the use of arms, but also in modern languages, history and geography, and in the application of mathematics to military and civil engineering.

A proposal for the establishment of a school on these lines in England was made by Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1572, and in the following century Cowley, Locke, Defoe and other writers urged the setting up of such schools. In the 17th century England's upper classes sent their sons to private tutors, and then to the continental knightly or courtly academies. The development of this type of school designed for the governing class 'was one of a number of movements which reflected the maladjustment between the classical grammar schools and the needs of contemporary life' (Spens 1938:10).

New types of school

Although the traditional grammar school changed little, there were significant developments in the education of younger children. The number of schools increased and there was 'a bewildering variety of forms, ranging from instruction by priests to private adventure schools, often as a sideline to shopkeeping and trade' (Williams 1961:133).

Many of the 'petties' or 'ABCs' were proper schools, with links to grammar schools. Indeed, in a few cases, they virtually took over the running of grammar schools whose old endowments had shrunk.

Another type of school which began to develop was the 'writing school'. The aim of these schools was to meet the secular needs of a society in which trade was now expanding rapidly and whose administration was becoming more complex. They taught 'scrivener's English and the casting of accounts' (Williams 1961:133) and in some cases this teaching was adopted by the grammar schools.

Elizabethan England

Elizabeth I ruled from 1558 to 1603. It was a period of extraordinary expansion: Elizabethan England 'took the world by surprise' - in navigation, commerce, colonisation, poetry, drama, philosophy and science. Much of this was due to 'the immense extension of lay initiative and effort' in every area of national life - 'not least in the sphere of education and the schools' (Leach 1915:332).

One of the most notable educationists of the period was Roger Ascham (1515-1568), the teacher of Queen Elizabeth. He bemoaned the lack of status accorded to education:

It is pitie, that commonlie, more care is had, yea and that emonges verie wise men, to finde out rather a cunnynge man for their horse, than a cunnyng man for their children. To the one they will gladlie giue a stipend of 200 crounes by yeare, and loth to offer to the other 200 shillinges. God suffereth them, to haue, tame, and well ordered horse, but wilde and vnfortunate children. (The Scholemaster, quoted in Nunes, undated)
Ascham stressed the importance of play in education. 'The Scholehouse should be in deede, as it is called by name, the house of playe and pleasure, and not of feare and bondage.' He set up his own school, funded by Richard Sackville.

1600-1800 The concept of universal education

In the 17th and 18th centuries there were important developments in educational theory and the school curriculum began to take on a form we would recognise today.

The modern concept of a common education emerged in Europe after the Reformation amid quarrels between learned groups of Protestants, and between the Protestants and the established monastic orders.


Comenius (1592-1670) (pictured: painting by Rembrandt), a Czech teacher, scientist, educator and writer, was one of the earliest champions of universal education, a concept he developed in his 1632 book Didactica magna. He argued that teachers and learners should leave the divisive sects and unite in common institutions of learning.

He went on to develop the idea of human learning as a progression from youth to maturity and from elementary to advanced knowledge. 'Nothing should be taught to the young', he wrote, 'unless it is not only permitted, but actually demanded by their age and mental strength' (Comenius 1632, quoted in Nunes, undated). 'These three elements of commonality, community and progression have characterised most education systems developed since' (Benn and Chitty 1996:1).

Comenius stressed the educational importance of the first six years of a child's life and developed the idea of teaching children of five or six 'without any tediousnesse to reade and write, as it were in a continuall course of play and pastime' (Informatorium der Mutterschul, Leszno, 1633, quoted in Hadow 1933:24).

In 1640, the House of Commons invited Comenius to England to establish and participate in an agency for the promotion of learning. It was intended that by-products of this would be the publication of 'universal' books and the setting up of schools for boys and girls. At the start of the Civil War in 1642 Comenius left England, but the plan was furthered by Samuel Hartlib with the backing of Oliver Cromwell.

There was much lively debate about the nature and purpose of education at this time. In his Ephemerides (miscellaneous jottings written between 1634 and 1660), Hartlib frequently mentions Comenius and other philosophers:

These 3 (Pell, Fundanius, Comenius) are very fit to bee imploied about the Reformation of Learning. The one urges mainly a perfect enumeration of all things. The other is all for that which hase an evident use in vita humana. The third is all for methodizing and contracting cutting of all verbosities and impertinencies whatsoever. These three being all reduced into one must needes make up a compleat direction. (Hartlib 1639)
Hartlib was fascinated with the idea of developing a 'pansophy' - an encyclopaedia embracing the whole of human knowledge - and promulgated some surprisingly modern ideas: 'A great fault in teaching [is] that children are not made to learne themselves but are always taught' (Hartlib 1639).

The ideas of Ascham and Comenius regarding the importance of a suitable education for young children - especially the use of play - were gaining ground. In 1647 William Petty, Physician-General in Cromwell's army in Ireland, wrote:

We see Children do delight in Drums, Pipes, Fiddles, Guns made of Elder sticks, and bellowes noses, piped Keys, etc., painting Flags and Ensigns with Elder-berries and Corn poppy, making ships with Paper, and setting even Nut-shells a swimming, handling the tooles of workmen as soon as they turne their backs, and trying to worke themselves. (quoted in Nunes, undated)
'This seems to be one of the first descriptions of children playing, a topic previously not thought worthy of description' (Nunes, undated).

Grammar schools

Meanwhile, the grammar schools, with their narrow curriculum consisting of little more than Greek and Latin, were unable (or unwilling) to meet the new demands for courses of training and education fitting boys for the life of the period.

After the execution of Charles I in 1649, the period of the Commonwealth (1649-1660) saw many proposals made for modifying the traditional courses in schools and universities. Unfortunately, following the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 there was 'a virtual abandonment of the interventionist role of the state in education provision' (Chitty 2007:9). The liberal movement was checked and the endowed grammar schools tended to become even more conservative than before.

The policy of ecclesiastical uniformity adopted after 1660 further reinforced the inertia of the grammar schools. As a result, many youths were forced to travel to the continent for 'a training foreign both in aims and in means' (Spens 1938:11).

The growing dissatisfaction with the traditional curriculum was well expressed in Locke's Some Thoughts concerning Education (1693) in which he stressed the importance of a broader intellectual training, moral development and physical hardening (Spens 1938:13).

The grammar schools of the period can be categorised in three groups:

  • the nine leading schools, seven of them boarding institutions, maintained the traditional curriculum of the classics and mostly served 'the aristocracy and the squirearchy' (Williams 1961:134) on a national basis;
  • most of the endowed grammar schools served their immediate localities and had a reasonably broad social base, but they, too, stuck mainly to the old curriculum;
  • the grammar schools which changed most significantly were those situated in the larger cities, serving the families of merchants and tradesmen. During the 18th century their social base widened and their curriculum developed, particularly in mathematics and the natural sciences.

Dissenting Academies

In the universities - notably at Oxford and Cambridge - there was a scandalous decline in teaching standards in the 17th century, though there was some 'serious development in mathematics and the sciences' (Williams 1961:134). The proportion of students from poorer families - sons of farmers, craftsmen, small tradesmen - fell, though it was still quite substantial.

The most significant change in this period, however, was that the universities began to lose their monopoly over professional training. They still educated most of the clergy, but after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 they began to discriminate against Nonconformists.

As a result, new vocational academies began to open at a remarkable rate, preparing students for the law and medicine, commerce, engineering, the arts and the armed services. These 'Dissenting' or 'Nonconformist' Academies, serving 'a different class' (Williams 1961:133) and offering teaching at a higher secondary or university level, varied considerably in quality, but in the best 'a new definition of the content of a general education was worked out and put into practice' (Williams 1961:134).

The Academies were established in considerable numbers from 1670 onwards, and while at first they were intended for the education of ministers of religion, they began to take in many lay pupils. They often provided a wide curriculum, including (in addition to the traditional Greek and Latin), English, modern languages, mathematics and a certain amount of natural science, principally physics. They were far less insular than the grammar schools and were influenced indirectly by educational developments in Scotland, Holland, Germany and the Protestant cantons of Switzerland (Spens 1938:12).

By the end of the 17th century there was much argument between the 'ancients' and 'moderns' over the changes that were gradually taking place in the curriculum, and an increasing demand for 'useful studies' (Spens 1938:12).


By the beginning of the 18th century, then, the curriculum was beginning to take on its modern form, with the addition of mathematics, geography, modern languages, and, crucially, the physical sciences.

For most children, however, education in England continued to be a 'haphazard system of parish and private adventure schools' (Williams 1961:134), with preparatory schools serving the academies and older foundations.

But increasing urbanisation now began to create new problems which few seemed very keen to to do anything about.

The first significant attempt to meet the needs of children in the growing towns and cities was that of the Charity School movement, which began to develop around the end of the 17th century. This proved to be something of a mixed blessing, however, because the main aim of the Charity Schools was 'the moral rescue as opposed to the moral instruction of the poor' (Williams 1961:135) and because they established the notion that elementary education was that appropriate to a particular social class.

There were many who didn't approve of the idea of educating the masses at all: 'proponents of liberal political economy objected to all forms of education for the poor - and particularly Charity Schools - as dangerous and misconceived prototypes of benevolence' (Chitty 2007:14). Too much schooling, they believed, 'would simply make the working poor discontented with their lot' (Chitty 2004:4).

It was the Industrial Revolution, which gathered pace in the last quarter of the 18th century, which finally spurred the state into providing a national education system, because industry 'required much more than limited reading skills acquired through moral catechism' (Benn and Chitty 1996:1). However, progress in establishing a public education system would prove to be painfully slow.


Benn C and Chitty C (1996) Thirty years on: is comprehensive education alive and well or struggling to survive? London: David Fulton Publishers

Chitty C (2004) Education Policy in Britain Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Chitty C (2007) Eugenics, race and intelligence in education London: Continuum

Fisher HAL (1936) A History of Europe London: Edward Arnold and Co

Hadow (1933) Infant and Nursery Schools Report of the Consultative Committee London: HMSO

Hartlib S (1639) Ephemerides (unpublished)

Leach AF (1915) The Schools of Medieval England London: Methuen & Co. Ltd

Nunes A (undated) From Plato to Plowden

Spens (1938) Secondary Education with Special Reference to Grammar Schools and Technical High Schools Report of the Consultative Committee London: HMSO

Taylor (1977) A New Partnership for Our Schools Report of the Committee of Enquiry London: HMSO

Williams R (1961) The Long Revolution London: Chatto and Windus

Introduction | Chapter 2