The History of British Education and the Role of Independent Boarding Schools.

The First British Boarding School

Boarding Schools, the practice of sending children away for schooling, date back over 1,400 years. The first boarding school is believed to be The King’s School, Canterbury – which is still in existence today. The Kings School was established in 598 AD by St. Augustine as part of his mission to evangelise England when he was sent over from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great.

St. Augustine arrived in Canterbury in 597 AD to find an absence of both churches and schools. He set straight to work developing the Canterbury cathedral monastery, establishing grammar schools to educate monks and priests, teaching them Latin and English literature.

There was also a need for choir boys to sing in the cathedral, so St. Augustine established song schools where sons of ‘gentlefolk’ were trained to sing in the cathedral choirs. In 604 AD St. Augustine, who was the 1st Archbishop of Canterbury, ordained two bishops who continued the development of these schools across England. Many schools were founded over the next century including The King’s School, Rochester (604 AD) and St. Peter’s School in York (627 AD).

Early Development of Boarding Schools

In the 8th century Alcuin, who although a theologian was never ordained, became School Master at York in 778 AD. He played a significant role in the development of boarding schools, introducing standards into the education curriculum including grammar, rhetoric (the art of speaking and writing with the view to persuade), law, poetry, mathematics, geometry, music and the scriptures. After his death in 804AD and due to a Viking invasion in 866AD development throughout this period was not continuous. Progress was largely halted and again interrupted in 1066 AD by the Norman invasion. Between 1100 AD and 1500 AD most churches created associated schools as the demand was very high.

Wider Availability of Education

During the 12th the availability of education grew as all Cathedrals and collegiate churches across England had schools. Private tuition was also very popular with aristocratic families at this time. The church’s control of education began to diminish as many schools were removed from monastic control and became ‘free grammar schools’ (although some still charged fees). The monasteries tried to fight back, but were mainly unsuccessful.

With increasing needs and change to focus on liberal education (a focus on specific subjects like medicine or law) the development of independent, fee paying schools and universities was high. Oxford University formal beginnings and growth in prominence internationally occurred in the 12th & 13th centuries.


In the late 14th century the donations & income to monasteries began to diminish. The wealth favoured development of independent schools known as Chantries. These developed into what are commonly known as ‘Public Schools’. As they were not restricted to taking local students, they took admissions from across the nation. Winchester (Est. 1382 AD) and Eton college (Est. 1440 AD) were two of the earliest public schools and were run as independent, self governed corporations.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries

As Henry VIII dissolved the greater monasteries (1540 AD) many of the church schools were closed. There was a focus on converting church schools to, or creating new, free schools known as Charity or Blue Coat Schools. The first of the existing King’s Schools to be endorsed, by way of Royal Charter, by Henry VIII was ‘The Kings School Ely’ (Est. 900 AD) in 1541 AD.

These boarding schools were established and maintained by voluntary contributions from locals for teaching the poorer children. The first charity school was Christ’s Hospital School (Est. 1552), and is the oldest surviving charity school – although it has only been at its current location in Horsham since 1902, prior to that it was in Hertford and originally at Christ Church Greyfriars in London, near St Paul’s Cathedral.

This period of reformation and change made a massive difference to the structure of the English school system, which resulted in schools becoming more freely available to the laity.

The Elizabethan Era

During the rule of Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603), Ascham and Comenius used their influence to stress the importance of correct teaching and the inclusion of play during the early years. Ascham was teacher to the Queen and was highly regarded by all. Comenius was invited to the House of Commons in 1640 and was requested to setup an agency for the promotion of learning, which facilitated the availability of universal books and the setup of further schools for both boys and girls.  As a result, there was a substantial increase in the number and variety of schools available for younger children.

Dissatisfaction of the Curriculum

The 17th century brought general dissatisfaction with the traditional curriculum, and many grammar schools were found to not be meeting required needs of their students. Universities were also struggling and as a result many new academies were established with the aim of teaching a broader curriculum for all.

By the beginning of the 18th century education was becoming more readily available and many new establishments were forming. Charity schools were also becoming more readily available to help meet the needs of poorer children in towns and cities. Towards the end of the 18th Century the state created an official national education system, mainly due to the Industrial Revolution as far greater skills were required by the general working force. During the 1830’s advances were made into the teaching of young boys in preparation of secondary school and in 1837 Windlesham House School, the first Preparatory boys school, was established with the help of Thomas Arnold (the headmaster of Rugby school).

The Clarendon Report

In 1861 the Royal Commission for Public Schools was established to inquire into the financial management, teaching practices and education available at the leading UK schools. Seven of these were boarding schools (Charterhouse School, Eton college, Harrow School, Rugby School, Shrewsbury School, Westminster School and Winchester College). The Clarendon Report was released in 1864 and made recommendations to the government, management and curriculum of these schools and resulted in the passing of the Public Schools Act 1868.

This Act removed the responsibility of these schools from the Crown and the Church, allowing each a separate board of governors, granting them independence. This change facilitated these schools to move away from the traditional curriculum and gave them the freedom to broaden their subject choices.

Endowed Schools and Elementary Education

The Taunton Commission was then established in 1864 to examine secondary schools, including the remaining 782 grammar schools that the Clarenden Report had not. It reported that the education standards were generally poor and that majority of English towns had no secondary school at all. The commissioners were particularly worried about the lack of schools available to girls. The Taunton Report resulted in the passing of the Endowed Schools Act of 1869, and created the Endowed Schools Commission to help with these issues.

In 1861 the Duke of Newcastle was commissioned to write a report into the state of England’s education system. This lead to the Elementary Education Act of 1870, making elementary education available to children between the ages of five and thirteen, and forming school boards to create a more universal system of education.

The Education Act

The Education Act of 1944 (also known as the Butler Act) was significant to the history of education and made many changes to the provision and governance of secondary schools in England and Wales.  It highlighted the need of a Minister of Education and a statutory education system comprising of separate primary, secondary and further education establishments, including nursery schools for under five’s.  Local Education Authorities were to be commissioned for each area to govern the schools and ensure their wellbeing was being met.  This provided new opportunities for all children by removing the requirement to pay fees. It also defined the school leaving age as 15, which was later raised to 16 in 1973, as well as defining teacher’s requirements, expectations and salaries.

The Education Act also empowered independent schools by providing direct grants in exchange to education students from state schools, which resulted in the creation of the eleven plus exam to assess students prior to placing. This period was however, a time of change and during the period of recession the government wished to divide the independent and state schools further. Wells Cathedral School (established 904 AD) became one of the first to become co-educational and was followed by The Kings School, Ely in 1970. In 1975 the direct grant was abolished and schools became fully independent.

Many boarding schools as a result started admitting self funded day pupils. Further schools also began to accept girls, and some became co-educational due to ease the pressure during this time of financial strain. Direct grants were partially reinstated between 1981 and 1997 in the national Assisted Places scheme, which supported approximately 80,000 pupils attending Independent educational establishments.

The Education Act 1996 repealed the final parts of the Education Act 1944 which had not already been removed or replaced. The 1996 Act’s purpose was to consolidate all the legislation that had been passed within the post-war era based on the 1944 Act. The Education Act 1996 is the legal basis for the education system as it is in Britain today.


This article shows that although not the founders of education in a global context, Britain has made a substantial contribution to developing the education system throughout the centuries. The original need to teach priests, monks and choir boys for the monasteries, the requirement for schooling that led to the first boarding schools has over time created a universal schooling system which has developed from strength-to-strength through the needs of society. It has been this consistent challenge from society that has been heard, accepted and acted upon which has developed one of the most versatile and leading education offerings available. Britain’s Boarding Schools still play a significant part in the wider education system, by providing a thorough education to their students and setting a high standard of achievement which many other educational establishments model themselves upon.

We certainly owe a great deal to the many individuals, whether it be those in Government, Bishops, Monarchs or Scholars, who over time have played key roles to help make the British education system what it is today.

References and Links

Recent Posts