The earliest known organised school in England was established at the end of the sixth century by St. Augustine. By the end of the 11th century there was a university in Oxford, the second oldest in the world. Cambridge followed in 1209.

The English Reformation in the mid 16th century was the catalyst for an expansion in educational provision as the need arose to educate the priesthood in the new ways of the Protestant religion. New colleges were established in Oxford and Cambridge and a reformed system of free grammar schools was established during the short reign of the boy king, Edward VI.

Throughout the 17th century the people’s education progressed through the apprenticeship system and with the assistance and sponsorship of private benefactors. Some attention began to be given to the education of girls in so called “dame schools” though many of these were initially little more than day care centres and it was not until the following century that girls’ education became a priority. The Charity School movement began towards the end of the 17th century. A growing number of children were living in destitution due to rapid urbanisation. The growing public interest in the setting up and running of schools for the social and religious benefit of impoverished children was taken up by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK) in 1698. 

However, education for the poor and “labouring classes” was opposed along the way. When the Parochial Schools Bill of 1807 was debated in Parliament, MP Davies Giddy (later Gilbert), President of the Royal Society, warned the House of Commons:   “However specious in theory the project might be of giving education to the labouring classes of the poor, it would, in effect, be found to be prejudicial to their morals and happiness; it would teach them to despise their lot in life, instead of making them good servants in agriculture and other laborious employments to which their rank in society had destined them.”

Davies Gilbert MP by Samuel Cousins, after Henry Howard 1828
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Fortunately, his views did not prevail. Spurred on by the Industrial Revolution with its demand for new skills, education was secularised and made more accessible to the poor. In 1818 John Pound established the “ragged school” in Portsmouth to provide free tuition in reading, writing and arithmetic for poor children.

In 1820 Samuel Wilderspin opened the first infant school in Spitalfields in London.In 1833 the Government for the first time provided money to build schools for poor children in England and Wales. In the eight years beginning in 1844 over 200 new schools providing free education were established. By 1870, 2.3 million children were in school.

R.A. Butler M.P.
Photo by Elliott & Fry
December 1934
© National Portrait Gallery, London

1902 saw further legislation loosening church influence on educational provision and establishing local education authorities. The Education Act 1918 made education compulsory up to age 14. The Education Act of 1944, known as the Butler Act after Education Minister R.A. Butler MP but probably owing more to teacher and politician, James Chuter Ede, was a response to surging social and educational demands created by the war and the widespread demands for social reform. It created the first truly national education service centrally directed but locally managed with democratic accountability.

In 1976 Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan gave the landmark Ruskin College speech at Oxford University calling for a realignment of the purpose of education the better to serve the interest of the national economy and society as a whole and with a lesser concentration on the development of the individual. But before his government had the chance to achieve this new alignment he had to give way to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and it was her Secretary of State for Education, Kenneth Baker who secured the changes but with an agenda very different from that imagined by Callaghan. Baker’s Education Reform Act of 1988 began the modern trend in the development of educational provision and management. It has been followed by a deluge of new laws right up to the present day.

What does the 21st Century hold ? In 2020 we have seen the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on education in England and Wales. When the crisis is past, will there be a return to familiar practice or have new lessons been learned, with new ideas to bring about big changes ? The National Education Museum will have a part to play.