A Brief History of Education in the UK

Teaching children and training them for life in the big bad world is not a new idea.  Whilst the British education system has probably never been as sophisticated as it is today, it has grown piecemeal with some most interesting, and in some cases outright eccentric developments along the way.  Here is a brief chronicle of some of the more significant (and quirky) events of yesteryear:

  1. The first cathedral schools were established in 597 and 604 AD.  Schooling expanded in the Middle Ages but was largely restricted to teaching Latin grammar to sons of the aristocracy.  Universities were created at Oxford and Cambridge to help train the clergy.
  2. In 1880 an Act of Parliament made education compulsory in Britain up until the age of ten, as a result of a vigorous campaign by the National Education League.  The Elementary Education (School Attendance) Act in 1893 raised this age limit to eleven and for the first time incorporated blind and deaf children, and it was further raised to twelve six years later.

The Inter-War Period

  1. In 1916, during the First World War, the Lewis report recommended raising the leaving age to fourteen.  This was enacted two years later, having been delayed due to the shortage of available teachers brought about by conscription, along with the abolition of fees for elementary education.
  2. In 1921 free school milk was introduced for all children in need.  This provision was later expanded to all children.
  3. A bill to raise the school leaving age to fifteen was defeated in the House of Lords in 1931.  An attempt to revive it from 1939 onwards was passed five years later, but implementation was delayed due to the outbreak of the Second World War.
  4. In 1941 weekly gas mask practice was introduced for children.  425,000 London children of school age had by now been evacuated from the capital.

Towards a Modern Education System

  1. The leaving age was eventually raised to fifteen in 1947, two years after the end of the war.  Many of the reforms which were proposed and debated during the war began to be rolled out. The following year a five-year plan was drawn up to recruit 96,000 teachers and reduce class sizes in both primary and secondary schools.
  2. Concern was expressed in certain quarters in 1949 following allegations of teachers spreading communist propaganda to schoolchildren.
  3. O-levels and A-levels were introduced in 1951.
  4. Schools in Leeds trialled the teaching of French in schools for the first time in 1962.
  5.  In 1965 education authorities were instructed to propose schemes for transformation into a comprehensive educational system, but the new government in 1970s reversed this by giving authorities the choice.
  6. School milk was abolished in 1971 for over-sevens.
  7. The school age was finally raised to sixteen in 1972, four years behind schedule.  In a completely unrelated incident Ken Barlow in Coronation Street quit teaching for a better paid job in a warehouse.
  8. GCSEs (General Certificates of Secondary Education) were introduced in 1986 to replace GCEs and CSEs.