Back to School – for only the 147th time.


For virtually everyone who has grown up in the UK – schooling has been a critical and integral part of shaping our lives. From the formative days of Childhood forming our earliest memories and forge lifelong friendships as well as shaping our careers – to the days of parenting the next generation, the school run, school reports and supporting our children as they themselves are schooled. It’s all that we and the generations of our families whose lives have overlapped with ours have known. But it wasn’t always like that. In fact the right for every child to have an education was first enshrined in Law in the UK in 1870 – 146 years ago. So, as Primary and Secondary school pupils begin a new UK school year, we take a look back at where our education system came from…

Throughout the early part of the 19th Century, Britain was becoming a very wealthy nation. The Industrial revolution and colonialisation saw Britain with considerable resources to invest in developing our society. Throughout the early and mid-1850s that included an extensive faith based school system. Church schools were a large part of local communities being built across the parishes of England, but the Government of the day decided that a state based education system – open to all – would be a good idea, particularly in the poorer areas where no faith based schools existed.

A National Education League was established by industrialists in the 1860s. They argued that for Great Britain to maintain its leading global position in manufacture, they needed a skilled workforce – and that a nationally backed free, compulsory and non-religious approach  to education was the best solution.

The 1870 Education Act was the result and the very first piece of legislation making education in Britain state backed. The establishment of school boards (much like modern academies) was designed to fill in the gaps across the parishes of England, but it was also a reaction to the denominational power of the Churches. The Act set a system of schooling for all children aged between 5 and 13.

The act set a whole range of factors that we’re familiar with today – compulsory attendance, and a set of educational standards that children needed to attain in Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

Those standards were revised in 1872, and set 6 levels of attainment – equivalent in the modern day to the Key Stage system – although looking at the perhaps requiring higher standards in Literature.

Standard 1 required:

Mathematics – Simple addition and subtraction of numbers of not more than four figures, and the multiplication table to multiplication by six.

Reading – One of the narratives next in order after monosyllables in an elementary reading book used in the school.

Writing – Copy in manuscript character a line of print, and write from dictation a few common words.

Standard 6 – required:

Mathematics – Proportion and fractions (vulgar and decimal).

Reading – A short theme or letter, or an easy paraphrase.

Writing – To read with fluency and expression.


Attendance at school was made compulsory by the Act in an era when children where working class children were largely put to work from age 10. So a degree of flexibility was introduced, based on attainment, that allowed for children aged 10 or over to leave school early. The level was set locally – which gave flexibility for the level of attainment children needed to reach. The standard in Birmingham was the Fourth standard, whilst Birmingham chose the 6th.

So as this new school year begins – in a familiar setting, with familiar rules, and a familiar curriculum, spare a thought for the children of the 1870’s who were beginning their education in a system that was brand new. All against a backdrop of a society that was far more divided in academic ability with vastly different industrial, societal and community needs.


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