A brief history of how our Ancestors were educated

And even did your ancestors receive an education? Certainly the further you go back in time the less likely they received an education unless they were in certain professions, although many ‘skilled’ labourers did serve apprenticeships. It was only 150 years ago when William Forster’s Elementary Education Act was passed in 1870 which was the beginning of ‘compulsory’ education for all 5 to 13 year old children although there had been a growing number of factory schools, colliery schools, chemical and railway schools established in the earlier half of the 19th Century.

Historically, it was the monasteries and churches which provided basic education and the Universities of Oxford (established in the late 11th Century) and Cambridge (established in the middle 13th Century) providing education for the professions (clergy, lawyers) available only to the wealthy and those is religious orders. The wealthy often educated their children privately at home, with hired governesses or tutors for younger children

Grammar schools (private and outside the control of the church) began to develop in the 15th Century with around 300 such Grammar schools existing at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1538, with an increasing number thereafter being established by Royal Charter and endowments of noblemen and wealthy merchants, all being private independent ‘public’ schools available only those who could afford the fees! It was often the ‘town-based middle class’ who could afford to send their sons to such schools.

So what about the ‘ordinary’ family and their children? It is well documented that the larger proportion of the population were illiterate and that children were required to work from as young an age as possible to help support their families. Of course, many children will have learnt trades from their parents – or should I say sons would learn trades from their fathers whilst daughters would learn their domestic and family ‘duties’ from their mothers – although of course those in particular who ‘worked the land’ would require the whole family to ‘work the land’ is order to survive.

17th Century

Charity schools began to develop to provide some education to children of the ‘deserving’ poor. Such schools would provide education free of charge and were usually funded by private contributions being established and run by churches and other religious organisations. Some such schools (often known as hospitals where they provided boarding facilities) provided education for boys up to the age of 16, preparing them to go on to University usually by means of a scholarship.

Dame schools provided voluntary education for young children essentially as forerunners to nursery schools. Theses were often run by women in their own homes to the children in their local community most likely, as nursery’s do today, to enable both parents to earning a living and financially support their families. The work the mothers would undertake however would be vastly different to diverse roles women undertake today!

Daughters of wealthy families could be sent to private boarding schools to be taught the classics, foreign languages, music, dancing, social and domestic skills.

18th Century

Following the introduction the General Workhouse Act of 1723, parish workhouses began to establish ‘workhouse schools’ to prepare their pupils for apprenticeships, thus the education was largely in practical subjects than the core subjects of education today (language, maths etc).

In the latter half of this century, the Freemasons established their own charitable schools for children of its members – firstly for girls in 1788 and then boys in 1798.

It was at the end of this century that Sunday Schools also began to develop, being introduced nationally in 1780, provided by churches These schools were for children and adults alike, educating them in basic reading but became the ‘building blocks’ of our education system.

19th Century

Following the success of Sunday Schools, ‘Ragged Schools’ were established in the early part of the 19th Century. Firstly by Thomas Cranfield in London in 1810, followed by John Pounds in Portsmouth in 1818 and later Thomas Barnardo in 1867. These schools provided free education to impoverished children, described as ‘ragged’ schools because the children were ‘raggedly clothed’!

From 1802, any child (male or female) who was apprenticed was required to be provided with free part-time education and in 1811 the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church was set up and financed by the Church of England. This society quickly became the country’s most influential educational body.

Following the emancipation of Roman Catholics in 1829 and the Reform Act of 1832 all religious schools were equal (I have not touched upon the many schools set up over the centuries by non-conformist/dissenting religious groups) and from 1833 Government grants were introduced of £20,000 per year to British, Foreign and National Society schools. This system changed in 1861 to a payment of 4 shillings per pupil plus 2 shillings 8 pence per subject per pupil passing a yearly exam in reading, writing and arithmetics.

There was an ever increasing number of children receiving an education although this was not compulsory and was often intermittent, in that during for example harvest time, children were still needed at home to help with the harvest rather than continuing to be sent to school.

The education system as we know it today developing from Forster’s Elementary Education Act of 1870 which gave education boards the powers to require parents to send all children aged 5 to 13 year old to school, however it did not make it compulsory nationwide. This was not until the 1880 Education Act which did make it compulsory for all children aged 5 to 10 years old, with the leaving age being raised to age 11 in 1893 and to age 12 in 1899.

20th Century

Our 20th century ancestors saw a gradual increase in the school leaving age from 12 to 14 in 1918 after the first world war. The Education Act of 1918 also included provision for compulsory part-time education for all 14-to-18-year-olds. However this provision did not come into force until 1921 due to cuts in public spending after World War I.

Compulsory education up to the age of 15 was introduced in the Education Act 1944, but did not come into force until April 1947 due to World War 2. This was further increased to the age of 16 from 1 September 1972.

21st Century

Following the Education and Skills Act 2008, which came into force in the 2013 academic year, whilst the school leaving age ‘technically’ remains at 16, essentially ‘children’ are now required to remain in some form of education until the age of 18, be that continuing their schooling by with continuing their academic qualifications (e.g. ‘A’ levels) attending a vocational qualification course (e.g. Btec) or entering into an apprenticeship.

And of course as of the 23rd March 2020, albeit temporary (indefinitely temporary😂) it almost feels like we have gone full circle, with home education but at least we still have the support of teachers and the school curriculum to guide us…. I’m sure for some parents it may feel like ‘the educated leading the blind’ with teaching having changed so much since many parents were themselves at school …. I know I (having left secondary school 30 years ago albeit I was lucky enough to go on to A levels and university) sometimes feel like teaching is a new language in itself … ‘phonics’, ‘digraphs’ ‘graphemes’ etc – of course we learnt it but it was never a ‘subject’ as such it was all just part of learning to read and write! 😜

It is not difficult to see how the class structure in this country managed to maintain itself for such a long time. Without access to education it would have been extremely difficult for the vast majority of our poorer ancestors to climb that social ladder. Another reason to be living today and not 500 years ago perhaps!?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.