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?

Chapter 13 2010-2015
Gove v The Blob
this is a draft of a chapter which will form part of the revised version currently in preparation


Organisation of this chapter

Three classes - three commissions
1864 Clarendon Report
1868 Public Schools Act
1868 Taunton Report
1869 Endowed Schools Act
1861 Newcastle Report
1870 Elementary Education Act
   Summary of the Act
   Commentary on the Act
   The church problem

Further progress
1880 Elementary Education Act
1891 Elementary Education Act
1899 Board of Education Act

Content and structures
1862 Revised Code
Relaxing the Code
Infant schools
Higher Grade Schools
1881-4 Royal Commission on Technical Instruction
1888 Cross Commission on Elementary Education
1895 Bryce Commission on Secondary Education
Girls' education

Special educational needs
Provision for
- the deaf and blind
- the physically and mentally handicapped
- defective and epileptic children

Higher education
1862 Oxford University Act
1871 Universities Tests Act

Other legislation
1868 Endowed Schools Act
1873 Elementary Education Act
1873 Endowed Schools Act
1874 Endowed Schools Act
1876 Elementary Education Act
1879 Elementary Education (Industrial Schools) Act
1888 Local Government Act
1889 Welsh Intermediate Education Act
1889 Technical Instruction Act
1892 Technical and Industrial Institutions Act

The purposes of education
Social class
A common education for all


Education in England: a brief history
Derek Gillard

copyright Derek Gillard 2011
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Chapter 3 : 1860-1900

Class divisions

Three classes - three commissions

Unlike the United States, which by the 1830s was establishing a public school system based on a common education for all its citizens, England, as we have seen, had allowed a divided school system to develop in line with its class structure.

Regrettably, this class-based system was further exacerbated by three national education commissions, whose reports - and the Acts which followed them - each related to provision for a particular social class:

1864 Clarendon Report

The Royal Commission on the Public Schools was set up in 1861 'to inquire into the Revenue and Management of Certain Colleges and Schools and the studies pursued and instruction given there'. Its report made recommendations relating to the government, management and curriculum of the nine ancient foundations - Eton, Winchester, Westminster, Charterhouse, St Paul's, Merchant Taylors', Harrow, Rugby and Shrewsbury. It effectively established these as a separate class of 'public schools' and recommended that the curriculum should consist of classics, mathematics, a modern language, two natural sciences, history, geography, drawing, and music.

The Commission set out the powers and responsibilities of the governing bodies and head masters of the schools.

The governors' powers were to include:

The management of the property of the school and of its revenues, from whatever source derived, the control of its expenditure, the appointment and dismissal of the Head Master, the regulation of the boarding houses, of fees and charges, of Masters' stipends, of the terms of admission to the school, and of the times and length of the vacations; the supervision of the general treatment of the boys, and all arrangements bearing on the sanitary condition of the school. (Clarendon page 6, quoted in Taylor 1977:147)
Regarding the head masters' responsibility for discipline and teaching, the Commission said:
the Head Master should be as far as possible unfettered. Details ... such as the division of classes, the school hours and school books, the holidays and half-holidays during the school terms, belong properly to him ... and the appointment and dismissal of Assistant Masters, the measures necessary for maintaining discipline, and the general direction of the course and methods, which it is his duty to conduct and his business to understand thoroughly, had better be left in his hands. (Clarendon page 6, quoted in Taylor 1977:147)
However, the Commission added an important qualification:
'The introduction of a new branch of study, or the suppression of one already established, and the relative degrees of weight to be assigned to different branches, are matters respecting which a better judgement is likely to be formed by such a body of Governors as we have suggested, men conversant with the requirements of public and professional life and acquainted with the general progress of science and literature, than by a single person, however able and accomplished, whose views may be more circumscribed and whose mind is liable to be unduly pressed by difficulties of detail. What should be taught, and what importance should be given to each subject are therefore questions for the Governing Body; how to teach is a question for the Head Master. (Clarendon page 6, quoted in Taylor 1977:147)

1868 Public Schools Act

The Clarendon Report's proposals formed the basis for the Public Schools Act 1868 (31 July 1868), which did away with many of the old foundation statutes and instituted new governing bodies for the schools, 'with a view to promote their greater Efficiency, and to carry into effect the main Objects of the Founders thereof'. (Incidentally, the Act applied only to seven of the nine schools named above - St Paul's and Merchant Taylors' are not mentioned).

Section 12 of the Act empowered the new governors to make decisions relating to:

  • admissions to the school;
  • provision of board and lodging;
  • fees and charges;
  • chapel services and attendance;
  • term and holiday dates;
  • sanitary conditions;
  • new branches of study;
  • employment of masters;
  • facilities for boys whose parents wished to withdraw them from religious instruction;
  • provision of places for non-boarders; and
  • the powers of the head master.
It provided for the appointment of a number of named 'Special Commissioners' (15-19) who were empowered to oversee the work of the schools and to make statutes and regulations if the governing bodies failed to do so.

1868 Taunton Report

In 1864 the Schools Inquiry Commission, under the chairmanship of Lord Taunton, was appointed to inquire into the education in secondary schools as a whole: that is, all those schools which lay between the nine great public schools covered by the Clarendon Commission and 'the education of boys and girls of the labouring class' which had been dealt with by the Newcastle Commission (of which more below). Its brief was 'to consider and report what measures (if any) are required for the improvement of such education, having especial regard to all endowments applicable or which can rightly be made applicable thereto'.

The Commissioners investigated 782 grammar schools, plus some proprietary and private schools. They found that provision of secondary education was poor and unevenly distributed. Two thirds of English towns had no secondary schools of any kind and in the remaining third 'there were marked differences of quality' (Williams 1961:138). There seemed to be no clear conception of the purpose of secondary education, nor was there any appropriate differentiation of courses adapted to the needs of pupils who left school at different ages.

The Commissioners recommended the establishment of a national system of secondary education based on the existing endowed schools. Their report clearly illustrated the accepted class divisions in English society at the time. It envisaged three grades of secondary education in separate schools:

  • first-grade schools with a leaving age of 18 or 19 would provide a 'liberal education' - including Latin and Greek - to prepare upper and upper-middle class boys for the universities and the older professions;
  • second-grade schools with a leaving age of 16 or 17 would teach two modern languages besides Latin to prepare middle class boys for the army, the newer professions and departments of the Civil Service; and
  • third-grade schools with a leaving age of 14 or 15 would teach the elements of French and Latin to lower middle class boys, who would be expected to become 'small tenant farmers, small tradesmen, and superior artisans'. (The Commissioners treated these schools as secondary schools because the Elementary School Code of 1860 had fixed the leaving age for elementary schools at 12).
Movement up a grade might be possible for a few, and if links could be established between third grade secondary schools and elementary schools, some sons of labourers might be able to go on to secondary education.
It is clear from these recommendations that secondary schools were still regarded as designed primarily for the middle class, and that public opinion had not yet come to realise the value of physical and chemical science for the working classes nor the possibility that farmers' sons could profit by a scientific education with an agricultural bias. (Hadow 1923:20)
The Commissioners argued that no curriculum could be complete without natural science, and they recommended that a start should be made with the outlines of physical geography, which 'requires no apparatus but good maps' (Schools Inquiry Commission Report page 35).

The Commissioners were also profoundly concerned about the provision of education for girls - there were only thirteen girls' secondary schools in the whole of England - and they dealt with the matter in Volume 1 Chapter 6 of their Report. They were not impressed by what they found: 'It cannot be denied that the picture brought before us of the state of Middle Class Female Education is, on the whole, unfavourable.'

Want of thoroughness and foundation; want of system; slovenliness and showy superficiality; inattention to rudiments; undue time given to accomplishments, and those not taught intelligently or in any scientific manner; want of organisation - these may sufficiently indicate the character of the complaints we have received, in their most general aspect.
  • Read the Schools Inquiry Commission's report on Girls' Schools.

    1869 Endowed Schools Act

    The resulting 1869 Endowed Schools Act (2 August 1869) made clear that its provisions did not apply to the seven schools named in the 1868 Public Schools Act, but to all other schools 'wholly or partly maintained by means of any endowment' (Section 6).

    It created the Endowed Schools Commission and gave its members considerable powers and duties. They were to draw up new schemes of government for the endowed schools and were to extend the benefits of endowments to girls 'as far as conveniently may be' (12). Parents were to be given the right to withdraw their children from religious worship or instruction and to make a complaint in the case of a teacher who 'teaches systematically and persistently any particular religious doctrine' in other lessons of the curriculum (15).

    The Endowed Schools Commission was merged into the Charity Commission in 1874.

    (See also the 1868 Endowed Schools Act: details below in Other legislation).

    1861 Newcastle Report

    The Royal Commission on the state of popular education in England, under the chairmanship of the Duke of Newcastle, was appointed in 1858 'To inquire into the state of public education in England and to consider and report what measures, if any, are required for the extension of sound and cheap elementary instruction to all classes of the people.'

    The Commission published its six volume report in 1861. The following extracts are from The Royal Commission on the state of popular education in England, Parliamentary Papers, 1861, XXI. p. 293-328; as reprinted in Young and Hancock 1956 p. 891-97.

    The Commission noted that

    The whole population of England and Wales, as estimated by the Registrar-General in the summer of 1858, amounted to 19,523,103. The number of children whose names ought, at the same date, to have been on the school books, in order that all might receive some education, was 2,655,767. The number we found to be actually on the books was 2,535,462, thus leaving 120,305 children without any school instruction whatever. The proportion, therefore, of scholars in week-day schools of all kinds to the entire population was 1 in 7.7 or 12.99 per cent. Of these 321,768 are estimated to have been above the condition of such as are commonly comprehended in the expression 'poorer classes', and hence are beyond the range of our present inquiry. Deducting these from the whole number of children on the books of some school, we find that 2,213,694 children belonging to the poorer classes were, when our statistics were collected and compiled, receiving elementary instruction in day schools. Looking, therefore, at mere numbers as indicating the state of popular education in England and Wales, the proportion of children receiving instruction to the whole population is, in our opinion, nearly as high as can be reasonably expected. In Prussia, where it is compulsory, 1 in 6.27; in England and Wales it is, as we have seen, 1 in 7.7; in Holland it is 1 in 8.11; in France it is 1 in 9.0. (Young and Hancock 1956:892)
    But it went on to warn:
    We are bound to observe, however, that a very delusive estimate of the state of education must result from confining attention to the mere amount of numbers under day school instruction. We have seen that less than three years ago there were in elementary day schools 2,213,694 children of the poorer classes. But of this number, 573,536 were attending private schools, which, as our evidence uniformly shows, are, for the most part, inferior as schools for the poor, and ill-calculated to give to the children an education which shall be serviceable to them in after-life. Of the 1,549,312 children whose names are on the books of public elementary day schools belonging to the religious denominations, only 19.3 per cent were in their 12th year or upwards, and only that proportion, therefore, can be regarded as educated up to the standard suited to their stations. As many as 786,202 attend for less than 100 days in the year and can therefore hardly receive a serviceable amount of education, while our evidence goes to prove that a large proportion, even of those whose attendance is more regular, fail in obtaining it on account of inefficient teaching. Much, therefore, still remains to be done to bring up the state of elementary education in England and Wales to the degree of usefulness which we all regard as attainable and desirable. (Young and Hancock 1956:892-3)
    The Report was also critical of the quality of education provided:
    We have seen overwhelming evidence from Her Majesty's Inspectors, to the effect that not more than one fourth of the children receive a good education. So great a failure in the teaching demanded the closest investigation; and as the result of it we have been obliged to come to the conclusion that the instruction given is commonly both too ambitious and too superficial in its character, that (except in the very best schools) it has been too exclusively adapted to the elder scholars to the neglect of the younger ones, and that it often omits to secure a thorough grounding in the simplest but most essential parts of instruction. We have shown that the present system has never completely met this serious difficulty in elementary teaching; that inspection looks chiefly to the upper classes and to the general condition of the school, and cannot profess to examine carefully individual scholars; and that a main object of the schools is defeated in respect of every child who, having attended for a considerable time, leaves without the power of reading, writing, and cyphering in an intelligent manner. (Young and Hancock 1956:893)
    There was considerable disagreement between the Commissioners over the funding of education, with some believing that 'the interference of Government with education is objectionable on political and religious grounds' (Young and Hancock 1956:894). However, they noted that 'all the principal nations of Europe, and the United States of America, as well as British North America, have felt it necessary to provide for the education of the people by public taxation' (Young and Hancock 1956:894-5), and they proceeded to:
    propose means by which, in the first place, the present system may be made applicable to the poorer no less than the richer districts throughout the whole country; secondly, by which the present expenditure may be controlled and regulated; thirdly, by which the complication of business in the office may be checked; fourthly, by which greater local activity and interest in education may be encouraged; fifthly, by which the general attainment of a greater degree of elementary knowledge may be secured than is acquired at present ... (Young and Hancock 1956:897)
    The Commissioners commented that infant schools for children up to the age of seven were 'of great utility': they were places of security as well as of education, since they were the only means of keeping children of poor families off the streets in town, or out of the roads and fields in the country. They distinguished two types of infant schools: the public infant schools, which often formed a department of the ordinary day school; and the private or 'dame' schools, which were very common in both town and country but were frequently little more than nurseries in which 'the nurse collected the children of many families into her own house instead of attending upon the children of some one family' (quoted in Hadow 1933:17).

    1870 Elementary Education Act

    As a result of the Newcastle Commission's findings, the 1870 Elementary Education Act (9 August 1870) (drafted by Liberal MP William Forster and therefore sometimes referred to as 'the Forster Act') made provision for the elementary education of all children aged 5-13 and established school boards to oversee and complete the network of schools and to bring them all under some form of supervision. Such a strategy, it said, would have to be affordable and acceptable to the many sectional religious interests.

    Summary of the Act

    Part I Local Provision for Schools (sections 4-95)

    The Act began by requiring that every school district should have sufficient public schools:

    There shall be provided for every school district a sufficient amount of accommodation in public elementary schools (as herein-after defined) available for all the children resident in such district for whose elementary education efficient and suitable provision is not otherwise made, and where there is an insufficient amount of such accommodation, in this Act referred to as 'public school accommodation,' the deficiency shall be supplied in manner provided by this Act (Section 5).
    School boards were to be formed for areas where there was currently insufficient provision (6).

    Regulations for the conduct of public elementary schools were set out in section 7. These included the right of parents to withdraw their children from religious instruction.

    Sections 8-13 set out the Education Department's powers to determine whether additional school places were required, to require the formation of school boards and to requisition them to provide the extra schools.

    Sections 14-36 listed the powers and duties of school boards for the management and maintenance of their schools. These included:

    • the requirement that 'No religious catechism or religious formulary which is distinctive of any particular denomination shall be taught in the school' (14);
    • the power of school boards to appoint managers (15);
    • the duty of school boards to 'keep efficient' every school provided by them, and to provide 'additional school accommodation as is, in their opinion, necessary' (18);
    • the powers of school boards to purchase land compulsorily (20);
    • paying for new schools out of the local school fund or Treasury loans to be repaid within five years (21); and
    • legal matters relating to the transfer of a school to a school board (23) and the re-transfer of a school by a school board to the managers (24).
    School boards were empowered to support the education of the poor:
    The school board may, if they think fit, from time to time, for a renewable period not exceeding six months, pay the whole or any part of the school fees payable at any public elementary school by any child resident in their district whose parent is in their opinion unable from poverty to pay the same; but no such payment shall be made or refused on condition of the child attending any public elementary school other than such as may be selected by the parent; and such payment shall not be deemed to be parochial relief given to such parent. (25)
    If a school board satisfy the Education Department that, on the ground of the poverty of the inhabitants of any place in their district, it is expedient for the interests of education to provide a school at which no fees shall be required from the scholars, the board may, subject to such rules and conditions as the Education Department may prescribe, provide such school, and may admit scholars to such school without requiring any fee. (26)
    School boards were also empowered to contribute to or establish industrial schools (27-8).

    Matters relating to the operation of school boards were set out in sections 29-36. These included:

    • their constitutions (30);
    • elections (31);
    • disqualification from membership (34);
    • the appointment of officers (35); and
    • the appointment of an officer to enforce attendance at school (36).
    Corresponding arrangements for the school board for London were set out in sections 37-39.

    Sections 40-73 dealt with a range of administrative and financial matters including:

    • the Education Department's powers to form united school districts, other than in London (40-8);
    • the Department's powers to require a school district to contribute to the costs of another (49-52);
    • the management of school funds (53-56);
    • borrowing by school boards (57-58);
    • accounting and auditing of school funds (59-62);
    • provisions relating to school boards in default (63-66);
    • the duty of local authorities to make returns to the Education Department (67-72); and
    • the power of the Education Department to hold public inquiries (73).
    In relation to school attendance (74), the Act empowered school boards to make byelaws 'Requiring the parents of children of such age, not less than five years nor more than thirteen years, as may be fixed by the byelaws, to cause such children (unless there is some reasonable excuse) to attend school'. Boards were also empowered to determine the time during which children were to attend school (with exceptions for religious observance); and to pay all or part of the school fees of any child whose parents were in poverty.

    The remainder of Part I of the Act (75-95) covered various technical and administrative matters.

    Part II of the Act, Parliamentary grant, stated that:

    After the thirty-first day of March one thousand eight hundred and seventy-one no parliamentary grant shall be made to any elementary school which is not a public elementary school within the meaning of this Act.

    No parliamentary grant shall be made in aid of building, enlarging, improving, or fitting up any elementary school, except in pursuance of a memorial duly signed, and containing the information required by the Education Department for enabling them to decide on the application, and sent to the Education Department on or before the thirty-first day of December one thousand eight hundred and seventy. (96)

    Conditions for such grants - totalling not more than 'seven shillings and sixpence per child' (37½p) were laid out in sections 97-99, and included the stipulation that 'Such grant shall not be made in respect of any instruction in religious subjects'.

    Finally, section 100 required the Education Department to provide an annual report to Parliament.

    There were five Schedules to the Act, dealing with various administrative matters.

    Commentary on the Act

    While 1870 can, with some justification, be described as the year in which the government finally began to take the education of the nation's children seriously, it must be acknowledged that the 1870 Elementary Education Act was only the start of a process which would take more than twenty years to complete.

    As a result of the Act, 2500 new school boards were created. They were directly elected and independent of existing forms of local government. They varied in size from that of London, which had 55 members and controlled almost 400 schools, to the rural boards, many of which controlled just one school (see Chitty 2007:17).

    The Act did not provide free education (except in proven cases of poverty), and while it empowered school boards to frame byelaws making attendance at school compulsory for children between the ages of five and thirteen, it did not require them to do so. By the end of 1871, 117 school boards had instituted byelaws requiring some degree of compulsory attendance, but these byelaws were often subject to numerous exemptions.

    Moreover, the elementary education offered by the Act was limited and inferior. Blyth (1965:21) argues that elementary schools were 'a whole educational process in themselves and one which is by definition limited and by implication inferior; a low plateau, rather than the foothills of a complete education'.

    The elementary schools

    • catered for children up to 14;
    • were for the working class;
    • provided a restricted curriculum with the emphasis almost exclusively on the '3Rs' (reading, writing and 'rithmetic);
    • pursued other, less clearly defined, aims including social-disciplinary objectives (acceptance of the teacher's authority, the need for punctuality, obedience, conformity etc);
    • operated the 'monitorial' system, whereby a teacher supervised a large class with assistance from a team of monitors (usually older pupils).
    By 1900, nearly half the children who attended public elementary schools were in board schools: in large urban areas the proportion was often much higher.

    The church problem

    The 'Cowper-Temple clause' in section 14 of the Act ('No religious catechism or religious formulary which is distinctive of any particular denomination shall be taught in the school') was named after its proposer, Liberal MP William Cowper-Temple (pronounced 'Cooper-Temple'). It banned denominational teaching in the new board schools.

    But in other respects, the 1870 Act failed to resolve the problem of the involvement of the churches in state educational provision. It could have begun to separate church and state, as was happening in other countries. 'That this did not happen was based on a combination of economic realism, institutional convenience and a political predisposition to enjoy religious company in spite of its irks' (Gates 2005:18).

    The churches had not been able to make universal provision, so the state would now fund schools managed by locally elected and interdenominationally representative school boards. Church schools would continue to receive a maintenance grant of up to 50 per cent, but once the system was in place they would get no money for new buildings.

    Some people assumed that the 1870 Act would result in a gradual decline in the number of church schools and their replacement by board schools. The churches, however, were determined to strengthen and consolidate their position, so they took full advantage of the generous offer of government funds for new buildings. In the six months allowed, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church 'moved with great alacrity to plan as many as they could' (Gates 2005:19). 2,000 requests for building grants were made by the National Society, 500 by the Catholics and Free Churches. Within 15 years, the number of Church of England schools rose from 6,382 to 11,864, and Catholic schools from 350 to 892. In the same period, the number of children attending church schools doubled to two million.

    The cost of sustaining this expanded provision was huge. 'Knowingly or not the churches had overreached themselves' (Gates 2005:19). So in 1884 a newly formed interdenominational Voluntary Schools Association began lobbying against what it regarded as the unfair financial advantages enjoyed by the board schools, which had local rates and central government taxes to draw on. In 1888, the Cross Commission (details below) reviewed the working of the 1870 Act and recommended public funding for the secular curriculum in church schools, a proposal which was eventually included in the 1902 Education Act (details in the next chapter).

    Further progress

    The remaining years of the 19th century saw a raft of legislation which added detail to the state education system which the 1870 Act had begun.

    In this respect, the two most significant Acts were the Elementary Education Act of 1880, which made school attendance compulsory, and that of 1891, which made elementary education free.

    And finally, the 1899 Board of Education Act created a new government department to oversee education.

    (Other Acts passed during this period are listed later in this chapter).

    1880 Elementary Education Act

    The 1880 Elementary Education Act (26 August 1880) obliged local authorities (as designated by the 1876 Elementary Education Act) to make byelaws requiring school attendance, and provided for penalties in cases where 10-13 year olds were illegally employed. It thus effectively established in practice the universal education which the 1870 Act had declared in principle.

    (The 1880 Act is sometimes referred to as 'the Mundella Act' after Liberal MP Anthony Mundella, Vice-President of the Board of Education from 1880 to 1885).

    1891 Elementary Education Act

    The 1891 Elementary Education Act (5 August 1891) was another significant step in the process which the 1870 Act had begun, as it decreed that elementary education was to be provided free.

    The Act provided for ten shillings (50p) a year to be paid as a 'fee grant' by Parliament for each child over three and under fifteen attending a public elementary school (Section 1). The schools were forbidden to charge additional fees (3) except in certain circumstances (4).

    1899 Board of Education Act

    The 1899 Board of Education Act (9 August 1899) established the Board of Education as the government department responsible for education (Section 1), replacing the Education Department and the Department of Science and Art (2).

    It provided for the inspection of secondary schools (3) and for the establishment of a Consultative Committee to frame regulations for a register of teachers and to advise the Board on educational matters (4).

    The school leaving age was raised to 11 in 1893 and to 12 in 1899.

    So by the end of the 19th century, England had a national system of elementary education, though it was 'still largely confined to the provision of a minimum standard' (Williams 1961:137).

    Content and structures

    The Revised Code of 1862 ('Lowe's Code')

    The Newcastle Commission recommended that a grant should be paid in respect of every child who, having attended an elementary school, passed an examination in reading, writing and arithmetic. (Report of Royal Commission on the state of popular education in England (1861), Vol. I., p. 545, Recommendation 6)

    As a result, a provision was introduced by the Committee of Council on Education into the Revised Code for 1862 (often called 'Lowe's Code' after the Committee's vice-president who devised it), stipulating that every scholar for whom grants were claimed must be examined according to one of six 'standards' in reading, writing and arithmetic - 'reading a short paragraph in a newspaper; writing similar matter from dictation; working sums in practice and fractions' (Williams 1961:137).

    The result of this regulation was the organisation of elementary schools on the basis of annual promotion. Classes in the senior department were named standards I to VI, roughly corresponding to ages 7 to 12.

    Right from the start there was much opposition to these arrangements. Teachers objected partly to the method of testing, but mainly to the principle of 'payment by results' because it linked money for schools with the criterion of a minimum standard. Thus the higher primary work which was beginning to appear before 1861 in the best elementary schools was seriously discouraged by Lowe's Code. The curriculum became largely restricted to the three Rs, and the only form of practical instruction that survived was needlework.

    Furthermore, the standards themselves were defective because they were based not on an experimental enquiry into what children of a given age actually knew, but on an a priori notion of what they ought to know. They largely ignored the wide range of individual capacity, and the detailed formulations for the several ages were not always precise or appropriate.

    Relaxing the Code

    Over the following thirty years the initial strict conditions were gradually relaxed: more freedom of classification was allowed, the tests were made more elastic and the exams were taken by sample only. From about 1892 the standards system began to fall into disuse and it was finally abandoned by the Board of Education around the turn of the century, except for a few special purposes such as examining candidates for Labour certificates.

    Meanwhile, the growth of public interest in education, fostered by the writings of Spencer, Huxley and others, persuaded the Education Department to expand the curriculum of elementary schools.

    The Code of 1871, for example, provided for a special grant for each individual scholar who passed a satisfactory examination in not more than two 'specific' subjects of secular instruction beyond the three Rs. At the same time the list of specific subjects was extended to include foreign languages, various branches of pure and applied science, or any definite subject of instruction extending over the classes to be examined in Standards IV, V, and VI.

    In 1875, a further step was taken by the introduction of 'class' subjects - grammar, geography, history and plain needlework - for which additional grant was paid. Later Codes, especially that of 1880, extended the list of these class subjects which, if taught at all, had to be taught throughout the whole school above Standard I.

    The curriculum of an elementary school from 1875 to the later 1890s thus consisted of three main parts:

    Obligatory subjects:
       the three Rs ('the elementary subjects') with needlework for girls;

    Optional subjects:
       class subjects (for the whole school above Standard I); and
       specific subjects for individual scholars in Standards IV to VI.

    The 1876 Education Act provided for a system of certificates, which gave free education for three years to pupils who had passed the Standard IV examination at 10 years of age and held a certificate of regular attendance for five years. This arrangement lasted only for five years, but several leading witnesses who gave evidence to the Cross Commission in 1888 (see below) spoke of the useful results of the system while it was in operation, and it seems to have helped considerably in the development of 'tops' to many elementary schools.

    The provisions in the 1876 and 1880 Education Acts regarding attendance byelaws had the indirect effect of producing a very considerable increase in the number of children who remained at school up to and beyond the age of 13. To meet the needs of these pupils a seventh standard was added in 1882.

    Infant schools

    One important effect of the 1870 Act was to make infant schools or departments a permanent part of the new public elementary schools. As a consequence, most of the dame schools, which had survived in large numbers up to 1870, disappeared in the following decade.

    Up to the 1860s, the main objective in separating the infants had been to ensure that the teaching of the older children should not be 'unduly disturbed' by what Matthew Arnold described as 'the babies' (Galton, Simon and Croll 1980:31).

    But by the 1870s the education of the under-sevens was beginning to be taken more seriously. The Code of Regulations of 1871 created an infant stage below Standard 1 for the 5-7 age range, so seven became the age of transfer from the infant school or department to the elementary school. (Even as late as 1930 only half of 5-7 year olds were in infant schools).

    In 1871 the first London School Board appointed a committee chaired by Professor TH Huxley to review the system of school organisation. The Committee suggested that public elementary day schools might conveniently be classified into Infants' Schools for children below 7 years of age; Junior Schools for children between 7 and 10 years of age; and Senior Schools for older children. It recommended that infant schools should be mixed, but laid down no general rule with respect to junior schools. Senior Schools in the London area should be separate, and each board school should contain, under one management, an infant school or schools, a junior school, a senior boys' school, and a senior girls' school (Minutes of School Board for London Vol. I, pp. 155-61, referred to in Hadow 1931:11). These recommendations appear to have had little effect in practice.

    The Huxley Committee was convinced of the importance of infant schools, arguing that they protected children from evil and corrupt influences and disciplined them in proper habits, and that they greatly facilitated children's progress in the more advanced schools (see Hadow 1931:11).

    Several of the newly established school boards began introducing Froebel's kindergarten methods into their infant schools. Thus in 1871 the London School Board included in its regulations for infant schools a provision that instruction should be given in object lessons of a simple character, with some such exercise of the hands and eyes as is given in the 'Kindergarten system'. Two years later the London Board appointed an instructor in kindergarten exercises, who began training teachers. In 1875 she was authorised to issue a certificate to each teacher whose personal application of her kindergarten knowledge reached the standard required by the instructor. In 1878 the instructor reported that she had experienced difficulty in trying to secure that the principles of the kindergarten system should underpin the general instruction in infant schools, and that the teachers too frequently looked on kindergarten as a subject of instruction rather than as a principle to be applied, wherever possible, in every lesson. In 1878 her title was changed to 'Superintendent of Method in Infant Schools' (see Hadow 1933:25).

    In 1882 the Education Department issued a Circular to HM Inspectors, pointing out that 'it is of little service to adopt the gifts and mechanical occupations of the Kindergarten, unless they are so used as to furnish real training in accuracy of hand and eye, in intelligence and in obedience' (quoted in Hadow 1933:26).

    Another Circular to Inspectors (6 August 1883) referred to the provision of 'appropriate and varied occupations' for infants as a requirement for the receipt of merit grant, and stated that the exercises usually known as those of the kindergarten might be used to fulfil the purpose of this requirement, but were not indispensable.

    Article 108 of the Code of 1885 stated that infants should be instructed suitably for their age, and in the Code of 1889 this phrase was expanded to read 'suitably to their age and capacity' (quoted in Hadow 1933:26).

    In 1888 the London School Board asked the Froebel Society to suggest an examiner for their training classes and in the same year, the National Froebel Union was founded as an examining body.

    An even more important advance was made in 1893, when the Education Department issued a special circular to HM Inspectors on the Training and Teaching of Infants (Circular No. 322, 6 February 1893), which declared that the Department wanted to see kindergarten methods used more widely. It also noted that the number of children in the lower classes of schools had increased, so a full four years' attendance at infant schools was now the rule rather than the exception. The Circular stated that:

    Two leading principles should be regarded as a sound basis for the education of early childhood:

    (1) The recognition of the child's spontaneous activity, and the stimulation of this activity in certain well-defined directions by the teachers.

    (2) The harmonious and complete development of the whole of the child's faculties. The teacher should pay especial regard to the love of movement, which can alone secure healthy physical conditions; to the observant use of the organs of sense, especially those of sight and touch; and to that eager desire of questioning which intelligent children exhibit. All these should be encouraged under due limitations, and should be developed simultaneously, so that each stage of development may be complete in itself. (quoted in Hadow 1933:27)

    The Circular was re-issued in successive years and was finally incorporated almost verbatim into the first edition of Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers, issued by the Board of Education in 1905.

    Higher Grade Schools

    A number of children remained at school after passing the new seventh standard, and eventually central 'higher grade schools' were created for these children. Most of these higher grade schools had an upper portion arranged as an 'organised science course or school' under the Science and Art Department. A number of school boards, especially those in large urban areas, devoted much attention to the development of these higher grade schools.

    Wolverhampton Higher Grade School, opened 1894 (from an old postcard).
    The exterior remains essentially the same today.
    The building is now part of Wolverhampton College.
    Picture and information from Wolverhampton's Locally Listed Buildings

    The following descriptions of the work done in two higher grade schools, given by persons who were pupils in the early 1870s, throw some light on the general character and aim of the curriculum:

    Lancaster National School. The 'head class' was composed of boys drawn from miles around. Admission was chiefly determined by an oral examination intended to reject all but the most promising candidates. This class supplied a number of intending teachers and from it boys, usually between 15 and 16 years of age, were appointed to vacant clerkships at industrial works which frequently led to partnership in the firms later on in life. The curriculum beyond the three R's included a little Latin, and a great deal of mathematics, drawing and science.

    Oswestry National School. The 'higher top' was largely composed of farmers' sons who came, after attending small country schools, particularly to acquire clear and accurate English speech. Entrance was not difficult; but pupils were expected to stay to the age of 16 or even later. Many went afterwards into merchants' offices in Liverpool and elsewhere. (quoted in Hadow 1926:15)

    The importance of science in secondary schools was underlined in the sixth report of the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science (the Devonshire Commission), published in 1875, which advocated that not less than six hours a week should be devoted to its study and that it should form an important element in any leaving examination.

    Royal Commission on Technical Instruction

    The two reports of the Royal Commission on Technical Instruction (1881-1884) marked an important stage in the development of public opinion on the subject of technical and secondary education. The Commissioners stated that 'the best preparation for technical study is a good modern secondary school of the types of the Manchester Grammar School, the Bedford Modern School, and the Allan Glen's Institution at Glasgow' (Second Report (1884) Volume I page 516, quoted in Spens 1938:52). The Commissioners warned that the middle classes in England were at a great disadvantage compared with those of continental Europe because there was a severe shortage of such schools. They pointed out that 'the existing endowments are very unevenly distributed over the country; in many of the large manufacturing centres no resources of the kind exist; private enterprise is clearly inadequate to do all that is required in establishing such schools, and we must look to some public measure to supply this, the greatest defect of our educational system' (quoted in Spens 1938:52).

    The Reports of the Royal Commission on Technical Instruction had a considerable indirect effect in strengthening the position of higher grade schools and in enriching the curriculum of elementary schools. The Commissioners also recommended that the state should recognise the distinction between elementary and secondary education to a greater extent than had as yet been attempted.

    Two more Commissions examined the development of elementary and secondary education:

    • The Cross Commission (1886-1888) published its Final Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the Elementary Education Acts, England and Wales in 1888; and
    • The Bryce Commission, appointed in 1894, published its Report of the Royal Commission on Secondary Education in 1895.

    Cross Commission on Elementary Education

    In the last twenty years of the 19th century there was much debate about the extent to which the elementary schools could provide an adequate education for the more able children. Some witnesses to the Cross Commission argued that this role would be better filled by secondary schools, to which children might be promoted by means of exhibitions. Others argued that the 'higher grade schools' had been successful and popular, and that the effect of removing the more able pupils from them would be 'to injure those schools educationally by destroying a source of interest to the teachers and of ambition for the scholars' (Hadow 1926:21).

    The Committee was divided on the issue, but recommended that the state should recognise the distinction between elementary and secondary education to a greater extent than had as yet been attempted.

    During the next decade there was no great increase in the number of higher grade schools, but there was a distinct improvement in the general level of elementary education. Elementary schools began to be divided into junior, middle and senior departments, enabling improvements to be made in the courses of instruction for older pupils.

    There was considerable public interest in the reports of the Cross Commission, and several of its recommendations were implemented from 1890 onwards: manual instruction was recognised (though no special grant was paid for it); physical exercises - swimming, gymnastics and 'Swedish drill' - were included in the curriculum; shorthand, horticulture and hygiene were made 'specific' subjects; and grants were paid in respect of laundry work, dairy work and housewifery.

    A considerable extension of the curriculum took place when the system of individual examination and payment by results was gradually abandoned.

    Bryce Commission on Secondary Education

    The Royal Commission on Secondary Education reviewed the progress that had been made since the report of the Taunton Commission.

    It found that over half of the 4,200 undergraduates of Oxford and Cambridge in 1894 came from the 89 schools represented on the Headmasters' Conference, 17 per cent came from other schools in England and nearly as many from private study or home tuition. Only two per cent came from the ranks of pupil teachers, teacher training colleges or public elementary schools. The door was not closed on a poor boy of talent, but it was not open very far. 'Jude was still likely to remain obscure' (Crowther 1959:11).

    In their Historical Retrospect, the writers of the Crowther Report on the education of 15-18 year olds (1959) state that 'It would be wrong to picture the endowed grammar schools of England at that time as upper class or middle class preserves to which a mere handful of elementary school boys were admitted' (Crowther 1959:11).

    Surveys of the extent of secondary provision in seven counties were conducted on behalf of the Bryce Commission in 1894. These revealed that a quarter of the pupils in all the secondary schools (excluding only those schools in which the head master was the proprietor) had formerly attended elementary schools. The range of variation was very wide - some schools admitted none, while in others 'about all', or 75 or 80 per cent, came from elementary schools.

    With regard to the endowed grammar schools, Crowther (1959:11) argues that the justifiable complaint about them was not that they were socially exclusive, but that there were not nearly enough of them, so that only about four or five pupils per 1,000 in the elementary schools were able to pass on to the grammar schools. To some extent this shortage was offset by the growth of the higher grade elementary schools. They provided a way to secondary, and sometimes to higher, education for boys and girls who would otherwise have been deprived of it. (At least one Nobel Prizewinner was a pupil in a higher grade elementary school).

    In the seven counties surveyed, only four per cent of all boys and girls aged 14 or 15 were still at school and just one per cent of those aged 16 and 17:

    It is only necessary to remember that among the professional classes it was already the practice for boys and girls to stay at school at least until 16, and often to 18, to realise how small was the chance of a working man's child, especially a daughter, learning at school more than the traditional 3R's. It would appear that less than one-third of all pupils aged 14 or over were girls. (Crowther 1959:11)
    The Bryce Commission's report (1895) argued that the priority for secondary education should be greater unity of control: local authorities were required which should be responsible for all secondary (including technical) education within their respective areas.

    With regard to the provision of secondary schools, the Commission recommended that for every 1,000 of the population secondary education should be made available to just ten children, of whom eight would be in the 'third grade'. This meant that, out of 4,000,000 children, 64,000 would be educated in the first and second grade schools, and 256,000 in the third grade. 'It is obvious', the Commission commented, 'that these distinctions correspond roughly, but by no means exactly, to the gradations of society' (quoted in Williams 1961:139).

    It would be necessary to utilise every suitable existing school, including, for example, all those private schools (but only those) which accepted public tests of efficiency. First grade schools for boys already existed in sufficient numbers but there was a shortage of second and third grade schools at a cost which would be within the reach of parents of limited means. The rapid growth and success of the higher grade board schools, especially in larger towns, indicated the extent of the demand for third grade secondary education at a cheap rate. These higher grade elementary schools were doing much to meet the demand in many places; but there were not enough of them, and proprietary schools could not supply a similar education unless they received state aid.

    The Commissioners stressed that a literary type of secondary education should be provided alongside the scientific and technical type, and that promising pupils should be able to transfer to higher schools.

    They were also concerned about the training of secondary teachers, which they argued should be systematic and thorough: 'At present the absence of such training is one of the causes which injuriously affect secondary education' (quoted in Spens 1938:62).

    They went on:

    In every phase of secondary teaching, the first aim should be to educate the mind, and not merely to convey information. It is a fundamental fault, which pervades many parts of the secondary teaching now given in England, that the subject (literary, scientific or technical) is too often taught in such a manner that it has little or no educational value. The largest of the problems which concern the future of secondary education is how to secure, as far as possible, that in all schools and in every branch of study the pupils shall be not only instructed but educated. (quoted in Spens 1938:62)
    Discussions began on implementing the Report's recommendations. In 1897 a series of conferences took place at the Education Department between the Incorporated Association of Headmasters and the Association of Headmasters of Higher Grade Schools and Schools of Science; and in August 1898 the Department issued a joint Memorandum on the relationship between primary and secondary schools in a national system of education.

    Another important recommendation of the Bryce Commission was that there should be a central education authority which, while leaving freedom of action to the local bodies, could supervise the general interests of secondary education as a whole. This recommendation was effected by the Board of Education Act 1899, which drew together the powers of the Education Department, the Science and Art Department and the powers of the Charity Commissioners over educational charities, to create a new Board of Education (see Spens 1938:62).

    Girls' education

    As we have already seen, the Schools Inquiry Commission found a lamentable lack of provision for the education of girls.

    However, campaigns for girls' secondary education began to have an impact and many advances were made during the last years of the century:

    • in 1865 a small committee, with Emily Davies as secretary, persuaded Cambridge to admit girls to its Local Examinations;
    • in 1869 London University established a general examination for women with more advanced special papers;
    • in 1870 girls were admitted to the Oxford Local Examination;
    • Newnham College Cambridge was founded in 1871 to prepare women for the new Cambridge Higher Local Examination;
    • in 1871 the National Union for the Improvement of the Education of Women of all Classes was founded: its aims were to promote the foundation of cheap day schools for girls and to raise the status of women teachers by giving them a liberal education and a good training in the art of teaching;
    • in 1872 the National Union formed the Girls' Public Day School Company 'to supply for girls the best education possible, corresponding with the education given to boys in the great Public Schools';
    • girls were admitted to the examinations of the Oxford and Cambridge Joint Board in 1876;
    • in 1878 the Maria Grey Training College for women teachers in secondary schools was founded;
    • London University opened all its examinations and degrees to women in 1878;
    • in 1881 Cambridge opened its Triposes to women;
    • in 1884 Oxford allowed women to sit for examinations in certain of its schools;
    • the new universities founded during this period made no distinction between men and women in respect of teaching, emoluments, or degrees;
    • in 1889 the Intermediate Education Act made provision for the establishment of an organised secondary system in Wales which provided for both boys and girls - many of the new schools opened in the wake of the Act rapidly evolved into co-educational day schools; and
    • the 1895 Royal Commission on Secondary Education (see above) was the first to include women among its members.

    Special educational needs

    Note: The information in this section is taken from chapter 2 (pages 9-14) of the 1978 Warnock Report Special Educational Needs, which itself was largely based on DG Pritchard's 1963 book Education and the Handicapped 1760-1960.

    Provision for the deaf and blind

    Neither the 1870 Education Act nor the corresponding Education (Scotland) Act of 1872 specifically included disabled children among those for whom provision was to be made, but in 1874 the London School Board established a class for the deaf at a public elementary school and later began the training of teachers. By 1888 there were 14 centres attached to ordinary schools, catering for 373 children. A few other boards did the same, but most made no specific provision for the deaf.

    It was much the same in respect of the blind. In 1874 fifty blind children were being taught in ordinary classes in Scottish schools, and in 1875 the London Board made the first arrangements for teaching blind children in its elementary schools. By 1888 there were 23 centres attached to ordinary schools, where 133 children were taught part-time by teachers who were themselves blind. The children received the rest of their education in ordinary classes. A handful of other boards made some arrangement for the blind.

    These first efforts by a few school boards to cater for some handicapped children owed nothing to educational legislation. Concerns for the plight of the disabled, and especially of the blind, had first been expressed in the mid-19th century but these had been mainly about the relief of distress rather than about education.

    But once the 1870 Act had established the principle of universal elementary education, the needs of handicapped children could no longer be ignored. The Charity Organisation Society began campaigning for the right of blind children to receive education and the duty of school boards to provide it, and later applied the same arguments to the education of the deaf. Other organisations, like the Society for the Training of the Deaf, joined the campaign.

    As a result, the Royal Commission on the Blind and Deaf was constituted in 1886 and published its report in 1889. It recommended the introduction of compulsory education for the blind from five to 16. Pupils would receive elementary education to the age of 12 and then follow either a technical or an academic course. At the elementary stage, children would mostly be taught in ordinary classes by ordinary teachers, but there would need to be special boarding schools for pupils who were delicate, neglected or lived too far from the nearest day school.

    The Commission also recommended compulsory education for deaf children aged 7 to 14 in separate schools or classes. Teachers of the deaf should be paid higher salaries than ordinary teachers, their training should be under government supervision, and they should have qualified as ordinary teachers before beginning their special training.

    The Commission's report was followed a year later by the 1890 Education of Blind and Deaf Mute Children (Scotland) Act, but England had to wait a further three years for the 1893 Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act (12 September 1893), which sought 'to make better Provision for the Elementary Education of Blind and Deaf Children in England and Wales'.

    Its main provisions related to:

    • parents' duty to ensure the appropriate education of their children (Section 1);
    • school authorities' duty to provide appropriate education for blind and deaf children (2-8);
    • parents' duty to contribute to the cost of such education (9-10);
    • the school leaving age for blind and deaf children to be 16 (11); and
    • the power of the Education Department to make grants to certified schools (12).
    The Act required school authorities (boards, district councils or school attendance committees) to make provision for the education of blind and deaf children resident in their area who were not receiving suitable elementary education. As the Commission had recommended, blind children were to receive education between the ages of 5 and 16 and deaf children between 7 and 16. Parliamentary grants were available for certified institutions which were open to inspection. In most cases the extra places were provided by the extension of existing schools.

    The larger school boards made real efforts to maintain good standards in their own schools, but many of the smaller boards struggled, and there was also the problem of the 20,000 voluntary schools over which the boards had no control. These difficulties persisted until the creation of local education authorities in 1902.

    Provision for the physically and mentally handicapped

    There was even less provision for the educational needs of physically and mentally handicapped children. Those who attended elementary schools profited as best they could from the ordinary teaching, while the more severely handicapped received care - and sometimes education - in institutions.

    Before the 1870 Education Act the needs of mentally handicapped children were mostly ignored. The demands of everyday life in a largely uneducated and relatively uncomplicated world meant that mental disability was not seen as a substantial handicap, and there was institutional provision for those who needed looking after.

    But as a result of the 1870 Act, large numbers of children of poor intellectual ability began entering the public elementary schools. This posed a range of problems:

    • many of the children made little progress and their presence hindered normal teaching;
    • there were no systematic means of assessing their capabilities and needs;
    • the range of disability was very wide and there were unresolved questions of definition;
    • instruction was based on the official Code for normal children; and
    • classes were large so there was little opportunity, even if teachers had the skills, to devise a differentiated curriculum.
    Furthermore, unlike the blind and deaf, the physically and mentally handicapped had no organisations to plead their cause. Isolated examples of private provision existed in London, but across the country little had been achieved when the Royal Commission on the Blind and Deaf reported in 1889.

    The Commission (whose remit covered special needs in general) had distinguished between the feeble-minded, imbeciles and idiots. It argued that the feeble-minded should receive special education separately from ordinary children in 'auxiliary' schools; and that imbeciles should not be in asylums or workhouses but should attend institutions where they could, if possible, receive an education concentrating on sensory and physical development and the improvement of speech. The last group, having the greatest degree of intellectual deficiency, were considered to be ineducable.

    Following the Commission's report, the Charity Organisation Society campaigned for educational provision for the mentally handicapped and in 1896 sponsored the National Association for Promoting the Welfare of the Feeble-Minded.

    The campaign was supported by the findings of Dr Francis Warner, who investigated 100,000 children in district poor law schools and the London Board Schools in the early 1890s and concluded that about one per cent of the children required special care and training in separate schools on the grounds of their mental and physical condition.

    Further support came from the the Metropolitan Poor Law Schools Committee, whose Report in 1896 called for separate provision to be made for feeble-minded children.

    In 1892 the Leicester School Board established a special class for selected 'feeble-minded' pupils, and the London Board opened a school for the special instruction of physically and mentally detective children. The emphasis was on occupational activity rather than formal education.

    By 1896 there were 24 special schools in London attended by 900 pupils and by the end of the century schools for defective children had been established by six other boards.

    Provision for defective and epileptic children

    A Committee on Defective and Epileptic Children, under the Chief Inspector of Schools, was established by the Education Department in 1896 and published its report in 1898. Like the earlier Royal Commission, the Committee had to grapple with definitions. It concluded that schools would need to exercise their own judgement as to whether an individual child was capable of receiving proper benefit from special instruction. Dr Warner's study had suggested that the children could be assessed by physical examination, so the Committee recommended that a medical officer appointed by the school board would decide whether a particular child should be educated in an ordinary school, in a special school or not at all.

    The Committee classed the feeble-minded with physically handicapped children under the general description of 'defective'. It recommended that, where possible, defective children of normal intelligence should attend ordinary schools and receive an ordinary education.

    School authorities should be required to make special provision for defective children in their area who needed it, and should be empowered to compel attendance between the ages of 7 and 14 (16 in some cases). Classes in special schools should be small, all headteachers should be qualified, and the majority of assistant teachers should not only be qualified but should have additional training. There should be a varied programme of activities with an emphasis on manual and vocational training for senior pupils.

    With regard to epileptic children, the Committee proposed that where attacks were relatively rare, children should attend ordinary classes; otherwise school authorities should be required to provide places in residential special schools or pay for places in voluntary institutions. Attendance should be compulsory.

    The Committee's proposals were far ahead of contemporary thinking, made heavy demands on the school boards and were costly.

    1899 Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act

    Not surprisingly, therefore, the Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act 1899 empowered - but did not require - school boards to provide for the education of mentally and physically defective and epileptic children. Although an enhanced rate of grant was payable for this special provision, ten years later only 133 out of 327 local education authorities had used their powers under the Act.

    The Act (9 August 1899) empowered school authorities to make arrangements for identifying defective and epileptic children (Section 1) and to provide for their education:

    (a) by classes in public elementary schools certified by the Education Department as special classes; or
    (b) by boarding out ... any such child in a house conveniently near to a special class or school; or
    (c) by establishing schools ... for defective children (2).
    Parents were obliged to ensure that children over seven years of age attended such classes or schools (4).

    Higher education

    With the opening of new colleges and universities - in Manchester, Nottingham, Reading, Southampton, Leeds, Liverpool, Sheffield, Birmingham and Wales - the restricted curriculum of the older institutions was now becoming an embarrassment. So from the 1850s Oxford and Cambridge began to offer a broader range of subjects and to cater for a wider intake.

    1862 Oxford University Act

    This Act (30 June 1862) extended the powers of the university to make statutes setting out the regulations applying to:

  • Download the Oxford University Act 1862 (pdf text 132kb).

    1871 Universities Tests Act

    The religious exclusiveness of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham was becoming as problematic as their restricted curriculum. The Universities Tests Act (16 June 1871) therefore altered the law respecting religious tests in these universities. It decreed that 'those taking lay academical degrees or holding lay academical or collegiate offices' were not to be required:

    to subscribe any article or formulary of faith, or to make any declaration or take any oath respecting his religious belief or profession, or to conform to any religious observance, or to attend or abstain from attending any form of public worship, or to belong to any specified church, sect, or denomination; nor shall any person be compelled, in any of the said universities or any such college as aforesaid, to attend the public worship of any church, sect, or denomination to which he does not belong. (Section 3)

  • Download the Universities Tests Act 1871 (pdf text 80kb).

    Other legislation

    1868 Endowed Schools Act

    The 1868 Endowed Schools Act (25 June 1868) paved the way for the 1869 Endowed Schools Act (see above).

    1873 Elementary Education Act

    The 1873 Elementary Education Act (5 August 1873) made some amendments to the 1870 Act, mostly of a technical nature.

    1873 Endowed Schools Act

    The 1873 Endowed Schools Act (5 August 1873) made some amendments to the 1869 Endowed Schools Act, again mostly of a technical nature.

    1874 Endowed Schools Act

    The 1874 Endowed Schools Act (7 August 1874) made further amendments to the 1869 and 1873 Endowed Schools Acts.

    1876 Elementary Education Act

    The 1876 Elementary Education Act (15 August 1876) sought 'to make further provision for Elementary Education'. It made new laws relating to:

    • parental responsibility for the education of children (section 4);
    • the employment of children under 10 (5-9);
    • the payment of school fees for poor parents (10);
    • the care of neglected children (11);
    • penalties for non-compliance with a school attendance order (12);
    • industrial schools (13-17);
    • parliamentary grants (18-20);
    • byelaws requiring school attendance (21-23); and
    • various other administrative matters.

    1879 Elementary Education (Industrial Schools) Act

    The 1879 Elementary Education (Industrial Schools) Act (11 August 1879) extended the powers of school boards in relation to the establishment and extension of industrial schools.

    1888 Local Government Act

    The Local Government Act (13 August 1888) provided for the establishment of elected councils for the counties and county boroughs (the larger towns and cities) in England and Wales. The counties took over the administrative functions of the magistrates of the Quarter Sessions courts, and there were also urban and rural district councils based on existing 'sanitary districts'. The Act set out the powers and duties of these new councils, which included levying rates; building and maintaining county halls, court houses and police stations; repair of roads and bridges; regulation of weights and measures etc.

    The Act said little about education, but it was nonetheless an important step in the development of the state education system, since the local education authorities which would later be created by the 1902 Education Act would be based on the councils established by the 1888 Act.

    The only references to schools in the Act were:

    • councils' duties in respect of 'the establishment and maintenance of and the contribution to reformatory and industrial schools' (Section 3);
    • council grants towards the remuneration of teachers in poor law schools (24);
    • the payment of school fees by councils 'for pauper children sent from a workhouse to a public elementary school outside the workhouse' (24);
    • payments by councils to district schools to which a poor law union contributed (26), with a similar provision for county boroughs (34); and
    • councils' responsibility for certain administrative matters relating to education (10).
  • Download the Local Government Act 1888 (pdf text 2.6mb).

    1889 Welsh Intermediate Education Act

    The purpose of the 1889 Welsh Intermediate Education Act (12 August 1889) was 'to make further provision for the intermediate and technical education of the inhabitants of Wales and the county of Monmouth' (Section 2). Each county council was to appoint a joint education committee which was required to submit a scheme to the Charity Commissioners for such education (3). Up to half the cost of running the schools would be paid by the Treasury (8).

    The Act defined 'intermediate education' as meaning:

    a course of education which does not consist chiefly of elementary instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic, but which includes instruction in Latin, Greek, the Welsh and English language and literature, modern languages, mathematics, natural and applied science, or in some of such studies, and generally in the higher branches of knowledge (17).
    Technical education was to include instruction in:
    (i) Any of the branches of science and art with respect to which grants are for the time being made by the Department of Science and Art;
    (ii) The use of tools, and modelling in clay, wood, or other material;
    (iii) Commercial arithmetic, commercial geography, book-keeping, and shorthand;
    (iv) Any other subject applicable to the purposes of agriculture, industries, trade, or commercial life and practice, which may be specified in a scheme, or proposals for a scheme, of a joint education committee as a form of instruction suited to the needs of the district;
    but it shall not include teaching the practice of any trade, or industry, or employment (17).

    1889 Technical Instruction Act

    The 1889 Technical Instruction Act (30 August 1889) sought to improve the provision of technical and industrial training.

    1892 Technical and Industrial Institutions Act

    This Act (27 June 1892) facilitated 'the Acquisition and Holding of land by Institutions for promoting Technical and Industrial Instruction and Training'.

  • Download the Technical and Industrial Institutions Act 1892 (pdf text 60kb).

    The purposes of education

    The growth of industry and the widening of democracy during the 19th century necessitated a major reorganisation of elementary, secondary and university education, with changes in the types of institution and the styles of education they offered.

    There was also 'a fundamental argument about the purposes of education' (Williams 1961:140). Williams identifies two strands of this argument: 'the idea of education for all, and the definition of a liberal education' (Williams 1961:140).


    Education for all was, as we have seen, hotly contested, but it was essential, given the rise of an organised working class which demanded education, and the needs of an expanding and changing economy. Williams (1961:141) argues that the victory of the reformers rested on three elements:

    While the democratic and industrial arguments were both sound, the latter resulted in education being seen as preparation for future adult work and as a means of teaching the required social character - 'habits of regularity, "self-discipline", obedience, and trained effort' (Williams 1961:141).

    However, this utilitarian concept of education was challenged on two sides:

    On the one hand it was argued, by men with widely differing attitudes to the rise of democracy and of working-class organisation, that men had a natural human right to be educated, and that any good society depended on governments accepting this principle as their duty. On the other hand, often by men deeply opposed to democracy, it was argued that man's spiritual health depended on a kind of education which was more than a training for some specialised work, a kind variously described as 'liberal', 'humane', or 'cultural'. (Williams 1961:141)
    It was a complicated debate in which, Williams argues, three groups participated: the 'public educators', the 'industrial trainers' (the powerful group which promoted education in terms of training and disciplining the poor as workers and citizens) and the 'old humanists'.

    The old humanists argued against the public educators, fearing that a liberal education would be 'vulgarised by extension to the "masses"' (Williams 1961:142), and against the industrial trainers because liberal education would be 'destroyed by being turned into a system of specialised and technical training' (Williams 1961:142).

    Meanwhile, the public educators drew on the arguments of the old humanists in the hope of preventing universal education becoming a narrow system of pre-industrial instruction. Williams argues that the influence of these three groups - the public educators, the industrial trainers, and the old humanists - continued to be felt well into the 20th century.

    The curriculum which evolved during the 19th century was 'a compromise between all three groups, but with the industrial trainers predominant' (Williams 1961:142). This was 'damaging both to general education and to the new kinds of vocational training' (Williams 1961:143).

    Social class

    Equally damaging was the class thinking which cast its shadow over educational developments in the 19th century. 'The continued relegation of trade and industry to lower social classes, and the desire of successful industrialists that their sons should move into the now largely irrelevant class of gentry, were alike extremely damaging to English education and English life' (Williams 1961:143).

    As at the Reformation, the reconstruction of institutions proceeded largely without reference to the best learning of the age, and without a successful redefinition of the purposes of education and of the content of a contemporary liberal culture:

    The beginnings of technical instruction in the Mechanics' Institutes might have developed into a successful redefinition, but again it was the training of a specific class, whereas in fact the new sciences were radical elements in the society as a whole: a society which had changed its economy, which under pressure was changing its institutions, but which, at the centres of power, was refusing to change its ways of thinking. (Williams 1961:143)
    The new working class was offered science and technical instruction but no opportunity to discuss the interaction between these techniques and their lives:
    It was only very slowly, and then only in the sphere of adult education, that the working class, drawing indeed on very old intellectual traditions and on important dissenting elements in the English educational tradition, made its contribution to the modern educational debate. This contribution - the students' choice of subject, the relation of disciplines to actual contemporary living, and the parity of general discussion with expert instruction - remains important, but made little headway in the general educational organisation. Like the individual public educators, their time was not yet. (Williams 1961:144)

    A common education for all

    It was only at the very end of the 19th century, as radical political movements were being formed, that a common education for all was seriously debated in Britain - 250 years after it had been advocated by Comenius.

    At an international conference of socialists in 1896 delegates from Europe and the US argued that all working people should receive a full education. Britain's Keir Hardie (pictured) argued that this meant an education that was 'free at all stages, open to everyone without any tests of prior attainment at any age - in effect, a comprehensive "broad highway" that all could travel' (reported in the Westminster Gazette 1 August 1896, quoted in Benn and Chitty 1996:3).

    It is not surprising that Hardie wanted a better deal for the working class. He had been born in Lanarkshire, the illegitimate son of a servant, and had received no education at all. At the age of eight he had become the family's sole wage earner when he was sent to work as a baker's delivery boy. Three years later he was a coal miner. But by the time he was 17 he had taught himself to read and write and in 1893 he was one of the founders of the Independent Labour Party. By 1906 he was leader of the newly-formed Labour Party in the House of Commons.

    Not all socialists agreed with Hardie about a common education for all, however. Some members of the Fabian Society favoured specialised and differentiated schooling. Sydney Webb, for example, approved of the 1902 Education Act's provision for new fee-paying grammar schools offering a few free scholarship places.


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

    Blyth WAL (1965) English primary education: a sociological description Vol. II: Background London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

    Gates B (2005) 'Faith schools and colleges of education since 1800' in R Gardner, J Cairns and D Lawton (eds) (2005) Faith schools: consensus or conflict? Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer 14-35

    Hadow (1923) Differentiation of the Curriculum for Boys and Girls Report of the Consultative Committee London: HMSO

    Hadow (1926) The Education of the Adolescent Report of the Consultative Committee London: HMSO

    Hadow (1931) The Primary School Report of the Consultative Committee London: HMSO

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

    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

    Young GM and Hancock WD (eds) (1956) English historical documents XII (1), 1833-1874 London: Eyre and Spottiswoode

    Chapter 2 | Chapter 4