Mansel Lacey National Schools in Hertfordshire
Source: Wikimedia Commons

National schools were set up in many growing towns and villages by the “National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales“. As urbanisation and industrialisation expanded in Britain in the early 19th century, there was little or no provision for educating children of the working classes. The society was founded on 16 October 1811 to educate the poor according to principles of the Church of England, and aimed to set up a school in every parish. Teaching the “three Rs” – reading, writing and arithmetic – took place in single large classrooms. Twelve thousand schools were eventually built by the society, which staffed and maintained them. Subsequent state provision was directly influenced and determined by their foundation.[1]

National schools were set up by Anglican clergy and their local supporters, and were run by single teachers using the monitorial system. The basics of the three Rs were taught by monitors, older more capable pupils, who had been instructed by the teacher, to teach basic skills to groups of 10 to 20 children. Reading was from the Bible, and some girls were taught needlework or knitting.[2]

Before 1811

As the population increased, it was difficult to provide schools for all the children of the poor. Sunday schools could not provide the same curriculum as day schools, and some people questioned whether the poor working classes needed any sort of education. The ability to read could give them ideas above their station, but on the other hand educating the workers could be a prop to law and order, teaching them to accept their lot in life. The church had its own reasons; reading was essential for understanding the Bible and improve morality, teaching values of sobriety, thrift and the value of work and avoidance of prison.[3] Robert Raikes is credited with the development of Sunday schools. On Sundays children who worked would not lose pay, and could be taught by middle-class volunteers.[4]

Lancaster and Bell

Joseph Lancaster and Andrew Bell both came up with monitorial systems using older pupils to 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]

Bell developed his ideas in India, where he was superintendent of the Madras Male Orphan Asylum and had to devise new teaching methods because of the incompetence of the teachers. On his return to England he published a widely circulated book, “An experiment in education made at the Male Asylum at Madras“, a system by which a family could teach itself under the superintendence of the master or parent. He introduced the system into St Botolph’s School in Aldgate in 1898, and it was utilised in Kendal by the vicar, Dr Briggs. Bell was installed in the living of Swanage in 1801 and started up Sunday schools and day schools using his method.[5]

Both systems of “mutual instruction” used the same basic methods. A large room had one master who instructed a group of pupils. They then taught groups of 12–20 younger students, who were grouped according to their level of attainment; after completing their teaching duties, 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.[6]

Lancaster and Bell differed in their attitude to instruction. Lancaster provided undenominational instruction in a common Christian belief based on the Bible. Bell wanted to make “good scholars, good men, good subjects and good Christians” where “Christian” meant Anglican. Both men had their supporters, leading to the established church following Bell and the Nonconformists following Lancaster. The Royal Lancasterian Society was set up in 1808, and its methods were adopted by many schools.[6] Lancaster’s system was used in the British Schools set up by the British and Foreign Schools Society (established in 1810), which had 1,500 schools by 1851.[7]

National Society

Former National School in Otley
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1807 a Parliamentary Bill promoted by Samuel Whitbread to establish parochial schools in England and Wales based on Lancaster’s system was rejected by the House of Lords, which was unwilling to accept the need for the poor to be educated.[6] The Church objected to religious instruction of a nondenominational nature, which was gaining in popularity. In 1808 Bell published a “Sketch of a National Institution for training up the children of the poor in moral and Religious principles and in habits of useful industry“. A year later the government gave the first of eleven annual £100,000 grants to Queen Anne’s Bounty to supplement poor clergy livings. Bell’s friends recognised that training new teachers for the schools was an important issue.[8]

In 1811 a group of High Church Anglicans including Joshua Watson, Rev Henry Handley Norris and John Bowles met to counter Lancaster’s system. On 16 October 1811, they founded “The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church, throughout England and Wales“. Anglicanism would be the foundation of national education using Bell’s system.[8] The Prince Regent agreed to be patron, the Archbishop of Canterbury chaired the meeting. The first committee meeting was held at Bow Church on 21 October and a subcommittee was established to organise the Central School for training teachers.[9]

The provision of mass education required funds for school rooms, furniture and equipment and pay for teachers. Sunday schools recruited middle-class volunteers but a large number of teachers would be required for weekday schools.[5] The society advertised its intentions and appealed for funds. Donors included the Prince Regent and Oxford and Cambridge Universities, and individual parishes organised collections.[9] Teachers were trained in Bell’s methods at the Central School. The first schools were set up in London. The society wished to set up a school in every parish and over time grants were made towards providing premises but the parishes had to contribute to the running costs.[10]

After four years the society had contributed £24,000 to building or enlarging 122 schools that had cost over £100,000 and had trained 336 masters and 86 mistresses. The society expanded and spread beyond England and Wales to the colonies.[11] In 1831 there were 10,965 schools in 9,309 parishes, catering for 740,005 children but some areas, particularly the new expanding industrial districts had none because the parishes were poor and unable to generate sufficient funds to build and run schools. The society began to direct grants towards parishes in Lancashire and Yorkshire.[12] In 1861, fifty years after the society was founded, nearly every diocese had a Board of Education, overseeing 12,000 schools. Grants had been given to build 9,122 school rooms and the society had trained 8,761 teachers.[13]

After 1870

The 1870 Education Act led to the formation of board schools They were paid for from taxation because the national system had insufficient places for a rapidly increasing population. Board schools were built in towns and cities funded by local rates and as they became established, national or church schools found it increasingly difficult to raise the funds.[14] Matters came to a head after Local Education Authorities were formed in 1902 when there were still three times as many voluntary schools as board schools. Provision in the voluntary sector was poor with no capacity to improve, and eventually the running costs of voluntary schools were provided from public funds, leaving the voluntary societies responsible for building repairs. The Church did not wish to surrender control and its opponents did not want public funds used to support a religious institution.[15]

The 1944 Education Act created two categories of voluntary schools differentiated by the degree of LEA control in exchange for its meeting more of the costs, but the Church fought to retain control of its schools so that their religious character was secured and maintained.[15]



Higginbotham, Peter. “Early Education for the Poor.” The Workhouse,
Lawson, John, and Harold Silver. A Social History of Education in England. Routledge, 1973.
Louden, Lois. Distinctive and Inclusive The National Society and Church of England Schools 1811–2011. The National Society, 2012,