The History of Education in the UK

The History of Education in the UK

In the 19th century the Church of England was responsible for most educations until the establishment of free, compulsory education towards the end of that century. University College London was established, followed by King's College London; the two institutions formed the University of London. Durham University was also established in the early nineteenth century. Towards the end of the century the "redbrick" universities were founded.

UK in the 1800’s
In the 1860s the annual funding allocated for schools by Parliament exceeded £800,000. But there was growing pressure for the state to provide schools in areas where none existed. One of the chief stumbling blocks was the vested interests of religious societies. There was conflict of opinion over whether the state should pay for schools run by particular religious denominations, or whether schools should have no association with any denomination.

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).
1870 Education Act
The 1870 Education Act stands as the very first piece of legislation to deal specifically with the provision of education in Britain. Most importantly, it demonstrated a commitment to provision on a national scale!
The Act allowed voluntary schools to carry on unchanged, but established a system of 'school boards' to build and manage schools in areas where they were needed. The boards were locally elected bodies which drew their funding from the local rates. Unlike the voluntary schools, religious teaching in the board schools was to be 'non-denominational'. A separate Act extended similar provisions to Scotland in 1872.
Over 95% of children of elementary school age were already enrolled in schools well before it was made compulsory and free. In 1861 the Royal Commission on the state of popular education in England, chaired by the Duke of Newcastle, reported "The number of children whose names ought [in summer 1858 in England and Wales] 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.
More Education Acts
The issue of making education compulsory for children had not been settled by the Act. The 1876 Royal Commission on the Factory Acts recommended that education be made compulsory in order to stop child labor. In 1880 a further Education Act finally made school attendance compulsory between the ages of five and ten, though by the early 1890s attendance within this age group was falling short at 82 per cent.
The churches had not been able to make universal provision, so the state would now fund schools managed by locally elected and inter-denominationally 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.
Many children worked outside school hours - in 1901 the figure was put at 300,000 - and truancy was a major problem due to the fact that parents could not afford to give up income earned by their children.
Fees were also payable until a change in the law in 1891. Further legislation in 1893 extended the age of compulsory attendance to 11, and in 1899 to 12.
Compulsory education was also extended to blind and deaf children under the Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act of 1893, which established special schools. Similar provision was made for physically-impaired children in the Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act of 1899.

1963 Newson Report
When Churchill had come to power in 1951 he had immediately cut spending on education. But in the ensuing years the Tories accepted the notion that increased investment in education led to national economic growth, and public expenditure on education rose from 3 per cent of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in 1953-4 to 4.3 per cent in 1964-5. As a result, there had been huge improvements in educational provision since the end of the war. 1,800 new secondary schools had been built in England and Wales, there was more variety in the curriculum, equipment and materials had improved, and there were more out of school activities.
The provision of secondary education in England and Wales at the time was as follows:
Secondary modern schools - 3,906
Grammar schools - 1,298
Direct grant grammar schools - 179
Technical schools - 186
Bi- and Multi-lateral schools - 69
Comprehensive schools  - 195
Other secondary schools - 240
All-age schools - 411
By 1976, the Labor government was in deep financial trouble and Callaghan (pictured) was pressured by the US and by the right wing of his own party to accept a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The cuts in public expenditure which were forced on him increased unemployment and worsened the provision of education and other public services.
Independent schools
Another long-held ambition of the Labor Party was to integrate the independent ('public') schools into the state system. But Wilson seemed no more determined to realize this aim than he was to get rid of selection.
The Public Schools Commission's first report (the Newsom Report, 1968) - a 'costly and prolonged exercise' (Benn and Chitty 1996:10) - was shelved because its proposals were based on the continuation of selection. The Commission's second report (the Donnison Report, 1970) proposed that the direct grant grammar schools should either become comprehensives or go fully private.

National Curriculum
The National Curriculum would consist of three 'core subjects' (mathematics, English and science); six foundation subjects (history, geography, technology, music, art and physical education); plus a modern foreign language at key stages 3 and 4 (3(1-2)). Schools in Welsh-speaking areas of Wales would also teach Welsh.
The National Curriculum which resulted from the Act was written by a government quango: teachers had virtually no say in its design or construction. It was almost entirely content-based. Dennis Lawton, of the University Of London Institute Of Education, described it as the reincarnation of the 1904 Secondary Regulations.
It was also constantly revised. Right-wing think-tanks and pressure groups were unhappy with aspects of the first version and campaigned for 'the simplification and "Anglicization" of the national testing system, so as to emphasize basic skills and the English cultural heritage' (Jones 2003:141). The New Right gained control of the curriculum and assessment councils, where they provoked strong opposition from teachers, especially from teachers of English, leading to a widespread boycott of Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) in 1993-4.
Child guidance
Circulars from the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Health and Social Security in March 1974 recommended that the child guidance service should be based on a multi-professional team, providing assessment, diagnosis, consultation, treatment and other help.
Educational justification
Educational arguments were put forward for middle schools. They would 'extend the best practices of primary education' and would provide better support for pupils 'during a critical transitional stage of their personal development and educational career' (Hargreaves and Tickle 1980:3).

Rapid development
The Wilson government's Circular 10/65, which invited LEAs to submit their proposals for expansion, listed six possible forms of school organization. The last of these was:
A system of middle schools which straddle the primary/secondary age ranges. Under this system pupils transfer from a primary school at the age of 8 or 9 to a comprehensive school with an age range of 8 to 12 or 9 to 13. From this middle school they move on to a comprehensive school with an age range of 12 or 13 to 18. (DES 1965: para.3)
Two years later the Plowden Report advocated 12 as the age of transfer: 'on the whole we think that transfer at 12 is more likely to give us the middle school we want to see'.

After the confrontation of the 'education establishment' - the teachers and their unions, the training institutions and national and local inspectors and advisors, there was to be action on three fronts:
  1. The curriculum - traditionally seen as the 'secret garden' which government ministers were not supposed to enter;
  2. The teachers - controlling their training and development and restricting their role in curriculum development; and
  3. The local education authorities (LEAs) - many of which (especially the Labor-controlled ones) Thatcher saw as her enemy.
Perhaps the word which best sums up education in the 1960s is optimism.
It is, of course, easy to look back through the proverbial rose-tinted spectacles. But I think it is fair to say that, in areas where the eleven plus was abolished, it felt as though a great weight had been lifted from the shoulders of the schools. Teachers - especially in primary schools - suddenly had enormous freedom to experiment with progressive styles of teaching, child-centered learning, open plan schools, discovery methods, creativity and spontaneity. It was a heady mix.

Send to friend

Uk English Courses