Research into the history of education in nineteenth century England reveals a variety of different classifications of school. This blog provides an explanation of some of the more frequently encountered descriptions.

Board schools: By the late 1860s there was a wide range of voluntary schools in England and Wales, many funded or supported by religious denominations. Attendance was optional but a campaign began in Birmingham with the support of industrialists for compulsory, non-religious, free elementary education to be provided for all children. The 1870 Education Act was, in some degree, a response to this campaign although it did not settle the question of compulsory attendance. It allowed the voluntary schools to remain but established school boards across the country. One of their tasks was to compare the number of school places in their areas with the number of school-age children. Where there was a shortfall, the boards were responsible for establishing new schools. These were the Board Schools in which religious education had to be non-denominational. A similar situation was created in Scotland through a separate Act in 1872 (Parliament, n.d. online).

Branch schools: There is surprisingly little information available about branch schools. However, judging by Stephens’ work and comments made by James Riddall Wood of the Statistical Society of Manchester in evidence to the Select Committee in 1838, branch schools were elementary schools supported by a grammar school or a religious establishment such as a church or chapel (Stephens, 1964, pp501-548 and Report, 1838, p122).

British schools: According to Lawson and Silver, there is a clear thread that started with Lancasterian schools at the end of the seventeenth century. In 1808 Joseph Fox, William Allen and Samuel Whitbread, supported by several evangelical and non-conformist Christians, formed the Society for Promoting the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor and this was re-named the British and Foreign School Society for the Education of the Labouring and Manufacturing Classes of Society of Every Religious Persuasion in 1814. In that form it supported a number of non-sectarian schools run on Lancasterian principles and the connection with the Society was shown by calling them British Schools (Lawson et al, 1973, p241).

Certified efficient schools: By the nineteenth century schools could be eligible to receive grants from central government, provided they were inspected by HM Inspectors. However, the 1870 Education Act introduced new conditions to be met if a school was to be designated a public elementary school. Of these, the most difficult for what are now termed faith schools was that children could not be forced to attend ‘any Sunday school, or any place of religious worship, or […] attend any religious observance or any instruction in religious subjects in the school’. Beyond that, the school had to be available for inspection. However, they would be termed ‘certified efficient’ if they agreed to be inspected even though they refused to abide by the religious restrictions. This position was ‘regularised by the Elementary Education Act, 1876’ (National Archives, n.d. online).

Commercial schools: These were schools that taught subjects beyond the traditional classical curriculum. Leinster Mackay suggests that they were schools for middle-class children (1971, p67)

Dame schools: By the mid-nineteenth century, Dame schools had been a familiar part of the educational landscape for hundreds of years. In the seventeenth century they are thought to have been elementary schools run by widows. It may have been this type of school that led Charles Hoole to write that teaching in Petty Schools was too important to be ‘left as a work for poor women, or others, whose necessities compel them to undertake it, as a mere shelter from beggary’ (Hoole, 1637, p28). Leinster-Mackay has them as ‘schools run by women which are based on the private profit motive’ by the nineteenth century (1971, p24).

Grammar schools: The origins of the Grammar schools lie in the teaching activities of religious houses – monasteries, cathedrals and others – which grew up in England after the Conquest. During the twelfth century, these schools were largely concentrated on cathedrals with every cathedral being obliged by the Third Lateran Council, to provide teaching for clergy and local children. The main purpose of these schools was to teach Latin grammar mainly to junior clergy (Lawson et al, 1973, pp. 21-22). This remained as a central part of the schools’ curriculum even towards the end of the seventeenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Mann reported that just over seventy per cent of grammar schools were teaching ancient languages, compared to just under eight per cent of other endowed schools (HMSO, 1854, p. xlix).

Industrial school: Gear explains that schools of industry, to be found in the latter part of the eighteenth century were sometimes referred to as industrial schools and were intended to provide work for unemployed children. In addition to work they provided an elementary education. By the nineteenth century the definition had changed and a series of Acts of Parliament resulted in the setting up of residential schools ‘for vagrant and destitute children’ where they would receive training to prepare them for work in shoemaking, tailoring, printing and other trades as well as a basic education (Gear, 1999, p9).

Lancasterian schools: The English educator, Joseph Lancaster, built on the work of Andrew Bell who had run a school in Madras in which older children were taught by adults and before passing on their knowledge to younger children, hence the system is also referred to as Madras or Monitorial. In reality, this system had been in use in British grammar schools since at least the seventeenth century. However, Lancaster attracted the attention of influential individuals and a Royal Lancasterian Society was formed but Lancaster argued with the trustees and started his own school. This failed, he was declared bankrupt and left the country (Allen, 1846, p173).

National Schools: The Anglican National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales, known as the National Society was founded in 1811 with the aim that ‘the National Religion should be made the foundation of National Education, and should be the first and chief thing taught to the poor, according to the excellent Liturgy and Catechism provided by our Church’. Schools opened and managed by the Society were called National Schools (Hopkins, 2011, online).

Private Adventure School: In this context, the word ‘adventure’ is used in the sense of risking a loss (OED, 2018, online). These schools were privately funded in order to make a profit for investors. The description acquired a pejorative meaning leading to those who supported such schools demanding the description of ‘private enterprise’ or ‘private establishment’ (Leinster-Mackay, 1971, p67).

Ragged schools: The foundation of the first Ragged School is credited to John Pounds of Portsmouth who began providing education for poor (ragged) children in the early 1840s. The idea caught on and the Ragged School Union was established in 1844 (Lawson et al, 1973, p284). In his report of 1854 Horace Mann wrote that ‘The primary object of the Ragged School is to convert incipient criminals to Christianity’ although he softened this somewhat by adding that ‘all ragged schools, in greater or less degree, attempt a double object — both to cultivate the minds and hearts of vagrant children and to raise their physical and social state’. Children in some schools were fed and some even had dormitories. It appears to have been relatively common for Ragged schools to provide industrial training for children and, in many cases, helped them to get jobs or to emigrate when the time came for them to leave school. Teaching was undertaken by a mix of paid and voluntary teachers. Mann suggests that they were funded entirely by voluntary contributions (HMSO, 1854, p. lxv).

Sunday schools: Sunday schools prior to the introduction of compulsory full-time education, provided one of the several means by which children might learn to read. In some cases, this was linked to religious instruction whereas in others the Bible was used ‘Simply to acquire the art of reading’ although this applied to only seven per cent or so of children attending Sunday schools in Wales, for example. The same source shows that half the children were taught to write, around one third were taught arithmetic while a minority were taught other subjects such as Geography and History (Kay Shuttleworth, 1848, p95).


Allen, William (1846) The Life of William Allen Vol III, London, Charles Gilpin.

Gear, Gillian Carol (1999) Industrial Schools in England 1857-1933 ‘Moral Hospitals’ or ‘Oppressive Institutions’? PhD Thesis, University of London Institute of Education.

HMSO (1854) Census of Great Britain, 1851 Education England and Wales Report and Tables London, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Hoole, Charles (1661) A New Discovery of the Old Art of Teaching Schoole London.

Hopkins, Colin (2011) ‘Education: Vision for a million children’ in Church Times (online) Available at Accessed 29 May 2018.

Kay Shuttleworth, J. P. (1848) Reports of the Commissioners of Inquiry Into the State of education in Wales (1848) London, Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Lawson, John and Silver, Harold (1973) A Social History of Education in England London, Methuen & Co.

Leinster-Mackay, Donald P. (1971) The English private school 1830-1914, with special reference to the private proprietary school (PhD Thesis) Durham University.

National Archives (n.d.) Education Department and Board of Education: Certified Efficient Independent and Private Schools, Files (online) available at Accessed 18 May 2018.

OED (2018) “adventure, v.” in OED Online, Oxford University Press, Available at Accessed 30 May 2018. (n.d.) ‘Going to School’ in Living Heritage (online) available at Accessed 13 May 2018.

Report from the Select Committee on Education of the Poorer Classes in England and Wales […] Ordered, by The House of Commons, to be Printed 13 July 1838 (1838), p122.

Stephens, W. B. (ed) (1964) ‘Public Education: Schools’, in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7, the City of Birmingham, pp. 501-548. (online) Available at Accessed 13 May 2018.