How to look for records of... Historical education policy and administration: childcare, schools for disabled children and other special services

How can I view the records covered in this guide?

How many are online?

  • Some

1. Why use this guide?

Use this guide if you are researching the policy and administration of central government services which dealt with:

  • the health of children in schools
  • special educational needs
  • nursery schools

We do not hold personal files on pupils or personnel records of teachers – read our guide to records of schools for guidance on this.

2. What are special services?

From the end of the 19th century there was a gradual development of services in this area.

The Medical Branch of the Board of Education was set up in 1907 with responsibility for the administration of all special services. Its responsibilities included:

  • special educational treatment for disabled children
  • the school medical service
  • the provision of school meals and milk
  • the organisation and inspection of physical training
  • the supervision of evening play centres
  • maternity and infant welfare (until 1919 when transferred to the Ministry of Health)
  • nursery education

After the Second World War the Medical Branch was renamed the Special Services Branch. In 1974 its health functions transferred to the NHS.

3. How to use this guide and get a search started

A search for documents at The National Archives usually begins in our online catalogue. The following sections of this guide provide links to key record 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 50) you will arrive on the respective ‘series description’ pages from where you can search the series, using dates/years and keywords such as:

  • type of special service, for example ‘nursery’ or ‘open air school’
  • name of school

Two key series for this subject area are:

  • ED 50 (1872-1974, although few 19th century papers survive)
  • ED 269 (1967-1994)

On series description pages there is the the option to ‘browse by reference’, allowing you to browse the series piece by piece. It’s worth doing this to familiarise yourself with the language used in document descriptions. Descriptive terms for disability have changed over time and the terms used in these historical records reflect the language of the time and may now be considered derogatory or offensive.

Use the advanced catalogue search to restrict your search results to all the records of a specific government department, including its predecessors (for example, the Department of Education, from where most records related to special services originate).  Use the department reference, which is always a letter code, to do this (the code for Department of Education is ED).

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. Most of 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. Read our Discovery search help for more guidance.

4. Special educational treatment in the 19th and 20th century

Individual schools and school boards took an interest in education for disabled children from the middle of the 19th century.

Consult ED 50/9 (1872-1893) which contains papers on the activities of school boards in respect of blind and of deaf children and information about arrangements in London.

The first piece of legislation ensuring special educational provision for disabled children was the Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act 1893, which obliged every school authority to provide education for blind and deaf children between the ages of 7 and 16.

More legislation followed and related papers on these pieces of legislation are in ED 50 and ED 24:

  • Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act 1899 – local authorities enabled to provide for the training of physically and mentally disabled and epileptic children
  • Special Schools Education Act 1914 made these powers mandatory for mentally disabled and epileptic children
  • Education Act 1918 made these powers mandatory for the physically disabled
  • Education Act 1921 – compulsory education for children with these disabilities extended to 16
  • New procedures were laid down in the Handicapped Pupils and School Health Service Regulations 1945 and later regulations

4.1 Searching for special schools, homes and training establishments

You can use the advanced search option in our catalogue and search by name of institution within:

  • ED 32 for special schools in England
  • ED 224 for special schools in Wales
  • ED 62 for training establishments providing further education for disabled people
  • ED 122 for boarding homes for maladjusted, educationally subnormal and diabetic children (75-year closure)
  • ED 195 for reports of HM Inspectorate on special education establishments after 1948

Browse records relating to the provision of special schools in some local education authorities in ED 133 (very few pre-1936 papers have survived).

4.2 The Warnock Report and after (1978 onwards)

The Committee of Inquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People (Warnock Committee) met for over three years and reported in 1978.

The Committee’s report covered all aspects of special needs from pre-school to postgraduate research and can be accessed on Parliamentary Papers online.

The main provisions of the resulting Education Act 1981 were

  • the replacement of the category of handicapped pupil by special educational needs
  • the introduction of a statement for each such pupil
    an emphasis on integrated provision


  • the Warnock Committee’s terms of reference in ED 269
  • the Warnock Committee’s minutes and papers in ED 285
  • papers on the establishment of the Warnock Committee in ED 269/63-66

The white paper Special Needs in Education was published in 1980 and can also be accessed on Parliamentary Papers online.

The Council for National Academic Awards set up its own Special Education Panel – minutes in DB 3/2333-2346 and DB 3/3149-3151 (1981-1987).

An Institute of Education report to the Department of Education and Science on special educational needs provision (1987) is in BL 6/190 (although this is a closed document).

National and district surveys carried out by the Department of Education and Science between 1987 and 1990 are in ED 235.

Annual reports for the eight regional special educational needs tribunals (set up under the Education Act 1993 for parents to appeal against LEA decisions on special educational provision) are in KH 1. The tribunals cover all types of disability in both England and Wales.

5. School health service

The school medical service was introduced following the Education (Administrative Provisions) Act 1907.

This act and the Local Education Authorities (Medical Treatment) Act 1909 were both influenced by the findings of the Interdepartmental Committee on Physical Deterioration (1904). The 1907 act made medical inspection of children mandatory, with any necessary treatment to be provided by the Local Education Authority (LEA).

For related files, browse:

  • general policy files on the school medical service in ED 50 and ED 269
  • correspondence with LEAs on the school health service ED 137

The school medical service transferred to the Ministry of Health in 1919.

6. School meals service

The Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906 led to the development of the school meals service.  The act gave LEAs the right to provide premises for and assist the work of voluntary associations which had begun to provide meals and hot drinks for needy schoolchildren.

Subsidised milk was introduced by the Milk in Schools Act 1934 and it was freely provided from 1946.

The school meals service became fully established during the Second World War.

For relevant records, browse:

  • general policy files in ED 50 and ED 269
  • LEA files in ED 123
  • information on wartime services in ED 138
  • reports and surveys on the school meals service between 1954 and 1965 in ED 194

7. Physical training

Under the 1918 and 1921 Education Acts, local authorities could promote both social and physical training.

Facilities provided included evening swimming instruction, visits to theatres and music festivals, school camps and school journeys.


  • LEA files on the provision of these facilities in ED 101

Papers relating to the appropriate sections of the Education Acts are in ED 11. For:

The Physical Training and Recreation Act 1937 extended these provisions to young people and adults not in full-time education. This extension was suspended during the Second World War and the 1944 Education Act limited the use of facilities to those attending educational institutions.


  • papers on the provision by LEAs of community centres, playing fields, swimming baths, recreation centres and courses 1937 to 1940 in ED 56

Responsibility for post-school social and recreational training passed to the Further Education Branch of the Ministry of Education in 1945.


8. Nursery education

8.1 Nursery education before the Second World War

Nursery schools were first established by voluntary effort at the beginning of the 20th century. Following the creation of the Medical Branch in 1907, government attention initially focused on nursery provision for ‘neglected’ children in deprived areas.

Under the 1918 and 1921 Education Acts local education authorities could provide or aid the provision of nursery schools and classes for children aged two to five.
Government grants also became available from 1919 but the development of nursery provision was hampered by financial crises.

Expansion was urged by a joint Ministry of Health and Board of Education circular of 1929. This was:

  • encouraged by the report of the Consultative Committee on Infant and Nursery Education in 1933 (Hadow Committee)
  • further emphasised by a 1936 LEA survey on the need for nursery provision for the under-fives

For related records browse:

  • nursery education general files in ED 102 for regulations, circulars, letters, administrative memoranda, and correspondence with other departments on matters of common policy
  • LEA files on nursery education in ED 66 for proposals to establish nursery schools and classes, correspondence relating to expenditure, policy and individual schools
  • papers of the 1933 Hadow Committee in ED 10/149-150
    Search by name of nursery within ED 69 for files on individual nursery schools.

8.2 Nursery expansion during the Second World War

It was only with the wartime emergency that greater provision was made for nursery-aged children from a wider range of backgrounds.  The Second World War led to the establishment of:

  • nursery centres in evacuation reception areas
  • day nurseries for the children of women war workers
  • evening play centres for children of school age whose mothers were war workers


  • surviving LEA files in ED 66
  • the ‘under fives’ sections of the wartime history of education in ED 138 for evidence of activities at individual schools and in different parts of the country
  • documents relating to the provision of evening play centres in ED 65

8.3 Post-war expansion and research

The post-war ‘baby boom’ increased the number of pre-school children and encouraged the expansion of nursery provision.

The 1944 Education Act extended the provision of nursery schools and classes. LEAs were asked to include such provision in their development plans for post-war education which are in ED 152.

The 1967 report Children and their Primary Schools (or the Plowden Report) included numerous recommendations for the expansion of nursery education.  Related papers are in ED 207/6-7 and ED 207/122-124.

The need to expand nursery accommodation encouraged research into nursery care. For information on research into this area between 1968 and 1984:

The School Census (Form 7) Datasets in CRDA 13/ED 267 contain statistical details of nursery schools. You can sometimes identify entries for individual schools by using the Register of Educational Establishments in CRDA 47/NV 2.

9. Further reading

Read Education and the State from 1833, by Ann Morton (PRO 1997) for background information and for guidance on other original sources.

The School Health Service, 1908-1974, a report by the Chief Medical Officer of the Department of Education and Science, published in 1975.