Education in the UK

Preliminary pages
Introduction, Contents, Preface
Chapter 1 Up to 1500
Chapter 2 1500-1600
Renaissance and Reformation
Chapter 3 1600-1660
Chapter 4 1660-1750
Chapter 5 1750-1860
Towards mass education
Chapter 6 1860-1900
A state system of education
Chapter 7 1900-1923
Secondary education for some
Chapter 8 1923-1939
From Hadow to Spens
Chapter 9 1939-1945
Educational reconstruction
Chapter 10 1945-1951
Labour and the tripartite system
Chapter 11 1951-1964
The wind of change
Chapter 12 1964-1970
The golden age?
Chapter 13 1970-1974
Applying the brakes
Chapter 14 1974-1979
Progressivism under attack
Chapter 15 1979-1990
Thatcher and the New Right
Chapter 16 1990-1997
John Major: more of the same
Chapter 17 1997-2007
Tony Blair and New Labour
Chapter 18 2007-2010
Brown and Balls: mixed messages
Chapter 19 2010-2015
Gove v The Blob
Chapter 20 2015-2018

On this page




Education in the UK: a history
Derek Gillard

first published June 1998
this version published May 2018

copyright Derek Gillard 2018
Education in the UK: a history is my copyright. You are welcome to download it and/or print it for your own personal use, or for use in a school or other educational establishment, provided my name as the author is attached. But you may not publish it, upload it onto any other website, or sell it, without my permission.

You are welcome to cite this work. If you do so, please acknowledge it thus:
Gillard D (2018) Education in the UK: a history

In references in the text, the number after the colon is always the page number (even where a document has numbered paragraphs or sections).

Where a document is shown as a link, the full text is available online.

Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.

Preliminary pages

Introduction, Contents and Preface


Education in the UK: a history explores the development of our schools, colleges and universities from the Roman occupation to the present day.

In addition to the twenty chapters, there is a timeline listing events, reports, education acts, official papers and other publications; a glossary of commonly-used abbreviations and terms which may be especially useful for non-UK readers; and a bibliography, which is a compilation of all the quoted sources listed at the end of each chapter.

Each web page includes links to all the chapters (as in the left-hand column on this page) and, at the end of each page, there are links to the previous and next chapters. The left-hand column also displays the organisation of each chapter with links to the main headings, as shown in the Contents list below.

In quotations, interventions shown in (round brackets) are the author's own; interventions in [square brackets] are mine. Italics are the author's own unless otherwise indicated.

Bearing in mind that Education in the UK has an international audience - almost half of all visitors are from non-English-speaking countries - I have tried to write in a clear style and to avoid the use of colloquial expressions.


'The Kingdom of Great Britain' was formed by the 1707 Act of Union which united England and Scotland under a single monarch. 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland' came into being in 1801 and, since Ireland gained its independence in 1927, has been known as 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland'.

This history was written under the title Education in England: a history and the focus is therefore mainly on events in England (and Wales, which shares much - though not all - of England's educational history); Scotland (which has its own education system) is covered to a lesser extent; and there is some information about events in Ireland.


Chapter 1 Up to 1500 : Beginnings

The earliest schools AD43-1100 The Romans, St Augustine, Grammar schools and song schools, Alcuin, King Alfred and the Vikings, The Normans
Expansion and development 1100-1400 The schools, The universities, Wycliffe and the Lollards
Growing demand for education 1400-1500 The schools, Chivalric training and apprenticeships, The universities, Preparing for change
Chapter 2 1500-1600 : Renaissance and Reformation
Introduction Renaissance, Reformation
Henry VIII 1509-1547 The schools, The universities, Other issues
Edward VI 1547-1553 The schools, The universities, The poor, Edward's legacy
Mary I 1553-1558
Elizabeth I 1558-1603 Religious background, The schools, Other forms of education, The universities, Education in Scotland
Chapter 3 1600-1660 : Revolution
Introduction Political background, Religious background
The Puritans and education Universal education, Curriculum, Pedagogy, Punishment, Teacher training, Conclusions, Key figures
The schools The grammar-school curriculum, The education of girls, The teaching profession, Schools in Wales, Ireland and Scotland
The universities 1600-1640, The 1640s, The 1650s
Chapter 4 1660-1750 : Restoration
Introduction Political background, Educational background
The schools The grammar schools, Girls' schools, Unendowed academies, Charity schools, The workhouse, The education of the gentry, Schools in Scotland
The universities, Science, History
The dissenting academies, Introduction, The 1662 Act of Uniformity, Hostility, Schools, Academies, The tutors, Conclusions
Chapter 5 1750-1860 : Towards mass education
Background The Industrial Revolution
Social, political and educational movements Literary and philosophical societies, Radicalism, Mechanics' Institutes, Owenism and the co-operative movement, Chartism, Mid-century radicalism
Mass education Hostility, 1802 Factory Act, 1807 Parochial Schools Bill, 1820 Henry Brougham's bill, 1833 First government grant, 1833 Factories Act, 1839 The Committee of Council, 1843 James Graham's bill, Edward Baines and voluntaryism, 1855 Sir John Pakington's bill, School attendance, Literacy
Schools for the working classes Charity schools, Dame and private-venture schools, Church schools, Sunday schools, Monitorial schools, Bentham's Chrestomathic School, Robert Owen's infant schools, Elementary schools, Vocational education, The education of girls, The very poor, Teacher training
The education of the middle and upper classes The grammar schools, Private schools and academies, The public schools, Preparatory schools, The education of girls, Secondary education in Scotland
Special educational needs Provision for the blind, the deaf, the physically handicapped, the mentally defective
Higher education Oxford and Cambridge, University of London, Owens College, Manchester, The Scottish universities, The professions
Chapter 6 1860-1900 : A state system of education
The education of the working class 1861 Newcastle Report, 1862 Revised Code, 1870 Elementary Education Act, Three more Acts (1873-79), 1880 Elementary Education Act, 1882 Mundella Code, 1891 Elementary Education Act, Two further Acts (1897, 1900), The teachers, Infant schools, Literacy, Attendance, Higher elementary education
The education of the upper class 1864 Clarendon Report, 1868 Public Schools Act
The education of the middle classes 1868 Taunton Report, The reform of endowments, 1895 Bryce Report
Scotland Elementary education, Secondary education, The education of girls
Science and technology 1875 Devonshire Report, 1882 Aberdare Report, 1882/4 Samuelson Reports, 1889-1892 Further Acts
The education of girls
Child welfare and special educational needs Child welfare, Special educational needs, Provision for the deaf and blind, the physically and mentally handicapped, defective and epileptic children
Higher education New colleges, Oxford and Cambridge, Polytechnics
And finally ... The government of education, Education and society, Education as a science
Chapter 7 1900-1923 : Secondary education for some
1902 Education Act (Balfour) The issues, Preparation of the bill, Summary of the Act, Comment on the Act, After the Act
Education 1902-1914 Secondary education, Elementary schools, Child welfare, Consultative Committee Reports, The Great Unrest
1914-18 World War I Background, Education during the war
1918 Education Act (Fisher) Progress of the bill, Summary of the Act, The fate of the Act
Education 1918-1923 Background, Economic woes, Secondary education, 1921 Newbolt Report, 1921 Education Act
Progressive education
Higher education University expansion, State funding, The teaching, The students, Acts of Parliament, Royal Commissions
Adult education Workers' Educational Association, Ruskin College Oxford, Other developments
Special educational needs Provision for mentally defective children, the blind, the deaf, maladjustment
Chapter 8 1923-1939 : From Hadow to Spens
The Hadow Reports 1923-33 1923 Curriculum differentiation, 1924 Psychological tests, 1926 Education of the adolescent, 1928 Books in elementary schools, 1931 The primary school, 1933 Infant and nursery schools, Hadow's legacy
1924-36 The leaving age battle 1924 Labour: reversing the engines, 1924-1929 Baldwin's Tories, 1929-31 Labour's second administration, 1931-39 National Government, Secondary education in the 1930s
1936 Education Act Opposition to the Bill, Summary of the Act, Criticism of the Act
The notion of fixed intelligence Cyril Burt, Streaming
1938 Spens Report Background, The views of witnesses, Recommendations, Reaction to the report
The government of education Budget cuts, The local authorities, The Board of Education, The position in 1938
Progressive education
The public schools
Higher education
Technical education
Special educational needs Provision for mentally defective children, the deaf, maladjustment
Chapter 9 1939-1945 : Educational reconstruction
The major issues The public schools, Secondary education, The school leaving age, The dual system
Towards an education bill The Green Book (1941), Butler takes over, Norwood Report (1943), White Paper (1943), McNair Report (1944), Fleming Report (1944)
1944 Education Act The Education Bill, Provisions of the Act, Summary of the Act, The Act in practice
Conclusions Achievements, Criticisms, The major issues
A moment of hope
Chapter 10 1945-1951 : Labour and the tripartite system
Ellen Wilkinson 1945-1947 Early days, The school leaving age, The tripartite system, Conclusions
George Tomlinson 1947-1951 The tripartite system, Other matters
The public schools
Further education
Higher education Participation rates, Science and technology
Chapter 11 1951-1964 : The wind of change
Background Political background, Education
Budget cuts Tory education policy, Budget battles
Comprehensivisation Tory hostility, Concerns about the tripartite system, Progress, Two campaigners, The position in 1960
Four reports Gurney-Dixon (1954), Crowther (1957), Beloe (1960), Newsom (1963)
Middle schools Background, Sir Alec Clegg, 1964 Education Act, Educational justification
The teachers Teacher training, The Schools Council, Industrial relations
Special educational needs Post-war progress, Immigration, Further developments
Further and higher education Science and technology, Expansion of higher education, Further education, Adult education
Other matters Local government in London, More Acts of Parliament
Chapter 12 1964-1970 : The golden age?
Background Politics, Society, Education
The sociology of education National Survey of Health and Development, Education and the Working Class
Labour and comprehensive education Labour's 1964 manifesto, The new government, Circular 10/65, General election 1966, Attitudes, A mixed picture, Streaming
Primary education Background, Progressivism, Plowden Report (1967)
Middle schools Rapid development
The teachers Teacher training, The Schools Council, Innovation, Industrial relations
Special educational needs Immigration, 1968 Summerfield Report, 1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act
The public schools The Public Schools Commission
Further and higher education The binary system, New universities, Polytechnics, Science in schools, The Open University, Further education, The student revolt
Other Acts of Parliament 1967 Education Act, 1968 Education Act, 1969 Children and Young Persons Act
Conclusions Optimism, The Black Papers
Chapter 13 1970-1974 : Applying the brakes
Background Edward Heath, The economy, Downfall, Education
The rise of the New Right Black Paper Three, The preservationists
Comprehensivisation Circular 10/70, Reaction, Confrontation, The direct grant schools
Other school matters School building, The school leaving age
Further and higher education The Open University, 1972 James Report, 1972 White Paper, DES Circular 7/73
Conclusions Disintegration, Legacy
Chapter 14 1974-1979 : Progressivism under attack
Background Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, End of the post-war consensus, Education
Teachers Accountability, Houghton pay award, Militancy, Teacher training crisis
Comprehensivisation Circular 4/74, Direct grant schools, 1976 Education Act, Parental choice, Hostility
1975 Bullock Report
1976: Turning point Five factors, Neville Bennett's report, The William Tyndale Affair, The Yellow Book, Ruskin College Speech
The Great Debate Regional conferences, 1977 Green paper, Curriculum models, Demoralisation
1977 Taylor Report
1978 Primary survey
1978 Oakes Report
A single exam system 1978 Waddell Report, 1978 White Paper
Special educational needs 1974 White Paper, Assessment, Integration, 1976 Court Report, 1978 Warnock Report
Other legislation
The victory of the New Right Black Paper 1977, The Gould Report, The Tories in opposition
Chapter 15 1979-1990 : Thatcher and the New Right
Background Thatcher's three terms, Neo-liberalism, Education Secretaries
1979-83 Preparing the ground Budget cuts, The end of comprehensivisation, Confrontation, Parent power, The curriculum, School effectiveness, The teachers, Reports, HMI surveys, Higher education
1983-1987 Increasing the pressure Second term priorities, Parent power, The curriculum, The teachers, The local authorities, Vocational education, 1985 Swann Report: Ethnic minorities, Growing anxiety, The end of Joseph, Baker's first year
1987-1990 Taking control Conservative election manifesto, Section 28, Towards the Education Reform Act, The Education Reform Bill, 1988 Education Reform Act, After the Act, Reports, 1988 Kingman: English, 1988 Higginson: A Levels, 1989 Elton: discipline, 1990 Rumbold: early years, Beyond Baker
Chapter 16 1990-1997 : John Major: more of the same
Background John Major, Education
1990-92 Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke, The curriculum, Teachers' pay and conditions, Ofsted, Further and higher education, 1992 General election
1992-94 John Patten John Patten, 'Selection' becomes 'specialisation', National Commission on Education, National Curriculum, Teacher training, Patten's downfall
1994-97 Gillian Shephard Gillian Shephard, 1996 White Paper: Self-Government for Schools, Post-16 education, Legislation, Higher education, Middle school closures
Labour in opposition Tony Blair, Institute of Public Policy Research, Shadow education secretaries, Divergent views
1997 General election The manifestos, Labour landslide
Chapter 17 1997-2007 : Tony Blair and New Labour
Background Blair's three terms, Education, education, education, Education secretaries, Education advisers, The Conservatives in opposition
First term: 1997-2001 The schools, Privatisation, Curriculum and testing, Further education, Higher education, Teacher training, Lifelong learning, 2000 Standards in Scotland's Schools etc. Act, Ofsted: Woodhead resigns, 2001 Green Paper Schools - building on success
Second term: 2001-05 2001 general election, The schools, Curriculum and testing, 14-19 curriculum, Child welfare: a holistic approach, Teachers' pay and conditions, Higher education, Other developments 2001-2005, 2004 Five Year Strategy for Children and Learners, Scotland's National Debate, 2005 CESC Report: Secondary Education
Third term: 2005-07 2005 general election, The schools, Curriculum and testing, Behaviour, Other developments 2005-2007
The Blair legacy
Chapter 18 2007-2010 : Brown and Balls: mixed messages
Background Gordon Brown, Education department, Personnel
Early days Inaugural statement, Conservative policies, The Children's Plan
Legislation 2008 Education and Skills Act, 2009 Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act, 2010 Children, Schools and Families Act, Other Acts
Schools Building Schools for the Future, Academies and trust schools, Faith schools, Selection, National Challenge, Inspection regime, Teachers, Behaviour, Private schools, Other school matters
The curriculum Miscellaneous matters, Reports, Curriculum reviews
Tests and league tables Increasing concerns, CSFC: Testing and assessment, SATs fiasco, Contextualised value added scores, Balls' statement on testing, Union divisions, Expert Group on Assessment, SATs boycott
Exams and qualifications Ofqual, GCSE, A Levels, Diplomas, Election battleground
Higher education 2009 Strategy paper: Higher Ambitions
Social mobility Reports, Government initiatives, More reports, 2009 White Paper: New opportunities, 2009 Milburn Report: Unleashing Aspiration, The government's response
Towards the end LibDems: Equity and Excellence, Election issues, The manifestos, The general election
Chapter 19 2010-2015 : Gove v The Blob
Background David Cameron, Political background, Education
2010-11 Getting started The coalition's programme, The schools, Budget cuts, White Paper: The Importance of Teaching, Curriculum and qualifications, Teachers, Higher education
2011-12 Acceleration The schools, Budget cuts, 2011 Education Act, Ofsted, Curriculum and qualifications, Teachers, Further education: Lingfield review, Higher education
2012-13 Growing concerns The schools, Curriculum and qualifications, Teachers, Higher education, Other issues
2013-14 Downfall The schools, Curriculum and qualifications, Ofsted, Teachers, The Blunkett Review, Poverty and social mobility, The Trojan Horse affair, Morgan replaces Gove
2014-15 New face, same policies The schools, Teachers, Poverty and social mobility, 2015 General election
Conclusions Changes, The teaching profession, A traditionalist view of education, Power to the centre, Michael Gove
Chapter 20 2015-2018 : Postscript
Cameron's year
Into the abyss May's grammar schools, Other matters
In conclusion A very brief history of a very long struggle, Some final thoughts, Keep the faith
A chronological list of events, reports, education acts, official papers and other publications.
Alphabetical lists of commonly used abbreviations and terms.
A compilation of all the sources quoted.


Voltaire described history as 'nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes' (L'Ingénu 1767), and Henry Ford famously said it was 'more or less bunk' (quoted in the Chicago Tribune 25 May 1916).

In education, lip-service has often been paid to history's importance, but it has endured a somewhat chequered career and, as a National Curriculum subject, has suffered interference from a variety of groups with political motives.

The history of education itself has fared little better. Since the 1990s, the training of student teachers has focused on 'delivering' the National Curriculum. The idea that they might benefit from understanding how the provision of education developed in the UK seems to have been lost under a morass of tests and targets.

This is surely not good enough. The education of our teachers should be about much more than assimilating a list of facts to be taught or acquiring some skills in classroom management, useful though these may be. Young teachers should be encouraged to take an active part in discussions about the nature and purpose of education, something they can only do if they have some knowledge of its history and the politics which have shaped it.

And this applies not only to young teachers: all of us who are concerned for our children's future need to understand how we got to where we are now, so that we can engage in an informed debate about where we go from here. As Peter Mortimore has argued, 'those involved with education must continue to make the arguments for sounder ways to improve the system in the hope that, eventually, someone will listen' (The Guardian 7 July 2009).

Education in the UK: a history is my contribution to that process. It began life in 1998, when I was invited by Hugh Turner, a fellow middle-school head, to give a lecture to a group of American teachers attending a summer school here in Oxford. I produced a four-page summary of the lecture, called it Education in England: a brief history, and put it on the website I had just created.

I revised and updated it several times. And now, after three-and-a-half years' work, here is the latest edition - completely rewritten in half a million words and with references to 543 sources.

In writing this history, I have received invaluable help from a number of individuals.

First and foremost, I owe a huge debt to Clyde Chitty who, until he retired, was Professor of Education at Goldsmiths College London. In the 1980s, Clyde was curriculum studies tutor on the DipEd course I undertook at the University of London Institute of Education. He was also co-editor (with Nanette Whitbread) of Forum, which had been founded by Brian Simon and Robin Pedley in 1958 to campaign for comprehensive education. In 1989, Clyde invited me to join the editorial board of Forum, and my first article for the journal appeared in the autumn number that year. It is no exaggeration to say that, without Clyde's inspiration and support over many years, it is highly unlikely that this history - or even this website - would exist. (Sadly, Clyde died in November 2022.)

I am also greatly indebted to Professor Charles Webster of All Souls College, who shared with me his extensive knowledge of the Puritan period in particular and history in general, and pointed me to the books of various former educational historians.

Hannah Chandler, at the Bodleian Law Library, tracked down numerous historic documents which I was unable to find. She and her staff went out of their way to be helpful.

Gillian Rathbone, a former lexicographer for Oxford University Press and an editor of the supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, read every chapter, pointing out errors and suggesting stylistic improvements.

And finally, I am grateful to the website visitors and friends who read and made helpful comments on individual chapters.

I am not a professional historian. I trained as a primary-school teacher and taught in primary and middle schools for more than thirty years, including eleven years as a head teacher. As such, I had personal experience of the developments affecting primary education over three decades. But I have limited knowledge of other areas, such as further and higher education, and it is now more than twenty-five years since I retired from teaching.

There are, no doubt, topics I could have included but have not. The pace of change has accelerated rapidly in the past forty years: schools have been bombarded with policy documents, each announcing the latest government initiative. It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to mention them all.

However, I think I can fairly claim that Education in the UK is unique in at least one respect: almost every document mentioned is available online. As a result, you do not have to take my word about what a document said or did not say, you can read it for yourself.

No history can be entirely objective. Writing involves making a selection - it would clearly be impossible to include everything that has ever been said or done - and the process of selection involves making value-judgements. I have tried to be fair, and Gillian Rathbone was helpful in alerting me to passages in which I had allowed my own opinions too free a rein. Nonetheless, as a reader, you will be in little doubt where I stand on certain issues (such as comprehensive secondary education): you are, of course, entirely free to disagree!

I have often been asked why I do not try to get Education in the UK: a history published as a book. I give two reasons for not doing so.

First, such a book would be expensive and would therefore be out of the reach of many; I have always wanted this history to be freely accessible to anyone who is interested. Furthermore, whereas a book might sell a few hundred copies, the online version is read several thousand times a week.

Second, an important advantage of publishing on the web is that errors can be corrected immediately. I am conscious of the responsibility which presenting this history entails. It is all too easy for factual inaccuracies to be copied and repeated until an untruth becomes widely accepted. How many times have you read, for example, that the 1944 Education Act required secondary education to be provided in the form of the tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools? It did not!

I have no desire to be part of the 'fake news' phenomenon, so I am always grateful to readers who alert me to mistakes or other problems - anything from a factual inaccuracy to a missing comma or a broken link. If you spot anything, do please let me know. Contact details are here.

As to the future, I doubt that I shall undertake a further revision of Education in the UK on the scale of this one. However, I shall continue to make minor improvements and correct errors, and there are still many documents which I hope to add to the website.

And now, if you're sitting comfortably, we'll begin ...

Derek Gillard
16 May 2018
(updated 20 July 2023)

Chapter 1