*** English school uniform: types of schools

English School Uniform: Types of Schools

state primary
Figure 1.--English state schools did not require uniforms. These younger children at a state primary school in the early 20th century wear a wide variety of different oufits.

The tradition of school uniforms developed at Britain's elite private schools, in typical British fashion referred to as public schools. Children at the country's developing state school system generally did not wear uniforms during the late 19th and 20th century. Britain was late to provide a free public education to children. Some European countries, especially the Germans had a much more extensive public school system. Britain had a great variety of state and charity schools for those who could not afford a private education. Children at these schools wore a variety of clothes. A school uniform consisting of a blazer, school tie, and dress pants has been widely worn by English boys since the 1920s. The style spread to many countries, especially English-speaking countries. This uniform evolved in the England during the late 19th century. Blazers were at first sports wear, but in the 1920s began to replace Eton suits and stiff Eton collars and by the 1930s had become the standard uniform at many private schools. While there were many similarities among the uniforms worn by British boys, there were a wide variety of color combinations and other variations. I have begun to collect some of the descriptions of uniforms at different types of schools and during different periods.

Historical Schools

HBC on this page addresses the types of schools in modern England. Until the turn of the 20th century, however, there were a much wider range of schools. Scools were mostly a private matter as the Government did not play a major role in education until the late 19th century. Amazingly, the English Giverment did not build a state system of secondary schools until after World War II (1939-45). As aresult there was a wide range of schools. Some of these schools like grammar schools retained the names of early schools, but were different. Others like the public schools have continued many of their centuries old traditions. Other schools like dame schools, national schools, ragged schools and others have long disappeared from the national educational landscape.

Ages and Forms

One difficulty foreign readers have in following some English books in the different names used the various class "forms" or grades as Americans tend to refer to grades. Not only are different terms used, but their are also futher complications such as "the upper fifth". These complications are further compounded by the fact that the different clssess used at parimary schools are repated for secondary schools. Thus a boy might be in the 6th form at his prep school, but the next year begin the 1st form at his Public School. The ters for the different forms have also changed as there have been very significant educational reforms in Britain since World War II, especially the Educational Reform Act of 1944. These reforms have changed many of the class terms, especially in the state sector.


English schools are sponsored by both the state and private groups. State schools are usually called public schools, but this is a little confusing in Enbgkand, as the primary private schools are kniown as public schools. They came to be called public schools because they are open to the public--at least the well heeled public which could afford the fees. A private school when the public schools developed schools orh=ganized by privare induvuduals on their own property for their own children. Affluent English parents had the choice either to employ a tutor/governess to educate their children privately or sending them to a public school (Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, ect.). The British school system was a largely fee-paying private (including the public schools) until the 19th century. There were all kinds of different types of schools, but the government played a limited role until the 19th century. And even in the 19th century did not move to establish a major national systen until late (1870s). Both America and the Germans had begun buillding state education systems much earlier. That was a primary system. The English began with a tripartate state system. The Conservatives began to plan the expansion of the secondary system at the end of World War II which was carried out after the War by a Labour Government. Some in the Labour Party wanted to close private schools, vut they decided against that, thinking that they could create a state csystem so nexcellebt (as was the case in Gernany) that no one would want to the sebd their childrenb tio a private school. This they failed to accomplish, but they did open up education to Brtish children of all classes. The core of the education system for several centuries had been the curiously named public schools--actuallly elite private boarding schools, some dating to the 16th century. Public schools accepted very young children at first, but began opening new preparatory schools for the younger children (mid-19th century). The preoaratory known as prep schools thus took on the role of preparing the children to enter the public schools at about age 13 years. For some reason, the girls commonly entered their public schools earlier--age 11 years. Churches also played a role in sponsiring schools, especially the Catholic and Anglican churches. .


Nursery Schools

School was a novel experiebce for most children around the world. Education spread in Europe, but with a few exceptions were fee paying institurins. England has a long hitory of schools dating back to the medieval era. Free public schools have a much more recent history. Wec find their origins in the German states (especially Prussia) and America (18th century)--an interestng origin. Public schools did not become wide spread until later (second half of the 19th century). England lagged behind the other major countries in public education until the Education Act (1870). Tis mandated free primary educatiin for englidh children. The Act did not address nursery education for younger children. We first see nurseru dschools for younger pre-chool children in England (mid-19th century. We first schiol we have found began (about 1854). The advent of the Industrial Revolution created a need for nursery schools. As people moved from the country side into the city, mothers many cases began to work. This created a need for childcare facilities. In the city families and friends were commonly less available. Some more were forced to lock little ones up while they were at work. Tragic incidents enbsued, but even when the children were not physicallky hsrmed, surely it was a traumatic experience. Nursery schools were not market driven. Well-to-do people cared for the children at home as the mothers did not work. The 19th century was an era of a range of social reform, beginniung most prominently with the Abolitionit movement, but also the problems that accompanied the industrial revolution. And a few determined women in British tows and cities took on this problem. They began creating places for the young children. Often they did not have much money. They might rent spaces, in some cases just a non-discriot room. Sometimes a house. In some cases a hoispital made space avilable. These facilities came to be called 'day nurseries'. The nursery was a place in the home that the children slept at night. These facilities took care of the children during the day, thus the term day nursery. This was an entirely new concept. Unlike schools, there was no established tradition of care. Jean Firmin Marbeau (1798-1875) was a philanthropist who pioneered the cr�che movement in France. He openedthe first creche� in Paris (1844). This was all the English movement which founded the first day nurseries had to go on.

English school uniform
Figure 2.--Many state elementary schools in the 1960s began adopting simple uniforms of grey jumpers, grey shorts, and grey knee socks. The uniform was worn with both strap school sandals or lace up shoes. Notice the knee socks are the less-expensive type without the turn-over tops.

Primary Schools

We notice several different types of English primary and pre-primary schools in England. American would tend to call these schools elementary schools, although the term "primary school" is understood. There are both state and private (often referred to as independent) schools in England. The state primary schools are supplemented with Anglican and Catholic schools as well as a few other denominational schools which in England received substantial financial support. Private primary schools are also called preparattory schools in the sence that they prepare boys for the Public (private secondary) schools. Preparatoty schools do not incluse the eraly primary years which are called pre-prep and add some of the junior high years. There are also boarding schools, but this is discussed in the boarding school section.

Secondary Schools

The Public school has continued over centuries a the primary private secondary school, although early schools accepted younger boys. Public schools and grammar schools date from the 16th century. Some of the pubkic schools have impressive reputations. The grammar schools maintained high standards and became part of what was known as the tripartate system (grammar schools, secondary modern, and technical schools). State secondary schools are a much more recent phenomenon. At first children not attending private schools stayed in primary schools for what would become secondary education. The state secondary schools which did not appear until the end of World War I. State seondary schools have varied in type and philosophy as a sucession of English Governments wrestled with the issues of efficency and privlige. State ennvolvement in secondary education began with Fisher Act (1918). Some new schools were created, but much of the effort involved grants to grammar schools or cinverting some primary schools to secondary schools. A much more importantvstep was the Education Act (1944) at the end of World War II. The Act created th Tripartite System establish a three tier secondary system. This included selective grammar schools, secindary modern and secondary technival schools. Sclectivity was eventually abandined with the creation of comprhensives (1970s). Most English secondary schools are today comprehensives.

Residential Arrangements: Boarding and Day Schools

Most English schools were day schools, school the children went to during the day and came home in the afternoon. Some private schools, referred to as pyblic schools in Britain, however, developed as boarding establishments. This proved to be the case in Britain much more than any other European country. Some of the schools like Eton, Harrow, Rugby, and others are some of the most well known schools in the world. Many of these schools were very rough places for boys, as fictionalized in Tom Brown's Schooldays. School authorities in the late 19th century exeted more control over the pupils and man more schools were organized to provide educated people for Britain's developing industrial econonomy and expanding Empire. In addition many schools for younger boys, preparatory schools, were opened to better address the needs for pre-teen boys. Like the public schools, many of these schools were boarding establishments. An importnt institution at thee schools were the boarding houses.

Gender Arrangements

The gender arrangements in English schools have varied depending on the type of school. Dames schools were generally coeducational. Early grammar schools and public (private) schools were for boys. Public school for girls appeared in the 19th century and most public schools were single gender schools until after World War II (19390-45). The various kinds of primary schools varied. These schools in the 19th century were often coeducational, but within the schools, boys and girls were often kept separate. This continued into the 20th century. Gradually the primary schools persued a policy of more mixing. Secondary schools were for the most part single gender schools until after World war II. We see some coed secondary schools in the 1930s, but this was not the general pattern. A example is the City Grammar School in 1938.


Education and religion in England are a little complicated and I do not fully understand the arrangements. Religious groups are allowed to set up or support schools. Most of England's major public chools and associated preparatory schools have connections o he Church of England. There are schools asiciated with other Protestant denominations and Catholics. I am less sure about other religions. The state system is more complicated. England primary and secondary schools are secular, but there are no prohibitions on prayers and I believe that there is required Religious Educatioin. At one time this was overseen by the Church of England, but I am not sure about the current content. In addition to the standard state schools, there were some faith schools that received state support. This included both Anglican and Catholic schools. The Labour Government in recent years has helped estabnlish Muslim, Hindu and Sikh schools in an effort to give them parity with Christian schools. I know there are primary faith schools. I'm less sure about secondary schools. As a result of a series of terror attacks in Britain, these new faith schools have been the subject of controversy.

Home Schooling

A topic we have not yet addesssed is home schooling. This has become increasingly popular in Britain, especially beginning in the 1990s. It is almost universally a middle-class preoccupation, but a significant one in some areas. This is a result of a number of factors but Government meddling with the curriculum, poor behaviour/discipline, insufficient support for brighter pupils etc. are often cited.


The standard English schools were primary and secondary schools. The ages vaied somewhat, especiall after the 1944 educational reforms. We note some regional variations in these schools. Some involved abreviations which are not readily recognizable to non-Englih readers. There were County Primary Schools (CP schools) outside of Inner London - the so-called "Home Counties". There were also Junior and Infant Mixed Schools (JMI schools). These were less common than the plain Junior School where the infants were in a completely seperate school. Some authorities - not Inner London - had First, Middle and Upper Schools - being 5-8, 8-13 and 13-16 years respectively. A reader tells us, "I think Ealing (an Outer London Borough to the West of London) was one of these. Some of the boys at my Grammar School were from Ealing. I think - because of Ealing's school set up - they abolished the 11+ before most authorities and that is why a lot of these boys' parents took them out of the state system and sent them to private schools, including my school's prep department, as they wanted them to go to a Grammar school. Some of these state Middle Schools still had boys wear short trousers well into the 1970s when boys stopped wearing shorts in most secondary schools. Some of the boys objected to this as over the border in Richmond, which had a more common Infant, Junior, Secondary set-up boys could normally wear long trousers at secondary level - 11 years - not wait until 13 as in Ealing. Later these Ealing Middle Schools allowed boys in the last 2 years the option of long trousers so they were then the same as boys in the neighbouring boroughs."

Unknown Schools and Types

Here we are mostly trying to figure out what type of school is represented in various school images we have found. Often these images are not identified. Many we can figure out, but quite a number are not so easy to identify. We also have found schools that are identified, but we are no entirely sure what type of schools they are.

Unknown schools

Our major source of information is the very ample supply of school photogrphy. Here we are mostly trying to figure out what type of school is represented in various school images we have found. Often these images are not identified. Many we can figure out, but quite a number are not so easy to identify. We can generally but not precisely figure out the age groups and dates, butthere are some conuding elements to some of the imaes we have found. Hopefully our British readers can help figure out whatt type of school we are looking at.

Unknown types

There have been quite a range of different schools. Some are schools like dame, hospital, ragged, and other school types that are not well known today. We are slowly researching these different schools. We are now familiar with many of these schools lthough we are still reseraching the historical background. We have, however, come across some schools which are unfamilar to us. Hopefully our English readers will privide us some insights here.

Academic Achievement

Many English parents and educators have noted a discernable decline in both discipline and academic standards in English schools. The two of course are related in that unless a school has proper dscipline standards, even a small number of students can disrupt the academic program. The decline is notable especially in the state education system. A factor here has been the demise of the grammar schools, selctive secondary schools. This is part of an overall trend by left-wing educators to question the need for academic standards under tghe guise that they help to perpetuate class divisions and that failure can damage a child's self image. The result has been that students that now attend state schools now do much better on achievement tests. Thois discrepancy did not exist before the demise of the grammar school system. Many parents who did not attend private (independent schools) as children, now send their children to private schools if they can afford it. Educators can debate the philosophy/ideology involved. What an not be disputed is the academic results.

Personal Acounts

Some personal accounts are available describing the uniforms worn as schoolboys:


Weale, Sally. "Kent children sit 11-plus as government plans new grammar schools," Guardian (September 8, 2016)..

Additional Information

Related Links: Careful this will exit you from the Boys' Historical Clothing web site, but both sites are highly recommended

Boys' Preparatory Schools: A lovely photographic essay on British Preparatory Schools during the 1980s with over 200 color and black and white photographs.

Apertures Press New Zealand eBbook: New eBook on New Zealand schools is available

Apertures Press British Preparatory School eBook Volume I: New eBook on Brirish preparatory schools is available


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Created: January 21, 1999
Last updated: 8:28 AM 12/11/2020