School records are a primary source for genealogists. The admission registers of schools administered by local authorities, perhaps from the 1870s but more frequently from 1902, usually show under the date of entry, the child's name and address and his or her date of birth. Some registers, but not all, also show the name and occupation of the parent or guardian, the name of the previous school attended and the reason for leaving. For immigrant children the name of the previous school may uniquely provide the pupil's exact place of origin. These admission registers may enable the brothers and sisters of a pupil to be identified in a way that, with frequent names, would be difficult if not impossible in the records of civil registration.
In England fee-paying schools are often misleadingly called "public" schools. Their registers and other records are discussed separately in the article Public Schools and their Records.
- 1 Voluntary Schools
- 2 Literacy
- 3 "British" and "National" Schools
- 4 Ragged Schools
- 5 Workhouse and Factory Schools
- 6 Grants and Inspections
- 7 Board Schools
- 8 Council and Grant Aided Schools
- 9 State Schools
- 10 What Schools Existed?
- 11 School Records
- 12 School Records in Family History Library
- 13 Bibliography
- 14 Websites
- 15 References
The encouragement given by King Edward VI (1547-53), Mary Tudor (1553-8) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603) to charitable acts furthering education resulted in a fashion for founding schools. Indeed, some historians think that by the 17th century there were schools of some kind or another in perhaps twenty per cent of the larger English parishes, with more in the towns than in the country, and that in 1603 there were probably more schools per head of the population in England than there were in 1837. Many of these schools were endowed with land, the rent from which paid the master's salary. Most market towns seem to have had such schools by the middle of the 17th century.
Although these "voluntary" schools were often intended to provide a free education, or one for which only very small fees were charged, many masters were obliged, for financial reasons, to take additional pupils on a fee-paying basis. Some such schools flourished and developed into the fee-paying boarding schools, grammar schools and "public schools" described elsewhere, but others degenerated into little more than elementary schools of a basic nature and were taken over by local education authorities in the 19th century, whilst yet others declined and disappeared altogether in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In 1698 the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK), founded that year, commenced a programme on a national scale to build and develop charity schools for poor children, including girls. In the first thirty years of the 18th century the SPCK had helped to create 1,500 schools, including many in south Wales and the remoter parts of Scotland. The printed reports of the Society give information about the progress made but there are no surviving records of pupils from this period.
At the same time dissenting academies sprang up in the 17th and 18th centuries and gave a somewhat broader education than the basic teaching of reading, writing and the casting of accounts, their students sometimes going on to the Scottish universities or even to those overseas.
The use of monitors to assist in the teaching of large numbers of children developed at the end of the 18th century. At about the same time the teaching of children in Sunday schools commenced and rapidly became extremely widespread. The returns of the 1851 Religious Census showed that by then some two-thirds of all children were attending Sunday schools to learn the basics of reading and writing as well as of religion.
By the end of the 19th century over six million children received some education in this way, but, again, practically no records survive. There are a few exceptions, as the enormous registers (now at Stockport Central Library) kept by the former Sunday School at Stockport testify. Stockport Sunday School catered for 3,000 children. The un-indexed registers 1789-1920 show names and ages (Registers for the Stockport Sunday School, Cheshire, 1790-1877).  Many families sent generation after generation of children to Sunday school, the age range for admission at Stockport being from three years to late teenage.
The availability of a local school may be reflected in the literacy of the population and it is generally agreed that the ability to read comes before the ability to write. If that is the case, and judging from people's ability to sign their own name, in the 16th and 17th centuries less than a third of adult men and only a tiny number of women had been to school. The proportion of those signing was higher in London and lower in rural counties; it was much higher amongst yeomen, tradesmen and craftsmen than it was amongst husbandmen, servants and labourers.
With the coming of the new form of registration for marriages in 1754, it seems that about 64 per cent of men could sign the register, a figure that perhaps fell slightly at the end of the century, but was again about 65 per cent in 1837 and about 50 per cent for women. For males it was 80 per cent in 1871 and 97 per cent in 1901. The relationship, if any, of these figures to the availability of elementary education is, however, far from clear. Five per cent of school leavers in 1948 were nearly or completely unable to read.
"British" and "National" Schools
In 1808 a group of Quakers founded the British and Foreign School Society to create non-denominational schools and, in 1811, members of the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, concerned at the growth of nonconformity, formed the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Church of England. The latter society then administered the schools founded by the SPCK and built many more, especially in places where there was manufacturing.
The papers of individual "British" and "National" schools may remain with the schools themselves or be in the appropriate county record office. The administrative records of the British and Foreign School Society (see http://www.bfss.org.uk) are, however, in its Archives Centre at Brunel University, Osterley Campus, Lancaster House, Borough Road, Isleworth TW7 5DU; telephone (020) 8891 0121. There is a museum in the former Hitchin British School at 41-42 Queen Street, Hitchin SG4 9TS; telephone (01462) 420144 (see http://home.btconnect.com/hitchinbritishschools).
The administrative records of the National Society are at the Church of England Record Centre, 15 Galleywall Road, Bermondsey, London SE16 3PB; telephone (020) 7898 1030. The collection there includes the surviving admission records and log books of those Church of England schools in the diocese of London and Southwark, some dating from 1863, but occasionally from earlier years (see http://www.cofe.anglican.org/about/librariesandarchives/recordscentre).
A few charity schools were set up in some towns in the 1830s, specifically for outcast, destitute children. These were the forerunners of a remarkable movement, the Ragged School Union, founded in 1844, which by 1856 had 150 day, evening and Sunday schools, largely staffed by unpaid volunteers. The schools provided a free elementary education and some practical training for work. The Union (now the Shaftesbury Society) established Shoeblack Society Brigades in 1851. In 1855, 108 boys cleaned 544,800 pairs of boots and shoes, earning £2,270.
The Ragged School movement flourished in the 1860s and 1870s and the schools were eventually superseded by those established by the school boards described below. There is a Ragged School Museum at 48 Copperfield Road, Bow, London E3 4RR, where, from 1877 to 1908, the largest of these schools provided free education, free meals in winter, and help in finding employment to thousands of poor local children (see http://www.raggedschoolmuseum.org.uk). Neither the Shaftesbury Society nor the Museum has records of former pupils.
Courtesy of The Children's Society: Database of Children under the care of the Waifs and Strays Society: 1882-1918
Workhouse and Factory Schools
The boards of guardians, appointed in 1834, which ran workhouses, were given the powers to employ schoolmasters and schoolmistresses for the children in their care. It is evident from Any Reid's The Union Workhouse (Phillimore & British Association for Local History, 1994) that the education of these children was often taken more seriously than that of many of their contemporaries outside the workhouse. If sent to the local schools, the workhouse children might well be taunted, but they might also be better clothed and fed than their fellow pupils.
Under the Factory Acts of 1833 and 1842 the owners of factories and collieries were obliged to employ masters to teach their child-employees aged between eight and thirteen years, for two hours a day, six days a week. This was the education component of a "half-time" system of work for children that lasted until 1917 (see below). The minimum age for such employees was increased to ten years in the 1870s.
Grants and Inspections
In 1833 the government decided to assist education by giving small grants, mainly for school building, and until 1839 these grants were channelled through the National Society and the British and Foreign School Society. In 1839 a committee of the Privy Council was appointed to administer these grants and agreed that in future their award should depend on the schools accepting an annual inspection, designed to set guidelines and improve standards. This was widely seen as an attack on the influence of the Church of England in education and many schools, though needing the money, were reluctant to agree to inspection.
As time passed, state aid was accepted by other voluntary schools. In 1862, under a much-disliked revised code governing the payment of grants called "Payment by Results", in force until 1890, each grant was made proportional to the number of children regularly attending the school. In order to retain its grant the school had to ensure that its pupils passed a yearly examination in reading, writing and arithmetic. Girls also had to demonstrate their proficiency in needlework, all under the eye of the government inspector.
There was a widespread belief that education would eliminate pauperism, but although the provision of schools had expanded greatly, it could not keep pace with the growth of the population. Some historians believe that in the 1850s about half of all children still did not attend any school, but the figures are much disputed and it is possible that more attended, if only for a year or two.
The Education Act of 1870, known as Forster's Act after its promoter, W.E. Forster, allowed the election of school boards with powers to build and operate schools in areas not covered by the British and National Society schools. These boards had powers to compel the attendance of children at their non-denominational "board schools" which were paid for partly from fees, partly by levies on the local rates and partly by government grants.
As a result many large new schools were built. In other places the existing National Schools were improved by local landowners and clergy hoping to avoid state intervention, for a school that accepted a grant became subject to inspection. Whilst 2.4 million children were still attending the old voluntary schools in 1895, some 1.9 million were now at the new board schools.
The employment of children under the age of eight in any form of handicraft had been prohibited in 1867, and in 1873 this prohibition was extended to agriculture. The 1873 Act, which came into force on 1 January 1875, said that if children aged eight to ten had been to school for 250 days in any year they could be employed for the rest of the year; those aged ten to twelve had to have a minimum of 150 days' schooling. To leave school completely for work before the age of twelve, children had to pass Standard IV in the annual examination and obtain what came to be called a "Labour Certificate". This examination would normally be taken at the end of the fourth year.
The Act had various exemptions, was badly drafted, and proved totally ineffective. In 1876 school attendance committees were set up in areas where there were no school boards and these were given the powers to demand attendance (but were not required to do so). This provision being almost equally useless, a further Act in 1880 imposed compulsory attendance on all children aged from five to fourteen, unless they lived more than two miles from a school. From the age of ten to twelve they could work part-time if they had attended school on 250 days, and from twelve to fourteen in they had attended on 150 days. To leave school altogether before the age of thirteen depended both on meeting the attendance requirement and passing Standard IV or V in the annual examination, but a complete dunce who attended on 250 days a year for five years could leave at 13.
The attendance provisions of the Act were often ignored initially and in some areas little attempt was made to enforce them. In other areas the school attendance committees were active in taking parents to the petty sessions where records of truancy fines, usually 2s 6d, appear. The minutes of the attendance committees may provide an additional or alternative source of information.
School fees of one or two pennies a week for each child presented a major problem for many families, though the boards of guardians sometimes helped the poorest families. Fees were abolished in the majority of schools in 1891, when a government grant of ten shillings per child per year was given to each public elementary school. Until the end of the 19th century children under the age of three were still being admitted at some schools if their exclusion meant that older children would be kept at home to look after them.
Council and Grant Aided Schools
A central Board of Education was created in 1899 to oversee education in England and Wales and in a major overhaul of the system in 1902 (though not until 1904 in London) the powers of the school boards were transferred to county, borough, county borough and urban district councils. These bodies became the local education authorities (LEAs) for their areas. Board schools then became "council schools" and the councils were given powers to provide additional secondary and technical education. The exclusive direction of the church school by the local parson had come to an end.
In 1906 some councils provided school meals and, in the following year, a basic medical service. From 1902 many of the older, poorly endowed public and grammar schools that provided secondary education were obliged to accept government assistance and become "grant-aided schools". Some had already accepted financial assistance following inquiries by the Charity Commission earlier in the 19th century. Then as now, many saw any weakening in the private sector as an attack, in the words of Sir John Marriott, on "the wholesome variety in educational methods which has been the strength of the educational system in this country".
The minimum school leaving age was progressively increased: to 11 in 1893, 12 in 1899 (though in rural areas many continued to leave at 11), 14 in 1918, 15 in 1947 and to 16 in 1972. These dates alone mean little. Five years after the Education Act of 1917, which in theory had abolished the "half-time" system and all the exemptions for children aged between five and fourteen, it is estimated that only 31 per cent of 14-year-olds were attending school as they should have been.
Up to 1944 the majority of children had spent their schooldays entirely in elementary schools. In that year, under another Education Act, the Board of Education became the Ministry of Education and a three-tier system of "state schools" was introduced: primary (up to the age of 12), secondary (12 and over) and further education (for those above school leaving age). Subsequent changes do not concern us here.
What Schools Existed?
Details of existing schools are most conveniently found in a Kelly's Directory or a Post Office Directory for the county concerned, in the descriptive matter about each parish. The late 19th century directories are best, as those in the 1930s do not always have this information. Details include the date when the school was built, its capacity and average attendance, and the name of the master at the time.
For those English counties covered by the Victoria County History there is an outline history of the schools that existed in each parish prior to 1800. This may be found amongst the general subjects at the start of each county's history and not in the account of the parish itself.
A very few school log books are found from the 1840s, but in 1862 the elementary schools, which received government grants, were required to maintain daily (from 1871, weekly) logs in which the head teacher was to record the "ordinary progress" of the school. Schools without a certificated head teacher and thus not qualifying for a grant, and those where the buildings did not meet government standards, were not required to keep logs. Partly for this reason, not many survive prior to about 1870.
The log may contain comments on attendance, behaviour, discipline, the curriculum, and much other incidental matter, such as the effect of bad weather, epidemics and seasonal work on attendance, but the names of individual pupils only occasionally appear. The names and status of the teachers were recorded at the annual inspection, with a summary of the inspector's report. One of the few published examples is that for Whitchurch, Oxfordshire, 1869-93, edited for the Oxfordshire Record Society, volume 51 (1979) by Pamela Horn [Family History LIbrary book 942.57 B4o v.51].
Punishments may be recorded in early logs, but after 1901 they are usually noted in a separate punishment book, showing the name, offence and punishment, and, occasionally, other comment. These books survive less frequently than log books.
School magazines and promotional material, such as year books, survive irregularly but, as today, may reveal examinations results and the names of those in school teams and sometimes the destination of pupils who leave. The printed material may be found at the school, in local studies libraries, and only occasionally in the British Library.
There is no general right of access to school records, and for those school records held in record offices there will be restrictions on access to the most recent records, perhaps of 50 or 60 years for personal records and 30 years for others.
School Records in Family History Library
ENGLAND - SCHOOLS
ENGLAND, [COUNTY] - SCHOOLS
ENGLAND, [COUNTY], [PARISH] - SCHOOLS
See also Lance Jacob, Register of English school, college, and university registers housed in the collection of the Genealogical Society of Utah as of April 1981 [Family History LIbrary typescript 942 J24c].
Pamela Horn, The Victorian and Edwardian Schoolchild (Alan Sutton, 1989). 
Colin R. Chapman, The growth of British education and its records (Dursley: Lochin Publishing, 2nd edn. 1996)  [Family History LIbrary book 942 J2cr].
Colin R. Chapman, Using Education Records (Federation of Family History Societies, 1999)  
[Adapted from Anthony Camp's article 'Schools and their records: Part 2' in Practical Family History (UK), no. 68 (August 2003) pages 8-10.
A wiki article describing an online collection is found at:
- "FHLC Film 1655276-77, 1655501, 1655501 it2, 1655457-58 (Salt Lake City, Utah : Filmed by the GSU, 1990)
- "FHLC Book 942 J2cr" (Dursley, Gloucestershire : Lochin Publishing, c1991)
- "FHLC Book 942 J27c' (Ramsbottom, Lancashire : Federation of Family History Societies Publications, c1999)
A wiki article describing this collection is found at: