History of grammar in English schools


The following extracts come from Education in England: a brief history by Derek Gillard.

Early grammar schools

So when St Augustine arrived in England in 597, schools were unknown. He needed priests to conduct church services and boys to sing in the choir. ‘As there were no schools any more than there were churches in England, Augustine had to create both’ (Leach 1915:3). He and his successors established two types of school: the grammar school to teach Latin to English priests, and the song school (which some cathedrals still have today) where the ‘sons of gentlefolk’ were trained to sing in cathedral choirs. …

Song schools ‘were in essence special or professional schools for those engaged in the actual performance of the services’, whereas grammar schools ‘gave a general education, as much needed by the statesman, the lawyer, the civil servant, and the clerk as by the priest or cleric’ (Leach 1915:7). …

Augustine’s concept of education derived from the Roman and Hellenistic schools of rhetoric. It comprised the seven liberal arts and sciences – grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy – which were regarded as a preparation for the study of theology, law and medicine.

However, the only subject taught systematically in the grammar schools was Latin grammar and literature, because the aim of the schools was strictly vocational: to prepare pupils for entry to the Church. ‘The conscious object of these early schools, attached to cathedrals and to monasteries, was to train intending priests and monks to conduct and understand the services of the Church, and to read the Bible and the writings of the Christian Fathers’ (Williams 1961:128).

Thus ‘grammar’ at this time did not mean learning about the structure of language – that meaning did not develop until the middle ages. Rather, it was ‘a preparation for reading, especially reading aloud, and was taken to involve comprehension and commentary, so that content was inseparable’ (Williams 1961:129)….

The Middle Ages

[Oxford and Cambridge were founded.] They studied what we might now describe as an ‘arts foundation course’ in grammar, logic and rhetoric. Further studies – in arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy – led to the degrees of bachelor and master. There were no professors: the teaching was conducted by masters who had themselves undertaken the course and who had been approved or ‘licensed’ by their colleagues (the universitas). Thus the role of teachers began to be formalised: they were licensed rather than simply appointed, and university degrees were licences to teach.

The establishment of these university colleges was quickly copied around the country. New colleges or collegiate churches of secular canons, each with its schools of grammar and song, sprang up. Among the earliest were those of Howden in Yorkshire (1266), Glasney, now part of Penryn in Cornwall (1267), Lanchester (1283) and Chester-le-Street (1286).

The Black Death of 1349 and the two further plagues which followed in 1361 and 1367 profoundly affected the universities and schools. At Oxford no colleges were founded between Queen’s in 1340 and New College in 1379. At Cambridge no new colleges were created between 1352, when Corpus Christi College was founded ‘expressly to repair the ravages created by the plague of 1349’ (Leach 1915:201), and 1439, when God’s House (now Christ’s College) was founded to restore the supply of grammar masters, the shortage of which had caused dozens of schools to close. The epidemics also severely reduced the number of scholars. …

The Renaissance and later

Meanwhile, the grammar schools, with their narrow curriculum consisting of little more than Greek and Latin, were unable (or unwilling) to meet the new demands for courses of training and education fitting boys for the life of the period. …

The most significant change in this period, however, was that the universities began to lose their monopoly over professional training. They still educated most of the clergy, but after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 they began to discriminate against Nonconformists.
As a result, new vocational academies began to open at a remarkable rate, preparing students for the law and medicine, commerce, engineering, the arts and the armed services. These ‘Dissenting’ or ‘Nonconformist’ Academies, serving ‘a different class’ (Williams 1961:133) and offering teaching at a higher secondary or university level, varied considerably in quality, but in the best ‘a new definition of the content of a general education was worked out and put into practice’ (Williams 1961:134).

The Academies were established in considerable numbers from 1670 onwards, and while at first they were intended for the education of ministers of religion, they began to take in many lay pupils. They often provided a wide curriculum, including (in addition to the traditional Greek and Latin), English, modern languages, mathematics and a certain amount of natural science, principally physics. They were far less insular than the grammar schools and were influenced indirectly by educational developments in Scotland, Holland, Germany and the Protestant cantons of Switzerland (Spens 1938:12).

19th Century

Just as there was resistance to the very idea of educating England’s lower classes, there was resistance, too, to the notion that the curriculum in schools for the middle and upper classes should be modernised. Protests at the restricted curriculum offered in these schools were mostly ignored or defeated.

In 1805, for example, Lord Eldon accepted Dr Johnson’s definition of a grammar school as a school in which the learned languages were grammatically taught, and ruled in the Court of Chancery that it was illegal for the governors of Leeds Grammar School to spend endowment funds on teaching modern and commercial subjects. …

Pressure of public opinion persuaded some of the old local foundations to find ways of enlarging the curriculum, sometimes by charging fees for the non-classical subjects. For example, a report by the head master of Newcastle-on-Tyne Free Grammar School in 1838 shows that the school was teaching, in addition to Classics, ‘French, Writing, English Grammar and Composition, History and Chronology, Geography and the use of the globes, practical and mental Arithmetic, Euclid, Algebra, Trigonometry, Analytical Geometry and Mechanics, etc.’ French was taught without extra charge; the fees for instruction in the other subjects were £1 a quarter. …

A recognition of the importance of English and aesthetic subjects, especially music and art, was a feature of the curriculum at Uppingham School, where Edward Thring was head master from 1853 to 1887. Classics, English composition and grammar, Scripture, history and geography were taught in the morning; in the afternoon the boys studied music and one or two optional subjects such as French, German, chemistry, carpentry, turning and drawing. …

For many centuries, a girl’s education – if she was lucky enough to have one at all – consisted of religious instruction, reading, writing and grammar, and the occasional homecraft such as spinning. In the 18th century French, Italian, music and drawing were sometimes added in the few boarding schools open to girls. …

Meanwhile, the growth of public interest in education, fostered by the writings of Spencer, Huxley and others, persuaded the Education Department to expand the curriculum of elementary schools.

The Code of 1871, for example, provided for a special grant for each individual scholar who passed a satisfactory examination in not more than two ‘specific’ subjects of secular instruction beyond the three Rs. At the same time the list of specific subjects was extended to include foreign languages, various branches of pure and applied science, or any definite subject of instruction extending over the classes to be examined in Standards IV, V, and VI.

In 1875, a further step was taken by the introduction of ‘class’ subjects – grammar, geography, history and plain needlework – for which additional grant was paid. Later Codes, especially that of 1880, extended the list of these class subjects which, if taught at all, had to be taught throughout the whole school above Standard 1.


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