Ever since the existence of man the teaching and learning process has been
an integral part of human experience. The communication of knowledge and
practical skills has always been essential to the development of
individuals, groups and wider communities. If this is true of the most
primitive of communities it is all the more so in today’s complex society
where personal fulfilment depends to a large extent on one’s social role
which is often a direct result of acquired knowledge and the ability t to
make the most of it. The ability to develop one’s critical sense, the
ability to analyse, to see how things and persons relate are all skills
that are the result of education.

It was not long before communities realised that if they needed people of
ability then it had to encourage education. After all a society of any kind
is not a mere abstraction but a number of individuals that are in some way
are related and interact. The development of society as a whole depends o on
the development of each constituent part.

Even the Homo Habilis of the Stone Age had to learn to make rudimentary
weapons to defend himself and to hunt for food. He had to learn how to use
the skins of the animals to make b

basic protective clothing. The
transmission of knowledge and skills (education) allowed him to survive. We
are the living proof that he did survive; we have built upon his

Some early schools that still survive

In Britain, during the Middles Ages, formal education was already taking
shape. Schools ranged from those organised by the local parish to those
connected to Cathedrals, chantries and monasteries.

These gave a very elementary education. Pupils were given religious
instruction and were taught to read.

We also have the first grammar schools that prepared pupils for entrance
into the colleges in Oxford. The Bishop of Winchester founded Seinte Marie
College of Winchestre (chartered in 1382 and opened by him in 1394).
Another very prestigious institution, Eton College, was founded by Henry VI
in 1440. Both Winchester College and Eton College still e exist as very
exclusive institutions.

Henry Fielding, the Duke of Wellington, William Gladstone and George Orwell
are among the many famous people who attended Eton.

Apart from those already mentioned there are a number of other ancient
schools that still survive: St Paul’s School founded in 1509 by John Colet
(?1467-1519). Rugby founded in 1567 and associated with the name of the
Victorian poet Matthew Arnold (1822-88).

All of these institutions provided specialised knowledge in Latin and Greek
necessary for their future studies in one of the Oxford colleges.

Apart from these academically or

rientated institutions there were also other
forms of formal education especially those of a vocational kind.
Apprentices learnt their trade skills in schools run by the various guilds.

Already we can see from the age of primitive man down to the Middle Ages
and the Renaissance the two essential forms of the modern system of
education in England today. From early times we have two separate systems
providing different types of education: academic and vocational.

We also see existing side by side two types of educational institutions:
secular and religious. From early times there has always been a close
association between the Church and education which has survived throughout
the ages. Schools run by religious organisations have always had a profound
influence on the development of education and still offer an invaluable
service to the nation.



The events that lead directly to the birth of the modern system of
education in England are to be sought mainly in the second half of the 19th-

There were certain individuals at the beginning of the 19th century who
were in favour of widespread education, however, for a number of reasons,
they did not have the backing either of the government or of the people.
Later on in the century leaders of the Chartist Movement and the Radicals
were in

n favour of some sort of national system of education. However, it is
safe to say that there was no widespread desire for the education of the
population as a whole. In the social legislation of this period education
did not become a real priority until the year of the first Education Act,

Obstacles in way of a national system of free compulsory education

The establishment of a national system of education came late in England
mainly because of the social, economic and religious climate of the

The higher classes of society had no interest in advocating the

cultural development of the working classes. On the contrary, the

effects of the revolutionary spirit in Europe reinforced conservative

attitudes that were certainly not conducive to advocating the

development of the critical faculties of the people as a whole.

Neither did the vast majority of the working class have any real

interest in education. Child labour was common practice in this period

and working-class families were very reluctant to give up the earnings

of their children for the benefit of education. The employment of

children continued to increase even after 1850.

Also the effect of Protestantism, with its emphasis on individualism,

personal salvation, the private reading and interpretation of

Scripture, ran contrary to any sort of collectivist thought.

Religious conflict also delayed th

he establishment of a national system

of education. One example of this can be seen in the reaction to the

clauses regarding education in the 1843 Factory Bill. There was

violent opposition on the part of nonconformists and Catholics alike

because, according to the Bill, headmasters had to be of the Church of

England. Furthermore, the children were to be taught the catechism and

be present at liturgical celebrations as well as service on Sundays.

The Bill failed.

The idea of secular education had never been popular during the

century. Education had almost exclusively been under the control of

the established church. Furthermore, we should not forget the conflict

between secular and religious thought that characterised the century,

especially the latter half. Given the cultural and religious climate

of the century it became obvious that any nondenominational system of

education would be well nigh impossible. It was only in the 20th

century, with the rise of indifference towards religious teaching,

that general nondenominational schooling became possible.

Denominational education was further reinforced by the increase in the

Catholic population due to the wave of Irish immigrants during and

following the Great Famine in Ireland (1845-50).

It was also thought that the voluntary school system was quite

successful and that it was better not to encourage government

intervention. Furthermore, the dominant laissez-faire theory of the

time meant that, as in most areas, any direct intervention on the part

of the state in the field of education was to be discouraged. The

state was only too happy to leave education to the private sector,

voluntary or otherwise. Education could not constitute an exception to

the tenaciously upheld doctrine of laissez-faire. However, these

voluntary institutions did not have the influence or power to

construct a nationwide system.

Economic development and the increase of wealth were seen to be priority
issues. The question of education only attracted very limited attention.

Tendencies and events favouring national education

Not everything was negative; there were quite distinct undercurrents of
thought beginning to emerge that eventually led to the 1870 Education Act.
During the century, and particularly during the second half, we have the
beginnings of a national system of education that owes its birth to many

From the first decade of the 19th-century there emerged indications of

new thinking in the field of education. Of particular interest is the

Bill introduced into the House of commons by Samuel Whitbread in 1807.

In 1807 Samuel Whitbread proposed to deal with the whole of the Poor Law
with the introduction of a Bill in the House of Commons. Of particular
interest is the first part of the Bill, which dealt specifically with
education. Whitbread advocated making the parish responsible for education
and proposed that each child should have two years of education between the
ages of 7 and 14. He thought this would reduce crime and pauperism.

It was considered too expensive to implement and it was also thought that
the introduction of such a scheme would take the people away from manual
work and make them dissatisfied with their social situation. Although
unsuccessful the thought of generalised education for the masses was even
then being expressed and was later to be reiterated constantly throughout
the century eventually leading up to the 1870 Education Act.

The idea of widespread education was also helped by the gradual

increase in collectivist thought especially after 1865. This is quite

evident in the works of Carlyle and Ruskin. It was only after this

date that any idea of widespread state intervention in the field of

education could find fertile ground.

The various Factory Acts of 1833, 1844, and 1867 were another

contributory factor towards the general tendency towards national

education. These acts focused not only on the condition of workers but

they also had the effect of imposing certain restrictions on child

labour, which in turn favoured the opportunity of an alternative:

education for the child.

In the second half of the 19th-century crime and pauperism increased,

so did riots strikes and social unrest. The commercial and

manufacturing supremacy of Britain was in decline and this was seen to

be mostly due to the fact that other European countries had a more

developed technical education system. Political stability and economic

prosperity now seemed to be associated with the education of the

people. Education now seemed financially viable.

In 1869 two other societies were established: the Education League,

which turned secular and the National Education Union, which was

conservative and Anglican. It was mainly due to these two societies

that the Education Act of 1870 was passed.

The Education Act of 1870

It was with the Education Act of 1870, also known as the “Forster Act”,
that we have the real birth of the modern system of education in England.
This not only gave rise to a national system of state education but also
assured the existence of a dual system – voluntary denominational schools
and nondenominational state schools.

The act required the establishment of elementary schools nationwide. These
were not to replace or duplicate what already existed but supplement those
already run by the churches, private individuals and guilds.

The country was divided into school districts and in those areas where
there was inadequate provision school boards were to be elected. These were
responsible for raising sufficient funds to maintain the schools. The
schools were often called ” board schools”.

These elementary schools had to be non-denominational. The school boards
could charge a weekly fee not exceeding 9 pence. For a limited period the
school boards could pay the fees if the parents were unable to do so. The
Voluntary Schools could also receive such payment of fees from the school

They had to guarantee attendance for all children in their respective
districts between the ages of 5 and 13. The School Board could appoint
officers to enforce attendance. These officers or “Board Men”, as they were
commonly known, became one of those terribly menacing figures firmly
implanted in the minds of young schoolboys. This figure was an effective
deterrent in playing truant. All the more menacing because the child could
only picture him in his imagination (if he faithfully attended school, that
is!!). He was also known as the School Attendance Officer.

Religious instruction was an integral part of the school curriculum but was
not compulsory. This was to be nondenominational.

Since 1870 Voluntary Schools declined except Roman Catholic Schools because
Boards Schools provided better buildings and higher pay for teachers.

Elementary education became effectively free with the passing of the 1891
Education Act.



In the 20th century Education became a sensitive social, economic and
political issue in most European countries. England was no exception. In
the history of English education the most important piece of legislation of
the twentieth century was the Education Act of 1944, also known as the
“Butler Act”. It replaced all previous legislation.

It became increasingly clear that education was of vital importance to the
nation and to the individual and the legislation passed necessarily
reflected this conviction. It also reflected political tendencies, as well
as the social and economic needs of the nation.

Education of the individual is the foundation of the education of the
community. The individual’s needs are not merely academic and neither are
those of the community. This comes out quite clearly in the 1944 Education

“it shall be the duty of the local education authority for every area, so
far as their powers extend, to continue towards the spiritual, mental and
physical developments of the community”

(1944 Education Act Part II, 7)

If education is to foster the “spiritual, mental and physical” well-being
of the community it has to be focused on the “spiritual, mental and
physical” well-being of each individual member of that community; education
has to be child-centred.

Education not only has to do with communicating academic information but
also involves the whole of the person: academic ability, spiritual,
physical and vocational needs. It is clearly noticeable in the history of
education in England that religion and spiritual values are seen to be of
paramount importance. Once again the 1944 Education Act stresses this by
stating how the day at school should begin:

“the school day in every county school and in every voluntary school shall
begin with collective worship on the part of all pupils in attendance”

In England these dimensions of a pupil’s life have all been considered to
be the principal concerns of education throughout the ages, not only in the
20th century.

The same principal was also reiterated in the Education Reform Act 1988
where it states the need for a broadly based curriculum which:

“promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development
of pupils at the school and of society”

These views are shared by all social classes and political parties. With
equal conviction any form of “political indoctrination” has been banned
from schools (the second 1986 Education Act). School texts obviously
reflect this policy.


What follows cannot be considered a complete description of the educational
system in England. The system was and still is more complex than it seems
here. What follows merely offers the essential elements, the “backbone” of
the system. There is enough information to facilitate comparisons with
systems of education in other countries.

Unified or diversified Secondary education?

While there were only Elementary Schools for children between the ages of 5
and 13 problems were limited. There was only one way forward after school –
the working world. There was no possibility of an academic career except
for those who could afford it.

The general nature of education changed when it became possible for a
restricted number of pupils to gain free places in a Grammar School if they
passed an examination at the age of 11. The Elementary School began to
consider preparing for the examination as its main function. The
examination tested the ability of the children in two subjects only:
English and Arithmetic. Other subjects, therefore, tended to become
neglected. Furthermore, the reputation of the school depended mainly on its
success rate at this examination.

The examination formed the basis of what is known as the 11plus (11+)
examination. It led to divisions in schools (streaming), in the country
(social class distinctions) and also led to irreconcilable political
attitudes (Labour v. Conservative) with the Conservative in favour of this
selection process and Labour against it. All the opposition against the 11+
exam and the selection process has led to the idea of the modern
comprehensive system cherished by Labour and rejected by Conservatives.

Whatever were the arguments for and against the examination it was true
that the future life of a child was decided at about 11. Pupils who didn’t
sit or who failed the 11+ examination could only gain access to a Secondary
Modern School and later perhaps to a Technical School.

The tripartite system

Before the introduction of Comprehensive Schools the state education system
in England was essentially tripartite and was made up of

Grammar Schools

Secondary Modern Schools

Secondary Technical Schools

Grammar Schools.

This type of school catered essentially for those who were interested in
pursuing their studies beyond the O-level GCE stage. It provided an
academic education for pupils between the ages of 12 and 19. Their pupils
came through the selective process of the 11+ examination and therefore
these schools had the most academically gifted children. Most of the pupils
entered university after school.

It was, rightly or wrongly, seen as a middle class institution.

Secondary Modern Schools

Here the pupils normally attended a four year course leading to the School
Leaving Certificate. The course usually offered instruction in English, at
least one other language, geography, history, mathematics, science,
drawing, manual instruction or domestic subjects, and physical exercise.
When pupils left school they normally entered into the working world.

The choice of curriculum was not influenced by future academic achievement
but was child centred. It developed out of the interests, needs and ability
of the children and as they later went to work it obviously had a practical
dimension. As there was no external examination to be taken at the end of
the course the pupils were not under pressure.

What caused things to change? There was a possibility of staying on for a
further year and in the 1950s there was a growing tendency to do so. Those
who continued into the 5th year could sit the General Certificate of
Education (GCE).

As a result of the increasing number of pupils taking the GCE the need was
felt for a more specific examination adapted to the Secondary Modern
School. In 1963 we have the introduction of a new type of external
examination, the Certificate of Secondary Education (C.S.E.) for fifth year

Secondary Technical Schools

This was the less popular alternative to the Secondary Modern School. Those
who failed the 11+ went to a Secondary Modern School but at the age of 12
or 13 could gain a place at a Secondary Technical School.

It is difficult to imagine why it was not successful since this type of
school was closely linked to the world of industry and commerce. It
provided a general education with special emphasis on technical subjects.
It was definitely more in touch with reality than Grammar Schools and
certainly more specifically geared to preparing the pupils for their trade
after leaving school.

However, there was a lack of qualified teachers and this must be seen as
one cause for its lack of success. Perhaps also there was a marked
psychological deterrent. The pupils who had already faced one examination
failure (11+) perhaps did not feel inclined to go through the humiliating
experience of another possible failure at such an early age. Besides, they
had already overcome the pressure of the 11+ exam and now felt
psychologically relieved.

The present system

Between the ages of 5 and 11 children attend the primary school and then
progress to secondary school level, which normally means entry into a
Comprehensive School.

The tripartite system of secondary education has practically disappeared
and has been replaced by the Comprehensive School.

Among the Comprehensive Schools are also the Voluntary denominational
schools. Particularly strong are the Roman Catholic Comprehensive Schools.

What is a comprehensive school?

When we say that it incorporates everything in the tripartite system we
have said all.

For the sake of clarity we might give the official definition: the
Comprehensive School is a school

“intended to provide all the secondary education of all the children in a
given area without an organization in three sides”

These schools take all pupils regardless of ability (except those children
with special needs who attend special schools). They therefore cater for
children from a variety of social backgrounds, hence the name
“comprehensive”. There is no examination or any other selection process for

Comprehensive Schools, however, have not eliminated distinctions. There is
what is called “streaming” and “setting” according to learning ability.
This means that students are grouped together in order to achieve a degree
of uniformity in classes.

86.8% of pupils in England attend comprehensive schools. There are,
however, other types of school: 5.2% attend middle, deemed secondary; 2.6%
attend Secondary Modern; 4.2% Secondary Grammar; 0.1% Technical Schools.


After four years of secondary school, at about the age of 16, pupils sit
the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examination. This is
taken in a wide range of subjects according to the pupils’ ability. Usually
four to eight or even as many as ten subjects. The exams are marked by an
independent body.

Two years later the students sit another examination called the General
Certificate of Education (GCE) (A Level) again based on a selection of
subjects chosen by each candidate (usually three to five and including a
science subject and an arts subject). Access to universities is based on
the number of examinations taken and the grades achieved. The exact
requirements are fixed by the individual universities and vary according to
the type of degree course you want to follow.

Here are some links highlighting the debate on grammar schools which still
lingers on:

National Grammar Schools Association This site aims to promote the Grammar
Schools in Britain

Say No A useful site in favour of the comprehensive system.

Education Unlimited A useful site for the latest news in the field of

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