Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Education in the United Kingdom (Before 1800)

While studying for my Archives Administration degree in Wales, I had to complete four miniature papers on various record types, which I figured I'd share here in order that the files could see the light of day again. 
Education in the Middle Ages

Classical education was bought to Britain primarily by monks, intent on converting the native residents.  The main purpose of this education was for the benefit of the church and was centered around reading, understanding, and writing in Latin in order to produce a literate clergy.

The State had no hand in education at this stage and attendance was not compulsory. Although there were schools that provided scholarships, a great deal were for fee paying students, and as such, parents did not pay for anything that was not viewed as absolutely essential.

Education After the Reformation

With the creation of the Church of England, control of education in Britain began the shift from the Church to the State. Schools supported by chantry lands were destroyed financially after the Chantries Act of 1548 which created a void where there hadn’t been one previously, and though some chantry lands were returned to the schools, this created problems for some time to come.

By Edward VI’s reign, schooling moved farther into the Protestant fold, Mary I instigated the strict licenscing of schoolmasters, and increasing literacy opened up the Bible to a wider audience. As the Reformation moved forward and various denominations of dissenters cropped up, children began to be educated in different ways according to their religious denomination.

Another influence on the surge of education during this time was of course the printing press. Standardized textbooks gained in popularity, in particular a standardized Latin text book. English literacy was taught alongside Latin and the Catchecism was translated in English by 1553 for children who did not know Latin.

Grammar Schools (Boys)

Grammar schools taught Latin grammar to pupils. The establisments were often attached to Cathedrals during the Middle Ages, and many were set out as linked to specific universities. Some were established by charitable bequests and as such, pupils were required to pray for the soul of the donor. There were also town grammar schools, such as the one Shakespeare attended in Stratford.

These were not schools that taught practical skills, but rather prepared the pupils for gentlemen’s occupations such as careers in government or academia. Grammar schools already assumed a student was able to read and writing was seen as an optional, extra lesson taught for a fee. A selection of capable students would then go on to University or train to become a lawyer.

In the 15th Century, it became increasingly important for boys to have a modicum of literacy no matter their future occupation. Many craft organizations in London required the ability to read and write of their apprentices.

Dame Schools

A Dame School, named because the schools were taught by women or ‘dames,’ was a basic elementary education. The earliest such schools were in reality mere nurseries for children as young as two or three rather than an educational facility.  

The dame schools developed in to  a form of basic elementary education for both boys and girls that were often held in the instructor’s own home. The primary educational tools were the hornbook and primer to teach literacy and writing. Dame Schools began disappearing after the advent of compulsory education in Britain.

Charity Schools

Sometimes considered to be the first attempt at mass education, charity Schools were started in the major cities during the 18th Century as a way to take the poor children off the streets and give them a Christian education at the expense of the subscription of the rich. The movement was seen as a way to make the lower classes obedient and tractable through education. Pupils, both male and female, could attend school from the age of seven to fourteen and many were put into apprenticeships at the end of their schooling.

The education of the sexes in these schools differed however. Boys were taught reading, writing, and maths while girls were not taught to read most of the time. Girls learned the traditional crafts of their gender, namely knitting and housewifery.

Sunday Schools

Pupils were taken to hear the sermons on Sunday, subject to penalties for non-attendance, and were tested on the lesson the sermon provided. Mondays were usually spent in the discussion and examination of what the boys had heard on Sunday.

School Records

Many of the schools that were established before 1800, such as Eton, Harrow School, and Winchester College, are still operating and have kept their own records.

Examples of Records Include:

  •  Administrative Materials about Students and Staff
  •  Memorabilia
  •  Diaries
  •  Headmaster’s Papers
  •  Master’s Papers
  • Admissions Registers
  •  Deeds
  • Building Plans


Cressy, David. Education in Tudor and Stuart England. Edward Arnold: London, 1975.

Greaves, Richard L. The Puritan Revolution and Educational Thought. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, 1969.

Jewell, Helen M. Education in Early Modern England. London: Macmillan Press, 1998.

National Archives. “Research Guide: Sources for the History of Education.” The National Archives. (accessed 9 Dec 2009).

Neuburg, V. E. Popular Education in Eighteenth Century England. London: Woburn Press, 1971.

Orme, Nicholas. English Schools in the Middle Ages. Methuen & Co.: London, 1973.

Watson, Foster. The Old Grammar Schools. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1916.

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