2024 Spring Term

The know zone

  • The leading characters
    Assistant Headteacher Rich Atterton shines a spotlight on ASCL's remarkable 150-year history and says the story of the association is really the story of you, its members. More
  • Preserve and protect
    William Richardson explains how lockdown created a golden opportunity to recover, catalogue and permanently preserve ASCL's 150-year history. More
  • A look back through time
    Primary education has a rich and vibrant history, evolving over centuries to become the system we know today. Tiffnie Harris unveils the fascinating tale of how education for the youngest minds has transformed from its humble beginnings. More
  • When can I leave school?
    Sixth form education is still a relatively new concept in the context of the last 150 years of education. Kevin Gilmartin looks back at how our present sixth form sector has evolved. More
  • The evolution of business leadership
    Emma Harrison takes readers on a 150-year journey of school business leadership. More
  • Thanks and best wishes...
    From individual support and advice from our hotline and officers to the advice and guidance provided throughout the pandemic and beyond, here ASCL members share their memories and interactions with us and send their best wishes to the association. More
  • Embracing change
    Headteacher Tanya Douglas says she's extremely proud to be one of the longest serving members on ASCL Council - the engine room of the association's policymaking. More
  • Past Tense?
    Carl Smith shares a headmaster's log from 150 years ago and it may or may not surprise you that many of the challenges of the past remain to this day. More
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A look back through time

Primary education has a rich and vibrant history, evolving over centuries to become the system we know today. Tiffnie Harris unveils the fascinating tale of how education for the youngest minds has transformed from its humble beginnings.


The roots of primary education can be traced back to the medieval era when education was a privilege reserved for the elite. Monasteries played a pivotal role, serving as the primary centres of learning. However, it wasn’t until the 16th century that the first rudimentary attempts at widespread education emerged. The Church was at the forefront of this movement, establishing ’petty schools’ for basic literacy skills, usually housed in homes or in parish churches. But it was from the 19th century when significant strides were made, with landmark legislation such as the Elementary Education Act of 1870, often referred to as the Forster’s Act. This pivotal moment marked the beginning of state involvement in primary education. The Act aimed to provide elementary education for every child aged 5 to 12 in England and Wales, laying the groundwork for the modern primary school system. 

A transformational period 

Queen Victoria’s reign marked a period of remarkable change in England’s primary education landscape. The Elementary Education Act of 1880 further emphasised the importance of compulsory education for children, reinforcing the state’s commitment to fostering a literate society. The School Boards created by this Act were responsible for establishing new schools and ensuring that every child had access to education. 

The rise of the Board School era saw the construction of purpose-built school buildings and a standardised curriculum, fostering a more organised and systematic approach to education and one focused on the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic. 

For this article, I was privileged to be invited to visit Sudbury Hall Museum of Childhood to see how primary children were taught. In a Victorian primary classroom we would see a blackboard used alongside an abacus, for arithmetic. All classrooms would have had a portrait of Queen Victoria on the wall, never too far away from the ’Dunce’s’ corner. A little later, in about 1930, teacher textbooks like The Practical Infant Teacher were being used to inform teacher practice, with chapters on ’The open air nursery school’ and ’Understanding the child mind’ alongside sections on teaching cleanliness, table manners and bedtime routines including ’Care of the eyes and the ears’. 

Far removed from the teachers’ desks of today, a desk would be more likely to have chalk for the board, the school bell, a cane and a back straightener to prevent slouching and encourage good posture. 

A new dawn 

Towards the end of World War II, a renewed focus on education emerged with the introduction of the Education Act of 1944, often known as the Butler Act. Fast forward a couple of decades, and the Swinging Sixties brought a wave of social and cultural change, influencing primary education. Progressive teaching methods gained popularity, and child-centred approaches became increasingly prevalent. This era marked the beginning of a more inclusive and diverse curriculum, reflecting the changing societal values of the time. 

Reform and innovation 

Arguably, it is in the latter half of the 20th century that we have seen a series of educational reforms aimed at refining and adapting the primary education system to the evolving needs of society. The Education Reform Act 1988, often associated with the then-Secretary of State for Education and Science, Kenneth Baker, introduced the first statutory National Curriculum. 

Of course, primary teaching continues to evolve, and we have seen the rise of assessments, tests, baselines and checks increasingly introduced over the last decade. 

As we see the rapid growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and maybe a new government coming to power, is it now time to think radically about what primary education should look like for future generations of children? 

Tiffnie Harris
ASCL Primary and Data Specialist