We keep many of our own (or our children’s) school records, such as reports, examination certificates or awards. Your relatives may hold similar records about your ancestors in the 19th or 20th centuries (or perhaps photographs of an ancestor with other pupils). For example, my grandmother had a letter of 1916 that contained a character reference for my grandfather from his headmaster. Relatives may also hold school attendance medals or a child’s school books, inscribed with a name and date, or a note of the prize-giving at which a book was awarded. A statute of 1876 provided for some pupils to be given a school leaving certificate (for example if they left school before the statutory leaving age). My grandmother had such a certificate that had been issued to my grandfather in 1916. If you discover the name of a school or college which your ancestor attended, you can also investigate whether any school records survive. Many schools and colleges have archives that include registers, log books and admission records, or photographs of pupils (usually in groups).
Some schools were founded in Britain during the Anglo-Saxon period (most of them linked to monasteries or cathedrals) and the number of schools slowly increased in medieval times. The Guilds and many private benefactors also established schools, some of them now famous, such as Mercers’ School (a grammar school founded in 1542 by the Mercers’ Company of the City of London).
By the mid-16th century there were about 300 grammar schools in existence and the number continued to increase. For example, by the early 17th century there were grammar schools in Devon at Ashburton, Crediton, Ottery St Mary, Great Torrington, Plymouth, Tavistock, Tiverton, Dartmouth, Colyton, Barnstaple, Chudleigh, Honiton, Okehampton and Totnes. Most places at these early grammar schools were for fee-payers, but some local boys were educated for free. Many of these schools later became known as public schools, because they were able to attract pupils from a wide area. These schools were almost exclusively for boys; it was not until the 19th century that similar schools were established for girls.
If you do not know the school that your ancestor attended, the first step is to find the names and addresses of the schools in the area in which he lived. This may be easy if he lived in a village with only one or two local schools, but more difficult if he lived in a town or city within easy reach of many schools. Commercial directories list schools from the mid-19th century, sometimes in the description of towns, cities or villages, but also in the trade or commercial sections. Having found one or more schools which your ancestor may have attended, you can then search for any surviving school records.
The public and grammar schools kept lists of their pupils (and some of these records survive from medieval times). When financial support was offered by the government during the 19th century, many other schools commenced preparing records that evidenced the education that they were providing (and justified the government grants). From about 1880 (but sometimes as early as 1862) school admission registers were kept with information such as admission and leaving dates for each child, the names and addresses of the parents and the ages of the children. The amount of information available from such records can be very great.