How to look for records of... Historical education policy and administration: elementary and primary schools
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1. Why use this guide?
This guide will help you to find government administration and policy records on elementary and primary schools. The guide does not cover records of individual teachers or pupils, neither of which are held at The National Archives.
The term ‘primary school’ only came into use as a result of the 1944 Education Act. Before 1944 primary schools were called ‘elementary schools’.
The records cover individual institutions established since 1833. State financial involvement in education began in 1833 when annual grants were made available to support the building of schools. Before this date educational initiative was essentially private and often religious.
2. How to use this guide and get a search for records started
There are tens of thousands of records on primary and elementary schools at The National Archives. The records were created by central government departments, most of them by the Department of Education and its predecessors, and continue to be arranged and catalogued in the same way that they were originally grouped and used. To find information on an individual school or education district, therefore, you may need to look across a number of different record series.
A search for documents at The National Archives usually begins in our online catalogue. The following sections of this guide provide links to key series that you can search within our catalogue, helping you to target your searches more precisely. By clicking on the series links (for example, ED 21) you will arrive on the respective ‘series description’ pages from where you can search the series, using keywords (such as the name of a school or its location, though this will not always work) and/or dates/years. Keep in mind that a school may have changed its name. Series description pages provide information on the arrangement of the records and sometimes some of the historical context in which they were created, as well as suggesting related series you could explore.
Use the advanced catalogue search to restrict your search results to all the records of a specific government department, including its predecessors (the Department of Education or the Charity Commission, for example). Use the department reference, which is always a letter code, to do this (the code for the Department of Education is ED and for the Charity Commission it’s CHAR).
Catalogue search results provide short descriptions of our records and a document reference for each one – you will need the document reference to see the record itself. The records covered in this guide are not available to view online so to see them you will have to either visit us in Kew or order copies. Bear in mind that a search in our catalogue will also search for records in other archives around the country – keep your eye on the ‘Held by’ field to establish whether the records are here or elsewhere.
3. Key records
Below are some of the most useful and significant records series for finding information on elementary and secondary schools. You can browse each series by clicking on the reference codes or search within the series using a keyword by going to the advanced search page in our catalogue and restricting your search to the relevant reference code.
School files 1857-1945
Search for school files in ED 21 by school name and by place. Each school in receipt of an annual grant has at least one ‘school file’ with correspondence from and about the school. The files include correspondence about school premises, trusts, inspection and organisation.
School digest files 1854-1984
Search by school in ED 161 for records relating to primary schools established before 1966. The information in these files is similar to that in ED 21, though on the whole later in date, much of it covering the period 1944-1966. These files have been heavily weeded, meaning many documents do not contain all their original information and are often very slim.
Local Education Authority Development Plans 1945-1966
Search by county in ED 152 for Local Education Authorities’ (LEAs) development plans for post-war education in their area, as well as plans for future expansion. These were required under the stipulations of the 1944 Education Act.
Trust deeds and other property records
The National Archives holds various kinds of records of the establishment and foundation of schools. If you are looking for a trust deed, consult the list below, covering the following dates:
- 1736-1925 – trust deeds in C 54 and J 18 (see our guide, Land for charitable uses in trust deeds 1736-1925 for advice on how to search these record series)
- 1856-1925 – trust deeds enrolled with the Charity Commissioners in CHAR 12 (there are indexes in each volume)
- 1903-1920 – enrolled deeds for Church of England elementary schools in ED 191
- 1926-1963 – enrolments with the Charity Commissioners in CHAR 13 (separate place name index in CHAR 13/483-492 and on microfilm at The National Archives at Kew)
Building grant applications 1833-1871
Between 1833 and the Education Act of 1870, local patrons and charities, acting as sponsors to a proposed school, could apply to the Treasury for financial assistance towards school building costs.
Search our catalogue for grant applications in ED 103 by school name or town.
Original applications included detailed plans. These plans are generally preserved in local record offices, but a small number are available in ED 228.
Preliminary statements 1846-1924
Annual parliamentary grants to schools were available from 1846. In order to receive a grant each school had to provide information about its income, expenditure, accommodation, staffing, fees and number of pupils.
Parish files and the educational census of 1871
The 1870 Elementary Education Act established a national system of elementary education. To ensure that there would be a place for every child, a census was taken of school places. Search educational census returns in:
- ED 2 by parish or place name. These are parish files where there was no school or more than one school in a parish.
- ED 3 by parish. This record series covers only London.
- ED 16 by borough. This record series covers municipal boroughs.
- ED 21 by school name. These are school files where there was only one school in a parish.
- ED 33 by school name. Some returns have been filed with material on independent schools where there was only one school in the parish.
4. Other records
You can browse the record series listed below by clicking on the reference codes or search within each series using a keyword by going to the advanced search page in our catalogue and restricting your search to the relevant reference code.
School history sheets
The Board of Education introduced school history sheets in the 1920s, recording, in summary form, details about each school in England maintained by Local Education Authorities. Details include:
- date of establishment
- status and size of the school
- the sex and age range of its pupils
Search for school history sheets in ED 185 by county.
Funding and finance
Consult endowment files for information on the funding and finance of schools in:
- ED 49 – private endowments for elementary schools (1853-1945)
- ED 27 – includes information on endowments for both elementary and secondary schools (1850-1945)
Records of the Welsh Department of Education
Records for Welsh schools are generally in the same series as their English counterparts. Exceptions are:
- development plans for Welsh LEAs in BD 7 and ED 216
- additional elementary, primary and secondary school files in ED 216 (search by school name or place)
For general administrative and policy files on Welsh education see:
- ED 91 and ED 92
- ED 220 for policy matters post 1944 (many early files in this series were damaged by flooding in 1960 at the Welsh Department’s office in Cardiff)
Records of independent and private schools
- ED 33 (1871-1944)
Records of Poor Law schools and their successors
Poor Law schools were provided and maintained by the guardians of the poor and could be attached to workhouses or run as separate schools. Consult the following series:
- MH 27 (1848-1910) – for district schools (run jointly by several poor law unions in predominantly urban areas).
- MH 12 (1833-1909) and MH 32 (1834-1904) – for correspondence about workhouse schools run by individual unions
- ED 132 (1904-1953) – for poor law schools converted into public elementary schools
- ED 95 (1929-1944) – for local authority schemes for the education of poor law children
Surveys and reports on elementary education
An enquiry into education in England and Wales was conducted as part of the 1851 ecclesiastical census. A very small number of the returns, which were voluntary, survive in HO 129. Small collections of returns survive for Todmorden and Keighley in Yorkshire and isolated forms can be found elsewhere in the collection. To find them use educational census as a search term. Information taken from the educational census forms was used to prepare a report of Commissioners for taking a census of Great Britain for education (1852-3) for Parliament.
A number of other surveys of school provision were presented to Parliament in the 19th century. These records are Parliamentary Papers and can be accessed online (see section 6).
Lists of schools
ED 270 contains various lists of schools giving details about the type of institutions and their status between 1834 and 1985.
Schools’ census (‘Form 7’) datasets 1974-2006
Browse the Schools’ Census returns in ED 267 for information collected on individual primary schools between 1975 and 1994. The information includes:
- pupil numbers by age and gender
- teacher numbers by gender and type
- types of classes taught
Grant Maintained Schools Database 1992-1999
Consult the Grant Maintained Schools Database in ED 278 for details on each school as at March 2000, including information about the type of school, denomination, selection policy and age of pupils. You can find full details of what information is provided in the series description in our catalogue.
5. Records in other archives
Consult the gov.uk website for a register of all educational establishments in England, maintained by the Department for Education.
Consult the numerous surveys of school provision which reported to Parliament in the 19th century. These can be accessed online via the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers website (institutional subscription required). Some are also available to view through The National Archives library (see links below).
The surveys include:
- the Abstract of Answers and Returns Relative to the Poor (1803-1804)
- the Digest of Parochial Returns (1819)
- Abstract of Education Returns (1835)
- Report of the Commissioners for taking a Census of Great Britain on Education (1852-1853)
- The Royal Commission on the State of Popular Education in England [Newcastle Commission] (1861)
- Return of Schools for Poorer Classes of Children in Municipal Boroughs of Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester; Report on Quality of Education which Schools provide (1870)
6. Further reading
Ann Morton, Education and the State, from 1833, Public Record Office Readers’ Guide No 18 (PRO, 1997)