elementary education

The Elementary Education Act 1870 commonly known as Forster's Education Act set the framework for schooling of all children over the age of 5 and under 13 in England and Wales. It was drafted by William Forster, a Liberal MP and it was introduced on February 17 1870 after campaigning by the National Education League, although not entirely to their requirements.


A driving force behind the Act was a perceived need for Britain to remain competitive in the world by being at the forefront of manufacture and improvement.

The Act was not taken up in all areas and would be more firmly enforced through later reforms. There were objections to the concept of universal education. One was because many people remained hostile to the idea of mass education. They claimed it would make labouring classes 'think' and that these classes would think of their lives as dissatisfying and possibly encourage them to revolt. Others feared that handing children to a central authority could lead to indoctrination. Another reason was the vested interests of the Church and other social groups. The churches were funded by the state, through public money, to provide education for the poor and these churches did not want to lose that power.

The Act laid the foundations of English elementary education. The state (Gladstonian Liberalism) became increasingly involved and after 1880 attendance was made compulsory for children until they were twelve years old.

The Act was passed partly in response to political factors (such as the need to educate the citizens recently enfranchised by the Reform Act of 1867 to vote wisely). It also came about due to demands for reform from industrialists who feared Britain's status in world trade was being threatened by the lack of an effective education system.


The 1870 Education Act declared that:

The ratepayers of each Poor Law Union (in the country districts) or borough could petition the Board of Education to investigate educational provision in their area. This was done by comparing the results of a census of existing school places with the number of children of school age recorded in the Census. If there was a substantial shortfall, a school board would be created.

These Boards were to provide elementary education for children aged 5-12 (inclusive)

Board Members were elected by the ratepayers. (The number of Board Members was determined by the size of the population of the district.) Each voter could choose three (or more) Board Members from a list of candidates, and those with the highest number of votes were chosen for the existing number of seats available. It should be noted that a voter could cast all their votes for one person. This was known as 'plumping' and ensured that religious (and, later, political) minorities could ensure some representation on the Board. The franchise was different from national elections, since female householders could vote and stand for office.

The Boards financed themselves by a precept (a requisition) added to either the local poor rate or the municipal rate. They were also eligible to apply for capital funding in the form of a government loan.

Parents still had to pay fees for their children to attend schools.

Boards would pay the fees of children who were poor, even if they attended Church schools.

The Boards could make grants to existing Church Schools and erect their own board schools or elementary schools.

Boards could, if they deemed it necessary, create a by-law and table it before Parliament, to make attendance compulsory (unless there was an excuse, for example, sickness, or living more than one mile from a school, or unless they had been certified as reaching a certain standard of education - see below). In 1873, 40% of the population lived in compulsory attendance districts.

Religious teaching in board schools was restricted to non-denominational instruction, or none at all.

Parents had the right to withdraw their children from religious education. This applied even to church schools.

All schools would be inspected, making use of the existing regime. The individual schools continued to be eligible for an annual government grant calculated on the basis of the inspection ('payment by results').

Effects of the Act

Between 1870 and 1880, 3000-4000 schools were started or taken over by school boards. Rural boards, run by parishes had only one or two schools to manage, but industrial town and city boards had very many. Rural boards favoured economy and the release of children for agricultural labour. Town boards tended to be more rigorous in their provisions and by 1890 some had special facilities for gymnastics, art and crafts, and domestic science.

There were ongoing political clashes between the vested interests of Church, private schools, and the National Education League followers. In some districts the creation of boards was delayed by local vote. In others, church leaders managed to be voted onto boards and restrict the building of board schools, or divert the school rate funds into church schools.

Education was not made compulsory immediately (not until 1880) since many factory owners feared the removal of children as a source of cheap labour. However with the simple mathematics and English they were acquiring, factory owners now had workers who could read and make measurements.

Following continued campaigning by the National Education League, in 1880, attendance to age ten became compulsory everywhere in England and Wales. In 1891 elementary schooling became free in both board and voluntary (church) schools.

Charles Dickens helped the process of the education act coming to power.

End of school boards

The school boards were abolished by the Balfour Education Act 1902 which replaced them with around 300 Local Education Authorities, by which time there were 5700 board schools (2.6m pupils) and 14000 voluntary schools (3m pupils). The LEAs remit included secondary education for the first time.

Standards of education

In areas served by school boards which had implemented by-laws requiring attendance, compulsory attendance until the thirteenth birthday was exempted if a child (being over ten) had been certified by the inspector as satisfying the required standard for that board. The standards required varied between 4th Standard (example: Birmingham) and 6th Standard (example: Bolton).
The following are the six Standards of Education contained in the Revised code of Regulations, 1872
Reading One of the narratives next in order after monosyllables in an elementary reading book used in the school.
Writing Copy in manuscript character a line of print, and write from dictation a few common words.
Arithmetic Simple addition and subtraction of numbers of not more than four figures, and the multiplication table to multiplication by six.
Reading A short paragraph from an elementary reading book.
Writing A sentence from the same book, slowly read once, and then dictated in single words.
Arithmetic The multiplication table, and any simple rule as far as short division (inclusive).
Reading A short paragraph from a more advanced reading book.
Writing A sentence slowly dictated once by a few words at a time, from the same book.
Arithmetic Long division and compound rules (money).
Reading A few lines of poetry or prose, at the choice of the inspector.
Writing A sentence slowly dictated once, by a few words at a time, from a reading book, such as is used in the first class of the school.
Arithmetic Compound rules (common weights and measures).
Reading A short ordinary paragraph in a newspaper, or other modern narrative.
Writing Another short ordinary paragraph in a newspaper, or other modern narrative, slowly dictated once by a few words at a time.
Arithmetic Practice and bills of parcels.
Reading To read with fluency and expression.
Writing A short theme or letter, or an easy paraphrase.
Arithmetic Proportion and fractions (vulgar and decimal).


A similar act was passed in 1872 for Scotland. This required compulsory attendance from the start. It allowed post-elementary schools, but not public funding of them. There were around 1000 boards in Scotland.


  • Education in Britain 1750-1914, W B Stephens, 1998, ISBN 0-333-60512-8
  • Educational Documents, England and Wales 1816 to the present day, J Stuart MacLure, 1965, 1979, ISBN 0-416-72810-3 370.942
  • Collected reports and publications of the National Education League, Birmingham Central Library, A370.8, z1103222

Search another word or see elementary educationon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015 Dictionary.com, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature