Researching the history of schools and colleges

Medieval education

Christ Church College Oxford from Charles Knight, Old England.For centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, formal education in Europe was in the hands of the Church. The clergy needed to be literate. So schools formed in monasteries and cathedrals. They did not necessarily need buildings of their own. Teaching could be done in the cloister or another multipurpose space.

From the 12th century onwards the nobility and gentry too were increasingly literate. They could be tutored in their own homes or in the royal household. But these private schools taught only limited numbers. Far more pupils went to public schools - institutions under the management of a schoolmaster, and open to all who could afford the fees. Such schools sprang up in English towns and cities and served the mercantile class as well as the gentry. In Scotland the growth of schools was promoted by the Education Act of 1496 which decreed that the eldest sons of barons and freeholders had to be taught Latin, the arts, and Scots law.

The 12th-century renaissance in learning also gave rise to universities. Of British universities, Oxford has the longest history, being established in the 12th century. It was followed by Cambridge (1209), St Andrews (1411), Glasgow (1451) and Aberdeen (1494). These universities were run on the collegiate system. Each college had its own masters and scholars, who lived in.

Layout and buildings

Both university colleges and collegiate schools like Winchester and Eton favoured a courtyard plan. Buildings arranged around a courtyard would include a hall, chapel, lodgings and kitchen. A local grammar school intended for day pupils did not need lodgings. All that was required was a school room, but there might also be a chapel. The school could be purpose-built, but throughout the Middle Ages much teaching was done in buildings designed for another purpose.

Early Modern education

The Reformation created a new interest in education. In England, Ireland and Wales it swept away the monasteries, friaries and chantries which had been supporting numerous schools. However Henry VIII converted seven monastic cathedrals into secular cathedrals and created six new cathedrals out of former abbeys. These new foundations provided for a cathedral school, giving free education, which could make use of redundant monastic buildings. Under Edward VI all cathedrals were ordered to support a free grammar school. When the chantries and guilds were seized by the Crown, the associated grammar schools were generally saved. A number were re-established as free grammar schools by Edward VI, who also created several new foundations.

Charterhouse School: aquatint by T. Ward 1813Yet more free grammar schools were founded under Elizabeth, some by private benefactors, others by municipalities. In Scotland the burghs were also establishing schools by the 16th century and a new university was founded at Edinburgh (1583), while Ireland gained its first university in 1592 at Dublin.

In the following century the Scottish Parliament encouraged the creation of schools, finally passing the Education Act of 1696, which gave a school to every parish. This was the first national education system in Britain, and possibly in the world. Meanwhile the more piecemeal approach to educational provision south of the border had spread schools across England and Wales almost as effectively.

Layout and buildings

The schools founded in the 17th century were more likely to be purpose-built, and more of their buildings survive than earlier ones. Most were built in the local vernacular style, but we begin to see the first architect-designed schools.

Georgian education

Still literacy was not universal and the 18th century saw a resurgence of interest in the basic education of the poor. The Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, founded in 1698, gradually took over or built a network of elementary schools in England and Wales, which taught both boys and girls. The Scottish Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge maintained schools in the remote Highlands and Islands. In Ireland Charter schools were founded from 1731 to promote the Protestant religion and the English language. They were operated by The Incorporated Society in Dublin for Promoting English Protestant Schools in Ireland. The Charter Schools admitted only Catholics, under the condition that they be educated as Protestants. At this time Catholics were forbidden to teach in public or private schools, under Acts of 7 Will III c.4 (1695) and 8 Ann c.3 (1709), which were not repealed until 1782.

Sunday schools were begun by Robert Raikes in Gloucestershire in 1785. The movement spread so rapidly that by 1795 Sunday schools were providing an elementary education for three-quarters of a million children. In 1811 members of S.P.C.K. formed the National Society for the Education of the Poor throughout England and Wales, which took over the 230 schools of S.P.C.K.

The number of private schools grew from the mid-18th century and included schools for girls. These were often accommodated in the house of the master or mistress, or in hired rooms, but a few were purpose-built. The Irish equivalent was known as a hedge school. Since they were not so much institutions as enterprises by individuals, private schools tended to be short-lived, and leave little trace in the record except for newspaper advertisements, listings in street directories and the name of the teacher in Census returns. However in 1824, a commission of inquiry was established to survey the state of Irish education, which included all schools. The returns of this census cover nearly 12,000 schools, educating 30% of Irish children of between 5 and 15. Accommodation varied from ‘a mere hut, literally a hedge school’ in Kilkabern to good dwelling-houses in Forkhill (See Second Report of the Commissioners of Irish Education Inquiry in Primary sources below.)

A movement to educate working-class adults sprang up in the late Georgian period. Mechanics' Institutes were founded in most large towns, starting with Chester in 1810 and Perth in 1814. There were over 100 by 1826. Their records are usually in local record offices. Some of the buildings survive, though as educational institutions they petered out by the end of the 19th century. The first new British universities since the Elizabethan period also opened in the 1820s: St David's College (now the University of Wales, Lampeter) and University College London, with the University of Durham following in the next decade.

Victorian education

St Sidwell's School, Exeter, built in the 1850s. An engraving by SpreatIn the Victorian era the state began to take a greater responsibility for education, issuing grants to schools. Each application for a grant had to be accompanied by a plan of the school, with the name of the architect. Commissions of enquiry produced many reports on education. (See below for a selection. Others are listed by Stephens.) From 1845 the Commissioners of National Education in Ireland took over responsibility for the schools for which they had issued a grant. Many of the schools which transferred to the National School system were in a dilapidated state and had to be rebuilt.

The voluntary societies continued to expand provision until they controlled some 7,000 schools by the 1860s, but still illiteracy had not been eradicated. So the Education Acts of 1870 (England and Wales) and 1872 (Scotland) made education compulsory for all children. The Acts gave local school boards the power to build and manage schools, where provision by the voluntary societies was inadequate. By 1874 over 5,000 new schools had been founded.

Meanwhile the booming industrial cities were creating municipal colleges, later to become the redbrick universities. The education system was reorganised in 1902, when responsibility for state education was given to local education authorities, under a national Board of Education.

Layout and buildings

The upsurge in school and college provision has left a huge legacy of buildings in the Victorian Gothic style. Some are magnificent structures, and far more complex than the traditional one-schoolroom plan. Older schools too were being rebuilt in many cases, to provide more classrooms for different subjects or age groups.

Studies and research guides

Primary sources