Schooling before the 19th Century

There was no national system of education before the 19th century, and only a small section of the child population received any schooling. Opportunities for a formal education were restricted mainly to town grammar schools, charity schools and 'dame' schools.

Where they existed at all, schools had been established through the initiative of wealthy local benefactors or people who saw it as a means of making a living, and little else.

Grammar schools

Grammar schools were usually civic foundations going back to Tudor times or earlier, and in most cases had been endowed from the fortunes of merchants. Newer foundations copied the older grammar school, took fees, and were run on commercial lines, advertising their services in newspapers. They saw themselves as part of a growing market for education, but were often built on precarious finances and failed to survive for very long.

Charity schools

Charity schools were less formal institutions and were geared chiefly towards the poorer sections of society. Many of them in fact owed their existence to the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), founded in 1699. It was an expressed aim of the Society to spread Christian knowledge as a form of missionary activity.

During the 18th century the Society's leaders created schools for the poor in the 7-11 age group wherever it could. It is from these schools that the modern concept of primary and secondary education has grown. The SPCK also concerned itself with the training of teachers, and to some extent introduced a sense of professionalism to teaching.

Other schools

Other types of local school are often grouped under the heading of 'dame schools'. These were often run by old ladies or retired soldiers who for small fees taught the basic 'three Rs' - reading, writing and arithmetic - to the children of poorer tradesmen.

There were also, of course, the great public schools, of which Eton, Harrow and Westminster were pre-eminent, but these were financially out of reach to all but wealthy members of the ruling class.

Also in this section

View a chronology of the developments leading to the creation of Britain's state schools