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 The Historical Background
Pre-1870

Post-1870

The 1944 Settlement and after

 

Pre-1870

In mediaeval times, education was largely confined to the clergy - "clerks in holy orders". But public schools and grammar schools were founded and endowed to provide education for the privileged (with scholarships for the poor), and by the end of the 18th century there were Sunday schools and many village 'dame schools' to teach the four Rs (the usual three plus religion) for a few pence a week. There was, however, a strong libertarian prejudice in England against the state taking any control of education, which allied with the self-interest of the churches in maintaining their own control of education made England very backward by comparison with Scotland, France and many other countries. See this extract from the chapter on Education by J. W. Adamson in the Cambridge History of English and American Literature.

The nineteenth century was characterised by srivalry between the non-conformist churches (with their British and Foreign School Society) and the Church of England (with the National Society) in founding schools. Despite their competition, however, provision of schools remained hopelessly inadequate, but several attempts to legislate for universal education were defeated, partly through the hostility of the churches. Their influence was so great (and the liking of local ratepayers for increased spending so small) that when finally the Education Act of 1870 required universal school education in England the new local school boards were required to delay their work while the churches were given free rein to expand their own networks of schools.

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Post-1870

From the start of state education, therefore, England and Wales had the so-called 'dual system', with church schools and 'state' schools alongside each other. The Church of England and non-conformists (mainly Methodists) both had large numbers of schools, and the Roman Catholic church founded a comparable number.

The rivalry between the C of E and the non-conformists continued, and is reflected in much legislation - e.g., that requiring that religious education in state schools be non-denominational.

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The 1944 Settlement and After

During World War II, R.A. (Rab) Butler was Minister of Education and set about a total reform of the school system. This required what no previous Minister had dared to undertake, a renegotiation of the place of religion and the churches in schools. With great difficulty he agreed a settlement, the key features of which were increased funding for church schools (which had to opt for voluntary aided or voluntary controlled status) coupled with increased state control, as described in the section on the Legal Background, and new legislation on the place of religion in state schools (properly then 'county' schools but now 'community' schools).

Most but not all Church of England and non-conformist schools opted for the total state funding but smaller religious influence of controlled school status, and over a period most Methodist schools were merged with or handed over to the Church of England. Roman Catholic schools all or almost all opted for voluntary aided status, with stronger powers for the church but a need to find (initially) half the funds for building works (though running costs were totally provided by public funds). In the years since 1944, state funding of building costs voluntary aided schools has risen by steps from 50% to 90%.

As to state schools, the 1944 Act required them to start every school day with an act of non-denominational worship and to provide all pupils with religious education according to a locally agreed syllabus (subject to a right for parents to have their children excused RE and/or the act of worship). These requirements of the Act were being increasingly disregarded in practice until as a result of an ambush of the Government by conservative members of the House of Lords the 1988 Education Act strongly reinforced them, contrary to most educational opinion.

A result of the way the "dual system" has evolved is that the great majority are either Church of England or Roman Catholic. There have from the start been a few Jewish voluntary schools, but for a long time there was political resistance to local proposals for their own schools from the minority religions of the post-war immigrant communities. Recent years have seen the acceptance of a small number of schools for these religions and for minority Christian denominations.

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