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Education: A Brief History

Education: A Brief History

5 January, 2016

Education is a product of history.

It is important to understand its history and how education was delivered before.

Ancient Egypt

Children in Egyptian history of education did not go to school but boys learned farming or other trades from their fathers while girls learned sewing, cooking and other skills from their mothers instead. Meanwhile, boys from wealthy families sometimes learned to be scribes by copying and memorizing wherein discipline was very strict.

Ancient Greece                                                

Girls in ancient Greece stay at home to learn how to read and write as well learned skills like weaving from their mothers. Boys were also taught at home at a very young age but they started school at the age of six. Boys from a rich family would be 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’ history 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.


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 math. Boys went to secondary school where they would learn geometry, history, literature and oratory.

Teachers were often Greek slaves. They were very strict and they frequently beat the pupils.

Children wrote on wax tablets with a pointed bone stylus while adults wrote on papyrus

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 the grammar schools and discipline was severe. Boys were beaten with rods or birch twigs.

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 where students learned seven subjects, grammar, rhetoric, logic, astronomy, arithmetic, music and geometry.


16th Century England

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 onto grammar school when they were about seven.

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 horn.

At about 15 or 16 the brightest boys might go to one of England’s two universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

As for girls, in a rich family a tutor usually taught them at home. In a middle class family their mother might teach them. Upper class and middle class women were educated. However lower class girls were not.

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 glass girls might be taught by their mothers. Moreover, during the 17th century boarding schools for girls were founded in many towns. In them girls were taught subjects like writing, music and needlework.

18th Century

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.

19th Century England

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

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

20th Century

Education vastly improved during the 20th century. In 1900 children sometimes left school when they were only 12. However in 1918 the least 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 1947 the school leaving age was raised to 15 and in 1972 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 scholarships were ended in 1998 and most students now have to take loans.