Education in the archives
As students up and down the country prepare to take their summer exams, we take a look at our records, which reveal how the educational system has changed over the past 100 years.
The National Archives holds a wealth of material on education throughout the 20th century, from school inspection reports to a host of Cabinet Papers. Our website also provides different ways for you to explore our materials, including lessons with activities, research guides and podcasts, which delve deeper into our records.
Schooling in 1911
Early in the 20th century, it was common for children to leave school by the age of 12 with only a Labour Certificate to their name, which guaranteed a basic minimum standard of education. Our records show that in 1911-12, of the 600,000 children leaving elementary schools, only one in 22 went on to a grant-aided secondary school and only one in 46 received free education there (see the Board of Education Report, 1911-12, found in the Parliamentary Papers held at The National Archives).
You can also listen to our podcast for more information on education in 1911.
Secondary education for all
A growing demand for education and increasing pressure to expand secondary provision during the Second World War led to the Education Act - or 'Butler Act' - of 1944, which promised 'secondary education for all'. Read more in our Bill Papers ED 31/500-548 and Private Office Papers ED 136/377-541. The act raised the school leaving age to 15, divided the all-age elementary education into primary and secondary schools, and abolished fees for secondary education.
After 1945, a new generation emerged. Changing expectations of parents and government perceptions of the economic importance of education led to a vast influx of pupils into schools. Find out more about the development of secondary education after the Second World War on our Cabinet Papers website.
Where to find out more
- If you are beginning research into this area, you can start with our research sign post on teachers and pupils
- If you are a more experienced researcher, try our in-depth research guides, which cover topics including the history of education, Special Services Branch and technical and further education.
- For teachers and pupils, visit our Education website to find out how we were taught 100 years ago and why school dinners were brought in.