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Infant Schools in England

A History of Infant Schools, Influences of the Infant Schools on Education in Other Countries, Summary

Infant schools in England provide publicly funded education for children age five to seven and represent the first level of compulsory education in England. Infant schools and junior schools are often housed together in primary schools. Together, they furnish education to children until they reach eleven years of age. As of 1998 there were 18,230 primary schools in England providing full-time education for almost 4 million children. Twelve percent of these schools were infant schools, providing children with two years of education only. All infant schools educate children age five to seven, but the traditional infant school approach to education has influenced educational programs for younger and older children.

Children enter infant schools shortly after their fifth birthday, and it is here that they learn to manipulate numbers, read, and write. Traditional infant schools offer an informal education using child-centered techniques. They encourage hands-on manipulation, group and individual learning, and learning through play. Infant schools have been characterized as progressive, child-centered, open and exploratory; they educate children in a way that recognizes their development from a holistic perspective.

Classes are typically vertically grouped to accommodate children age five through seven. Class size may be as large as forty children. Infant schools use an open classroom approach where children move freely from indoor to outdoor environments. The teachers' role is one of facilitation; he or she (usually she) works individually with students or with small groups of students and provides students the opportunity to choose from a range of options appropriate to their developmental level. Infant schools utilize an integrated day, where children pursue various interests or themes without rigid time periods.

Infant schools have a rich conceptual heritage. Their approach draws on the ideas of Friedrich Froebel, who emphasized the importance of play and object in learning; Maria Montessori, who emphasized self-correcting play and an individualized pace in learning; John Dewey, who characterized the community of the school and emphasized integration among subject areas; and Jean Piaget, who supported a developmentally-sensitive approach to learning and advocated hands-on exploration of materials.

Most infant schools encourage children's choice. For example, children typically choose where to sit and whether they would like to work individually or with peers. Infant schools permit freedom of movement and conversation, encouraging children's natural curiosity and exploratory tendencies.

Infant school teachers are trained to understand the interrelation between social, emotional, and intellectual development, and accommodate children's individual variability within these developmental domains. Infant school teachers are expected to acknowledge the immaturity, innocence, and lack of self-control of young children, employing oblique, indirect strategies toward discipline. Teachers are expected to demonstrate pleasantness, affection, and level-headedness toward misbehaving children. For example, when a child misbehaves, it is more typical for a teacher to chide, "Someone's being silly" rather than scold, "Don't do that!"

A History of Infant Schools

Robert Owen established the first infant school in 1816 in Scotland. His goal was to shield children from the effects of poverty. This school was designed to provide children with a pleasant school environment where they could think about practical problems and experience little punishment. Teachers encouraged children to help each other, dance, sing, and play outside.

In nineteenth-century England, many mothers worked outside of the home. Forty-five percent of children under the age of five were enrolled in school. Consistent with Owen's objectives, infant schools aimed to protect children and promote a better society. In 1870 the official age for school entrance was set at five, but infant schools accepted poor children of two to seven years, space permitting. During this period, the government imposed standards for children to attain so that children would be prepared to enter school (first standard) at age six. When these standards were relaxed at the end of the nineteenth century, infant schools began a new period of development that strengthened their child-centered ideology.

An early step in this direction was an 1893 government circular encouraging educators to consider all facets of children's development in creating educational programs. By the 1920s and 1930s the infant schools adopted a child-centered approach. The Report of the Hadow Committee in 1933, written by the Consultative Committee of the Board of Education on the Primary School, stated explicitly that primary schools should provide discovery learning and child-centered practice.

The Education Act of 1944 required that primary education be available to all children age five through eleven. The act was vague on what this entailed, mandating "[education] suitable to the requirements of junior pupils." Because this definition was imprecise, curriculum decisions were ceded to the schools. Infant schools offered a wide variety of curricula, structures, and functions. This same act created a selective system of secondary education. As a result, one of the implicit goals for primary education was to begin the process of streaming or tracking, a goal that was discredited gradually over subsequent decades.

In 1967 the Central Advisory Council for Education issued "Children and Their Primary Schools," known as the Plowden Report. This report was based on observations in infant schools. It described the state of primary education in Britain, and endorsed those schools subscribing to "informal, child-centered education." As a result of this report, teachers were given increased freedom to teach children as they saw fit, with less emphasis on strict schedules and specific curricula.

The Plowden Report also assessed the effectiveness of the child-centered infant schools. It asserted that children in traditional, formal classes performed slightly better on conventional tests than children in child-centered, open classrooms. These differences were greatest for arithmetic, smallest for reading, and disappeared in later school years. Some proponents of the child-centered infant schools dismissed these findings on the basis that traditional, formal schools spend time teaching children how to take conventional tests. Despite these results, the Plowden Report advocated the child-centered approach.

The Education Reform Act of 1988 produced a radical restructuring of British education. This included infant schools. England was experiencing uncertainty about its status in the world, and these new laws represented an attempt by the government to control the content and the balance of the curriculum. The Education Reform Act of 1988 required that children be offered "a balanced and broadly based curriculum which promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society; and prepares such pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities, and experiences of adult life."

The Education Reform Act ushered in a new national curriculum and a matching set of assessment procedures. Primary schools, including infant schools, were required to teach a core curriculum of mathematics, English, science, history, geography, technology, music, art, and physical education, requiring approximately 70 percent of the instructional time. Specific provisions were created for children with special educational needs.

The act also mandated testing. Children's achievement was to be measured based on a combination of teachers' assessment and Standardized Assessment Tasks (SAT). The SATs were integrated into the normal classroom routines; children were to experience them as normal classroom tasks that they might do individually or with other children, but would reflect their academic progress. Children had to attain specific English, mathematics, and science competencies by age seven.

The Education Reform Act supported parents' rights to choose their children's schools and encouraged competition among schools. By imposing free market models on educators, the government hoped to provide more cost-effective and efficient schools.

Several studies have examined the implications of the Education Reform Act on educational practice and effectiveness. The PACE (Primary Assessment Curriculum and Experience) study found less use of an integrated day, more use of whole class teaching, and a new emphasis on assessment compared to the traditional infant school model. According to the PRINDEP (Primary Needs Independent Evaluation Project) study, teachers found the national curriculum burdensome, but reported few changes in their balance between individual, group, and whole class pedagogy. Teachers in the PRINDEP study reported increased professionalism in the climate at their school following the act. Finally, the new ORACLE (Observational Research and Classroom Learning Evaluation) study compared basic skills in 1976 with basic skills in 1996, cross-sectionally, and showed declines in mathematics, language, and reading skills between these time periods.

Influences of the Infant Schools on Education in Other Countries

France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and other European countries adopted infant schools in the early to mid-1800s. Their goal was to buffer children from poverty-related stressors. Infant schools on the Continent were similar to those in England, providing children with a child-centered educational environment.

Infant schools of England were again influential throughout Europe during the 1960s and 1970s. Existing programs adopted aspects of the English child-centered approach. For example, the Netherlands fully subsidized infant schools and included them as part of their public school system in 1965. In the 1970s the German Federal Republic's Council on Education opened Eingangsstufe, a transitional class in primary schools for five-year-old children that resembled infant schools in England.

Several infant schools were established in the United States in the 1820s in response to Owen's writings, but these disappeared within ten years. The infant school movement had a larger influence on preschool and primary education in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s. At this time, U.S. preschool programs were viewed as "preparatory programs for rigid kindergarten classrooms" (Featherstone 1967, p. 19). To U.S. observers, the infant schools in England offered a demonstration that a child-centered, informal education for young children could exist within in the public schools. As Lillian Weber wrote in 1971, "By observing somewhat analogous situations in the industrial cities of England, I sought relevant answers to the problems of present preschool expansion in the United States and to the needs of children in our deteriorated areas of our cities" (p. 7).

Thus, as Head Start and Follow-Through programs developed, they incorporated practices from the English infant schools. British heads and teachers ran workshops on "informal education." They trained American teachers to recognize individual and uneven patterns of development, reorganize classrooms to enable teachers to interact with small groups and individuals, and establish opportunities for children to manipulate and discover materials independently. There was a proliferation of books designed specifically for early childhood teachers wanting to provide an informal education to their students. These books were rooted in the infant school philosophy, and explained the role of the school, teachers, and families; appropriate curricula; approaches to discipline; the physical organization of schools; and the construction of materials, such as easels and aquariums, to promote children's curiosity.

Also during the 1970s, infant schools influenced practice in U.S. elementary schools. Open schools, which grew from infant school principles, emphasized the holistic development of the child and children's interests as the basis for school learning. Schools implementing this approach offered decentralized learning, freedom of movement from one space to another, unstructured periods of study, and individualized and group-oriented student activities. This approach faced implementation problems in the U.S., which included improper training of teachers and unsupportive administrators and families.


Infant schools offer a child-centered, informal approach to education that has been recognized as being sensitive to the development of young children. Educational reforms late in the twentieth century have demanded higher levels of competency from young children and have affected the direction and practices of infant schools in England. English infant schools have had a lasting impact on educational policy and practice in many countries.


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