The British and Foreign School Society was founded in 1814 to cater for the children of Nonconformist parents, based on the monitorial system used by Joseph Lancaster as adopted by the Royal Lancasterian Society in 1808.

Joseph Lancaster, a Quaker, and Andrew Bell, an Anglican, separately had the idea of using monitorial systems in which older pupils teach younger ones. Lancaster opened a school in a shed at his father’s house in 1798, the pupils wrote on slates. After reading Bell’s book, in 1804, the men met to exchange ideas.[1] Lancaster and Bell’s systems of “mutual instruction” used the same basic methods. A master instructed monitors in a large room. The monitors then taught groups of 12–20 younger students grouped according to their level of attainment. After completing their teaching task, the monitors rejoined their own classes as learners. Both systems used small steps in learning, providing rewards and physical and mental discipline by unremitting drill in the three Rs.[2]

The difference between the systems was that Lancaster’s provided undenominational instruction in a common Christian belief based on the Bible whereas Bell wanted to make “good Christians”, that is Anglicans. The established church adopted Bell’s ideas for their National schoolsSchools set up by Anglican clergy and their local supporters, initially run by single teachers using the monitorial system. and Nonconformists followed Lancaster’s.[2] In 1808, Joseph Fox, William Allen and Samuel Whitbread, supported by other evangelical and non-conformist Christians, formed the “Society for Promoting the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor“. After Lancaster argued with the trustees, he started his own school but it failed and he was declared bankrupt and left the country.[3] The society was re-named the “British and Foreign School Society for the Education of the Labouring and Manufacturing Classes of Society of Every Religious Persuasion” in 1814. It supported non-sectarian schools run on Lancasterian principles and called them British Schools.[3] The society had 1500 British Schools by 1851.[4]