A History of Education

By Tim Lambert

Education in Ancient Egypt

Most children in Egypt did not go to school. Instead, boys learned farming or other trades from their fathers. Girls learned sewing, cooking, and other skills from their mothers. Boys from wealthy families sometimes learned to be scribes. They learned by copying and memorizing and discipline was strict. Teachers beat naughty boys. The boys learned reading and writing and also mathematics. Some girls were taught to read and write at home.

Education in Ancient Greece

In ancient Greece, girls learned skills like weaving from their mothers. Many girls also learned to read and write at home. Boys from better-off families started school when they were seven. Boys from rich families were escorted to school by a slave.

The boys learned reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as poetry and music. The Greeks also believed that physical education was very important so boys did dancing and athletics. Discipline was severe in Ancient Greek schools and children were often beaten.

In Sparta, children were treated very harshly. At the age of 7 boys were removed from their families and sent to live in barracks. They were treated severely to turn them into brave soldiers. They were deliberately kept short of food so they would have to steal – teaching them stealth and cunning. They were whipped for any offence.

Spartan girls learned athletics and dancing – so they would become fit and healthy mothers of more soldiers.

Education in Rome

In rich Roman families, children were educated at home by a tutor. Other boys and girls went to a primary school called a Ludus at the age of 7 to learn to read and write and do simple arithmetic. Boys went to secondary school where they would learn geometry, history, literature, and oratory (the art of public speaking).

Teachers were often Greek slaves. The teachers were very strict and they frequently beat the pupils. Children wrote on wax tablets with a pointed bone stylus. (Adults wrote on a form of paper called papyrus, which was made from the papyrus plant).

Education in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, many people were illiterate but not all. Upper-class children were educated. Among the Medieval poor the better-educated priests might teach some children to read and write – a little. In many towns, there were grammar schools where middle-class boys were educated. (They got their name because they taught Latin grammar). Boys worked long hours in grammar schools and discipline was severe. Boys were beaten with rods or birch twigs.

There were also chantry schools. Some men left money in their wills to pay for a priest to chant prayers for their souls after their death. When he was not praying the priest would educate local children.

During the Middle Ages education gradually became more common. By the 15th century, perhaps a third of the population of England could read and write.

From the early 13th century England had two universities at Oxford and Cambridge. At them, students learned seven subjects, grammar, rhetoric (the art of public speaking), logic, astronomy, arithmetic, music, and geometry.

Education in the 16th Century

Education flourished in the 16th century. Many rich men founded grammar schools. Boys usually went to a kind of nursery school called a ‘petty school’ first then moved to grammar school when they were about seven. The school day began at 6 am in summer and 7 am in winter (people went to bed early and got up early in those days). Lunch was from 11 am to 1 pm. School finished at about 5 pm. Boys went to school 6 days a week and there were a few holidays.

In the 16th century, many children learned to read and write with something called a hornbook. It was not a book in the modern sense. Instead, it was a wooden board with a handle. Fixed to the board was a sheet of paper with the alphabet and the Lord’s prayer (the Our Father) written on it. The paper was usually protected by a thin slice of animal horns.

Discipline in Tudor schools was savage. The teacher often had a stick with birch twigs attached to it. Boys were hit with the birch twigs on their bare buttocks. At about 15 or 16 the brightest boys might go to one of England’s two universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

Of course, many Tudor boys did not go to school at all. If they were lucky they might get a 7-year apprenticeship and learn a trade. Some craftsmen could read and write but few laborers could. As for girls, in a rich family, a tutor usually taught them at home. In a middle-class family, their mother might teach them.

Education in the 17th Century

There was little change in education in the 17th century. In well-off families, both boys and girls went to a form of infant school called a petty school. However, only boys went to grammar school. Upper-class girls (and sometimes boys) were taught by tutors. Middle-class girls might be taught by their mothers. There were also dame schools, usually run by a woman where young girls were taught skills like reading and writing. During the 17th century boarding schools for girls were founded in many towns. In them, girls were taught subjects like writing, music, and needlework.

Education in the 18th Century

In the 18th century, young boys and girls continued to go to dame schools. In the early 18th century charity schools were founded in many English towns. They were sometimes called Blue Coat Schools because of the color of the children’s uniforms.

Boys from well-off families went to grammar schools. Girls from well-off families also went to school but it was felt important for them to learn ‘accomplishments’ like embroidery and music rather than academic subjects.

Meanwhile, non-conformists or dissenters (Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England) were not allowed to attend most public schools. Instead, they went to their own dissenting academies.

Education in the 19th Century

In the 19th century education greatly improved for both boys and girls. In the early 19th century there were still dame schools for very young children. They were run by women who taught a little reading, writing, and arithmetic. However many dame schools were a childminding service.

Nevertheless, in the 19th century, Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) and Maria Montessori (1870-1952) invented more progressive methods of educating infants.

Girls from upper-class families were taught by a governess. Boys were often sent to public schools like Eton. In Victorian public schools, boys were taught the classics like Latin but little else. Science and technical subjects were neglected. Public schools also placed great emphasis on character building through sports and games.

Middle-class boys went to grammar schools. Middle-class girls went to private schools where they were taught ‘accomplishments’ such as music and sewing.

At the beginning of the 19th century, a man named Joseph Lancaster (1778-1838) invented a new method of educating the working class. In the Lancaster system, the ablest pupils were made monitors and they were put in charge of other pupils. The monitors were taught early in the day before the other children arrived. When they did the monitors taught them.

In 1811 the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principle of the Established Church (The Church of England) was formed. Its schools were called National Schools. In 1814 non-conformists (Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England) formed the British and Foreign Schools Society.

In Britain, the state did not take responsibility for education until 1870. Forsters Education Act laid down that schools should be provided for all children. If there were not enough places in existing schools then board schools were built. In 1880 school was made compulsory for 5 to 10-year-olds.

However, school was not free, except for the poorest children until 1891 when fees were abolished. In 1893 the minimum age for leaving school was raised to 11. From 1899 children were required to go to school until they were 12.

Meanwhile, in the USA three women gained bachelor’s degrees from Oberlin College in 1841. They were the first American women to gain bachelor’s degrees. The first woman in the USA to gain a Ph.D. was Helen Magill White in 1877. In Britain, women were first awarded degrees in 1880.

Education in the 20th Century

Education vastly improved during the 20th century. In 1900 children sometimes left school when they were only 12 years old. However, in 1918 the minimum school leaving age was raised to 14. Between the wars, working-class children went to elementary schools. Middle-class children went to grammar schools and upper-class children went to public schools.

In 1948 the school leaving age was raised to 15 and in 1973 it was raised to 16.

Following the 1944 Education Act, all children had to sit an exam called the 11 plus. Those who passed went to grammar schools while those who failed went to secondary modern schools. However, in the late 1950s, public opinion began to turn against the system, and in the 1960s and early 1970s, most schools became comprehensives.

Until the late 20th century teachers were allowed to hit children. However corporal punishment was phased out in most primary schools in the 1970s. The cane was abolished in state secondary schools in 1987. It was finally abolished in private schools in 1999.

There was a huge expansion of higher education in the 1960s and many new universities were founded. In 1992 polytechnics were changed to universities. Meanwhile, the Open University began in 1969. In the late 20th century people had far more opportunities for education and training than ever before. However, student grants were ended in 1998, and from then on most students had to take loans.

Last revised 2024