Family History Factsheet: The British Education System
A list of educational genealogy records available on Genhound can be found at the bottom of this page.
On this page:
The first schools
The Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries
Timeline for Examinations & Qualifications
Locating Educational Records
Educational Records on Genhound
If any of your ancestors were lucky enough to go to school in Britain you may find them listed in a range of educational records. The British education system included a bewildering array of schools and educational initiatives and during your family history research you may come across many terms that are unfamiliar. What's the difference between a grammar school and a public school? What's a Bluecoat School? What was a Ragged School? Hopefully this summary of the British education system from the earliest days to the post war period should help you to answer these questions and help you understand more about this valuable source of genealogy records.
The first schools
Schools almost certainly existed in Britain during the Roman occupation but it is unlikely that they continued to exist for very long after the collapse of the Roman empire. The earliest recorded schools in England date from the arrival of St. Augustine in 597. He and his successors established two types of schools - grammar schools to teach Latin to English priests and song schools to teach young boys to sing in the cathedral choirs. This pattern continued for several hundred years, with schools being attached to cathedrals or monasteries and designed solely to serve the needs of the church. Grammar schools taught only Latin grammar and literature to those who intended to become priests so they could conduct and understand church services and read the Bible.
It wasn't until the Norman conquest that secular schools began to be established. French replaced English as the vernacular language used in the schools. Most pupils were still those intending to be monks or priests though pupils also included a few members of royal and noble families.
It was during the 12th century that schools not attached to the church began to be established in significant numbers. Independent schools began to appear in most of the larger towns. Some church schools, for example those at Bedford and Christchurch, were removed from monastic control. Most secular schools at this time concentrated on basic reading and writing. However, it wasn't long before the curriculum began to expand, with rhetoric being taught to younger pupils and, with the increasing availability of Aristotle's works, logic was included in the curriculum of older students. At this time the concept of a liberal education - preparing students for more specialised studies in law, medicine or theology - began to evolve.
The beginning of the thirteenth century saw the development of universities. The first were the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. At Cambridge, students studied grammar, logic and rhetoric. Further studies in arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy led to the degrees of bachelor and master. Teachers had to have completed the course themselves and obtaining a university degree was a licence to teach. Masters could progress to advanced studies in divinity, law or medicine. The success of Oxford and Cambridge led to many more universities being established in the 13th century though expansion was severely curtailed in the fourteenth century by the plague.
Fifteenth to Seventeenth Centuries
The church's monopoly of education system was further reduced in the fifteenth century. Donations to monasteries decreased in this period. Instead wealthy benefactors or guilds began to establish "chantries" with a priest to celebrate masses for the benefactor's soul and in many cases also to establish and teach at a school. These "chantry" schools were independent from the church. More independent schools began to be established often containing a mix of boys from wealthy families who paid fees and poor and needy scholars of good character whose education was paid for by the charity. Two of the earliest independent schools were Winchester and Eton. Others established in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries include Dulwich College and Highgate School in London, Leeds Gramar School, and Sherbourne School in Dorset.
One type of charity school that developed at this time was the "Bluecoat" school. The first one was Christ's Hospital School in London, established in the 16th century. The name derives from the uniform worn by the pupils - a long blue coat. Blue was a popular colour for charity schools as blue dye was the cheapest, thus many of the charity schools were known as Bluecoat schools. Other charity schools were set up by the Guilds - professional associations that controlled a particular trade in the cities and towns. The Merchant Taylors' schools and the Haberdashers' schools are examples of guild schools. A number of both types of school still exist today and have followed the common pattern of becoming independent fee paying schools offering a few scholarships to poorer students.
The abolition of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1540 severed the link between the Catholic Church and the education system. Many of the cathedral grammar schools for example, the school at St Albans, were refounded at this time, now attached to the new Protestant cathedrals. At this time, the Latin Bible was also translated into English, and protestant services were held in English not Latin, removing the need for the Protestant priesthood to learn Latin, though a knowledge of Latin was still considered an essential part of education.
The curriculum changed little at this time, and was still based on the requirements of the universities and learned professions. During the 17th century the noble families did not generally send their sons to the grammar schools but used private tutors then sent them to knightly or courtly acadamies on the Continent where they were taught horsemanship, use of arms, modern languages, history, geography and applied mathematics for military and civil engineering. This prepared them for posts at Court, diplomacy or to be senior officers in the military.
During this period other types of schools developed. Schools for younger children were established, often informally, though some of them had links to the grammar schools. Writing schools teaching "scriveners English" and accounting for tradesmen also began to appear at this time. Religious dissenters also established independent schools during this period. Wealthier Catholic families sent their sons to schools on the Continent run by the Catholic Church such as the Leige Academy in Bruges.
The teaching standards of universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, declined during the 17th century, and the proportion of poorer students, though still significant, fell. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the university began discriminating agains Nonconfirmists. This lead to the establishment of a number or "Dissenting" or "Nonconformist" Academies, providing education at higher secondary or university level. Many started as academies for those intending to become ministers but they soon broadened their curriculum and intake, preparing students for medicine, law, engineering, the military, commerce and the arts. Maths, physics, English and modern languages were included in the curriculum, along with the traditional subjects of Latin and Greek.
The Statute of Artificers and Apprentices was passed in 1564, which formalised and regulated the apprenticeship system, requiring apprentices to serve with a master for seven years before being allowed to practise a trade. From the 17th century parish or "poor law" apprenticeships were used to provide for poor, illegitimate or orphaned children of both sexes, supplying apprentices for lower status occupations such as farm labourers, brickmaking and menial housework. At this time theories of education and the concept of universal education began to develop.
In the 18th century the demand of the merchants and tradesmen in the larger cities lead to the expansion of the curriculum, with the addition of mathematics, geography, modern languages and the physical sciences. Many grammar schools that started out in the 16th and 17th centuries as endowed charities began to take more and more fee paying students to balance the accounts and evolved into private schools with a small number of scholarships for talented poorer students.
The Charity School movement also developed at this time, providing an elementary education for the increasing number of poor children in the towns and cities. However, the schools depended on the suport of local patrons to fund them and schools that were established in an initial rush of support and enthusiasm sometimes closed again at a later date when the funding ran dry and by 1760 the movement was faltering. Increasing industialisation also resulted in the so called "dame schools", which were informal childcare facilities for working class families where the mother had to go to work, run by a woman from her home, which might include some element of education.
Another educational initiative in the 18th century was the Sunday School movement. As the children of the working classes were often working with their parents during the week, The Sunday School movement set up schools on Sundays, teaching reading, writing and religious education. A Sunday School was opened in Gloucester in 1781 and within four years there were over 250,000 children attending Sunday schools througout England. The first Sunday school was initially just for boys, but soon opened its doors to girls as well. By 1831 attendance had grown to 1.2 million. Concerns about the propriety of teaching reading and writing on a Sunday lead to many Sunday School dropping these subjects to focus solely on religious education. Others continued, but moved the literacy session to a week night.
The greatest changes and progress in education came during the nineteenth century.
Factory Sponsored Schools
As early as 1780 some enlightened manufacturers were providing shools for their child workers. In 1833 laws were introduced to limit the hours children in factories could work and force factory owners to ensure child workers aged 9 to 11 received two hours of education per day. Legislation was limited to requiring employers to certify the number of hours a school attendance by each child per week and did not regulate the quality of the education. Unsurprisingly, factory owners usually opted for the cheapest and thus poorest quality provision they could get away with. In 1844 legislation extended the education time to three hours per day and the age to 13 years.
The Factory acts of 1833, 1844 and 1867 limited the hours that children were permitted to work, enabling them enough free time to get an education where the opportunity existed. In 1833 the government also began making annual grants towards the building of church schools
Ragged school movement
The "Ragged Schools" were charitable schools dedicated to the free educaion of destitute children, which started in Scotland in 1841. It spread to England in 1844 when Lord Shaftesbury formed the Ragged School Union. He attracted large donations from wealthy supporters and by 1870 three hundred and fifty ragged schools had been established.
Poor Law Schools
The Poor Law School movement was started by James Kay in 1853. He was able to persuade some of the more enlightened poor law unions that educating pauper children would make the less likely to become dependant on the poor law system when they were adults. Initially totally funded by local taxation, government grants towards building poor law school became availble in 1846, and the government began inspecting poor law schools to ensure standards of teaching. By 1857 there were 57 poor law schools nationwide. They were only ever a small sector of the British education system. They served the child inhabitants of the workhouse but not the larger number or children in families on "outdoor relief" who received support from the poor law union but did not reside in the workhouse.
Industrial and Reformatory Schools
In the mid nineteenth century Industrial Schools Acts were passed in England, Ireland and Scotland to deal with the problem of the neglected and delinquent children of the urban poor. Some were residential, while others were day schools. Children under the age of 14 found guilty of begging, vagrancy or minor crimes were sent to industrial schools by a magistrate. Discipline was strict and religious and moral instruction was included along with basic reading, writing and occupational skills. Boys were taught a trade such as shoemaking, tailoring or gardening while girls learnt housework, washing, sewing and knitting. Children convicted of more serious crimes were sent to reformatory schools which also taught a trade and basic skills but had a greater emphasis on discipline and punishment.
At the same time as the charitable movements were concerned about the education of the poor, they also turned their attention to the disabled. Seperate schools for the blind, the deaf and dumb, the physically disabled and mentally disabled were set up in many of the cities, for example, the Birmingham Deaf and Dumb Institution. Education was limited to teaching practical skills that would help the children to support themselves in adult life.
The success of the Great Exhibition in 1851 lead to a greater awareness of the value of technical innnovation and the government became more interested in supporting technical education at a higher level. Support was provided to the Livery Companies (the London Guilds) to develop a national system of technical education including recognised national examinations and new technical colleges. In 1878 the "City & Guilds" was established and developed a series of examinations and certificates for a range of vocational and technical skills; a function which they still perform today. The first proper technical college was Finsbury Technical College in London which opened in 1879, teaching a number of subjects including applied chemistry, physics and mechanical engineering to students of both sexes. In 1868 the annual Whitworth Scholarships were established to reward escellence in the study of of mechanical engineering.
A number of the independent, fee charging schools which had grown out of the ancient charity schools were regulated by the Public Schools Act of 1868. The were referred to as "public schools" because admission was open to those outside the aristocracy and royalty and were not limited to those living in a particular geographic area. This is the origin of the confusing English term of "public school" to refer to certain private fee paying schools. The schools referred to in the act were: Eton, Harrow, Westminster, Rugby, Winchester, Charterhouse, and Shrewsbury, and two London day schools, St. Pauls and Merchant Taylors'. The definition of a publilc school has widened since then and it is often used to refer to many prestigious independent boarding schools.
Legislation in 1871 removed religious discrimination at the old universities and regulated standards. Many new provincial universities such as those at Bristol, Sheffield and Birmingham, were established at this time, often supported by wealthy local businessmen. Unlike the old universities these new institutions took students mainly from the local grammar schools and were mainly non residential. The first government grants to univeristies were awarded in 1889 and have continued ever since.
Education for Women and Girls
Up until the mid nineteenth century, those girls lucky enough to get an education were from wealthy families who could afford private tuition. Small private "Academies for Young Ladies" of varying quality were found in most towns. Usually run from a private residence with one or two mistresses they were primarily concerned with turning out young ladies suitable for the marriage market and taught music, French, etiquette, deportment, dancing, drawing, needlework etc.
The Governess' Benevolent Society was founded in 1843 to help distressed governesses. Faced with better educated competition from overseas, the need for better educated governesses was recognised and the Queen's College was opened in London in 1848, providing courses of lectures.
The College for Women, the first residential college for women in England, was opened in 1869. The colllege moved to Girton on Cambridgeshire in 1873 and was renamed Girton College. Newnham College in Cambridge in 1871 became the second college for women. The colleges were classed as "recognised institutions for the higher education for women" but did not have equivalent status as the Cambridge colleges for men. Women did not acheive full membership of the University of Cambridge and the two colleges did not receive the status as a College of the University until 1948. Similar colleges for women were opened at Oxford in 1879 and 1886. Although Cambridge University opened it's lectures to women in 1865 they had to first obtain permission to attend lectures and were not permitted to take degrees.
The London School of Medicine for Women was established in 1874 as women were not admitted to existing medical schools. In 1878 the University of London was the first university in the UK to allow women to study for a degree. In 1880 four women obtained BA's and by 1895 over ten percent of the graduates were women, rising to over thirty percent in 1900. Other universities followed - Durham University opened its doors to women in 1890 while in 1892 St. Andrews was the first Scottish University to admit women undergraduates.
The Endowed Schools Education Act of 1869 stated that endowed grammar schools should, wherever funds allowed, set up girls' deparments. The act lead to the foundation of over 90 girls' schools including Bedford, Birmingham and Bradford. (Check Dulwich College)
The Womens Educational Union began a scheme to establish public day schools for girls, with moderate fees, but on a commercial basis. Their first one opened in Chelsea in London in 1873 followed by Croydon in 1874. By 1891 there were 36 girls' public day schools throughout the country.
Great as these milestones were, they applied only to upper and middle class women. Hower, there were a few activists championing the cause of working class women. The Working Women's College was founded in London in 1864 to offer adult education to working women. It became co-educational in 1874. In the same year the College for Working Women was established, again in London, to continue to make single sex education available for working women.
Founded by Professor George Birbeck of Glasgow in 1800, the Mechanics Institutes were intended to teach working men the scientific and technical principles behind the processes they were using in the factories. Workers paid a small fee to join and attend classes. By 1850 there were around 610 institutes thoughout the country with over 600,000 members. The lack of qualified teachers and the weak literacy and numeracy skills of the students created problems for the movement, but many institutes had their own libraries and a number of the institutes such as those at Liverpool, Edinburgh and Huddersfield, evolved into modern universities.
Working Men's Colleges
The Working Men's College movement began in 1842. Unlike the Mechanic's Institute the curriculum was solely technical or vocational, focusing instead on basic literacy and numeracy. From 1870, classes in book-keeping, shorthand and science were added.
National Compulsory Education
In 1870 the Education Act was passed requiring the establishment of elementary schools nationwide to supplement existing schools. The country was divided into school districts and in those areas lacking adequate schools a school board was esatblished who were required to raise the funds to maintain the new school. These schools were sometimes called "board schools". The schools had to be non-denominational and could charge fees of up to 9p per week. They had to guarantee the attendance of all children i.e. both boys and girls, in their district between the ages of 5 and 13 and could appoint officers to enforce attendance. Another act was passed in 1891 making elementary education effectively free.
Local school boards were abolished in 1902 and administration passed to local authorities. As well as administering primary schools the Local Education Authorities were given powers to establish new secondary and technical schools.
In 1918 secondary education became compulsory up to age 14 and gave responsibility for secondary schools to the state. Many higher elementary schools and endowed grammar schools became state funded central schools or secondary schools. Most children however did not move to a separate secondary school, but continued at a primary school up until age 14. 1918 also saw the establishment of the national examinations of School Certificate and Higher School certificate. In 1929 the poor law schools became state funded primary schools.
In 1947 the split between primary and secondary education was set at age 11, and the school leaving age was raised to 15. The "tripartite" system was established which defined a grammar school as place for the education of the academically gifted. Admission was restricted by an entrance exam taken at age 11. It was initially called the "Scholarship" exam, then the "Grading Test" and finally the "11+". Those who did not pass the test attended technical shools or secondary modern schools.
Technical schools focused on vocational skills such as mechanics, science and engineering, but very few were ever built and only 2-3% of children ever attended them. Secondary modern schools were supposed to serve the majority of pupils (who, not surprisingly were mostly from working class families) whose scores in the 11+ exam were not in the top 25%. The curriculum focused on basic skills such as reading and arithmetic, and practical skills such as woodwork, metal work and domestic science. The first secondary moderns were created by converting many of the "senior elemenatry schools" i.e. those primary schools that had educated children up to the age of 14, into secondary moderns. Many more new schools were then built between the end of World War II and 1965.
Timeline for Examinations and Qualifications
1854 - Union of Institutions examinations in science
1857 - University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations established
1858 - University of Cambridge Local Examinations Sydicate set up to adminster examinations for those not attending the university. Junior exams for 16 year olds and senior exams for 18 year olds.
1865 - Cambridge Local Examinations opened to women
1870 - Oxford Local Examination opened to women
1876 - Society of Arts examinations in shorthand
1878 - City & Guilds Certificates (technological & vocational qualifications) established. London University examinations opened to women
1887 - London Chamber of Commerce qualilfications in business, commercial and office studies
1891 - Society of Arts examinations in typing
1918 - First national examinations introduced replacing the Cambridge Local Examinations with School Certificate and Higher School Certificate, administered by eight different university examination boards, depending on location.
1920 - Ordinary and Higher Certificates and Diplomas for vocational qualifications established
1951 - School Certificate and Higher School Certificate replaced by GCE O and A level examinations.
Finding Educational Records for Family History Research
Genhound has a growing collection of educational records from many different sources and periods. A full list of our records can be found at the bottom of this page
Educational records are to be found in many different locations, reflecting the disparate nature of the early British education system. The records for the oldest schools, now mostly independent fee paying schools, are usually kept at the schools themselves. However, many of them have published registers and histories of the schools, often going back to the eighteenth century, and even earlier in some cases. The published registers may often include not just the names and dates of attendance but the name and occupation of the father, the subsequent career of the pupil, last known address and date of death. Many of the schools also have alumni associations who maintain records of more recent graduates. The Public Schools Directory lists many of the established independent schools.
Th schools established by guilds also kept good records, for example the Merchant Taylor's School Register for the London school dates back to the 16th century and has been published. The original records for the school are now found in the London Metropolitan Archives along with other records including apprenticeship records for the London Livery Companies. Guild records outside of London will mostly be held in the relevant local archive.
The most likely repository for surviving records for many early schools will be the relevant local archive. Which collection the records are held in will depend on the type of school. Charity school records may be held with the other records of that charity, poor law union schools may be found along with workhouse records in the poor law records. School records collections in local archives may contain records for schools set up by the school boards in the 1870s, schools run by local education authorities, industrial schools and reformatory schools. Survival of the earlier school admission registers is patchy. Where they exist they will include the chid's name, date of birth, name and adress of parent or guardian and dates of entering and leaving the school. The reason for leaving may also be noted. Minutes and reports of school attendance officers may contain information on the pupils whose attendance was irregular. The Access to Archives website is a good way to locate information held in local archives.
Universities, on the whole, retain their records within their own archives. Many registers for the older universties have been published and may go back as early as the sixteenth century for the most established universties such as Oxford and Cambridge. The University of Wolverhampton's interactive map of UK universities is a good starting point to locate a particular university website.