Llwyncelyn Infant School, Porth (2011)

An infant school is a term which is used predominantly in England and Wales. It has been used since the 19th century to refer to schools or school departments that cater for children up to seven years old.

Early infant schools were founded across Great Britain beginning in the 1810s. They offered safety at a time when children's lives were being unsettled by economic upheaval and experimented with a variety of methods of teaching young children. In the middle of the 19th century, they were integrated into the nascent English and Welsh state education system and shifted to offering a programme of rote learning. In the early 1900s concern developed that they were teaching in a way that was unsuitable for their very young pupils and they moved towards a child-centred approach.


An infant school is a term used primarily in England and Wales,[1] for the education of children between the ages of four and seven years.[note 1] It might refer to a separate school or a department within a larger school.[3] In England, Reception is considered part of the Early Years Foundation Stage whilst the following two years are known as Key Stage 1.[4] In Wales, the levels of attainment expected of school children are called progression steps. The first of these is expected to be reached at approximately five-years-old and the second at around eight-years-old.[5]


American depiction of a family working together to run a pre-industrial home weaving business

The concept of a school for very young children is a relatively modern phenomenon. According to David Salmon and Winifred Hindshaw, this is because the idea that formal education can be tailored to the specific needs of young children is relatively new and because it has traditionally been seen as best that the fairly limited group of children who have tended to have access to schooling historically start their education at home. There are some examples of infant school-like institutions in continental Western Europe dating from the later 18th century.[6] Before the 19th century, children learnt the skills needed for work and home life from their families at an early age. It was reasonably common for children below the age of eight to attend the village or grammar schools but, as these were single-room institutions which catered to a wide range of ages, no particular accommodation would have been made for the younger children.[7]

A dame's school by Thomas George Webster (1845)

The agricultural and industrial revolutions had a disruptive effect on the lives of many children. New, more punitive, forms of child labour developed in factories. Many young children with working mothers were left alone or in the care of older children. Dame schools provided a cheap childminding service, generally with low standards of care and education. The British and Foreign School Society (founded 1808) and the National Society for Promoting Religious Education (founded 1811) were established to found new schools, but these were intended for children over the age of seven and six respectively. Joseph Lancaster (1778–1838), an influential educational theorist of the time, believed that "initiatory" schools should be created, which would provide safety and education focused on personal character to children aged younger than seven years old, but neither society did this.[7]

Early infant schools

The first infant school in Great Britain was established for the children of mill workers in New Lanark, Renfrewshire in Scotland, in 1816, by manager Robert Owen.[7] The school catered for children aged between one- and six-years-old. The teachers were told never to beat or otherwise punish the children. They were to speak in a friendly manner and encourage the children to be kind to others. Lessons were generally conducted through conversations between adult and child about their surroundings, as well as physical activities. Owen had originally not wanted reading to be taught in the infant school, but it was introduced with the aim that it would not be the focus of instruction at this age. Owen described the children in the school as "by far the happiest human beings I have ever seen".[8]

In 1818, the first infant school in England was sponsored by Henry Brougham, and other political radicals, in Brewer's Green, Westminister, London. Two further infant schools were established in London over the next six years. The London Infant School Society was active from 1824 to 1835. It promoted the founding of new infant schools but had less success in training teachers. This was followed by other regional societies, such as in Leicester and Glasgow. Samuel Wilderspin was a major advocate of infant schools across England, the philosophy he promulgated had more emphasis on formal instruction than Owen's though he tried to adapt the instruction to the abilities of young children. In Glasgow, David Stow was a major promotor of infant schools who remained truer to Owen's aims even with an increased focus on class teaching.[7] Overall in Britain, the early infant school movement was strongest in London and Glasgow. T.B Stephens is sceptical of it suggesting that infant schools gradually lost most of their distinctiveness and failed to become the preferred childcare option for working-class parents.[9] Nanette Whitbread suggests that regardless of their limitations the early infant schools offered safety and a degree of compassion to young children living in a difficult environment with few other options.[7]

Illustration of an Infant School run by the Home and Colonial Infant School Society as a training school for infant teachers (c. 1840)[10]

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, interest developed in the educational theories of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. He believed that lessons should be conducted in a way that, though still guided by a teacher, gave the child more autonomy to think for themselves. For instance, the pupil might be allowed to examine an object before being told what it was. He was not primarily interested in teaching young children, but in Britain, it was infant schools where he had the most influence. In 1836, the Home and Colonial Infants School Society was established which trained infant teachers and promoted Pestalozzi's technique. By the 1840s, school inspectors preferred Infant schools which used teachers trained by the society. Meanwhile, the monitorial system was being used in some infant schools with children up to the age of 9-years-old being employed to act as assistant teachers.[10] In 1840, guidance issued for newly-introduced school inspectors in England and Wales mentioned specific questions for them to ask in infant school. For instance, "What amusements have the children?" and "‘Are the children trained in walking, marching, and physical exercises, methodically?".[11]

During this period there was a degree of ambiguity about what infant education was expected to achieve. School inspectors believed that an infant stage of education was beneficial even if it "‘did nothing but contribute to their [the children's] health and cheerfulness" but also said children should be taught "To read an easy little narrative lesson, have the first notions of numbers, and be able to write on a slate".The Glasgow herald reported on a local infant school in 1835 that "They seldom sit on their seats more than fifteen minutes at a time without exercise. All is joyous activity—only pictures and objects are in use, and one-third of their time is spent in amusements in the playground." Research by a Royal Commission in 1861 suggested that older schoolchildren who had attended an infant school tended to be significantly ahead of those who had not. Nanette Whitbread commented on infant schools in this period that:[10]

Infant schools in England and Scotland by mid-century had certain characteristic features. The schoolroom was a large hall complete with gallery for simultaneous instruction, and the walls were lined with black boarding for the children to draw and write on. A playground, equipped with such apparatus as swings and see-saws, was required in any new infant school applying for grant. The curriculum included drawing, music, physical exercises, sewing, knitting, gardening, at least the preliminary steps towards reading and sometimes writing, and Pestalozzian ‘object lessons’ on natural objects and domestic utensils.

By the middle of the 19th century, the number of infant schools was growing rapidly. Part of the reason for this was that the British population was growing, due to another wave of industrialisation related to steam-power and Irish immigration due to the Great Famine. In 1851 around 25% of people in Britain were children under the age of 10 years. With this young, expanding population becoming even more urbanised, conditions worsened in the industrial slums and dame schools, increasing the appeal of infant schools that were often outstripped by demand. Skilled workers' wages also began to gradually increase after about 1842 making it easier for them to pay the quite low fees charged by infant schools.[10]

Integration into state system and rote learning

The number of children under seven in schools for older children also rose. The first effective restrictions on the labour of children under the age of about 9 or 10 years were being introduced in some industries and technological advancement was reducing the usefulness of child labour. This meant that the number of seven- to ten-year-old children available to attend school increased. But parents often relied on older children to provide childcare for younger children so sent their three- to six-year-old children to school with their older siblings. In 1861 19.8% of three- to six-year-olds were in this situation. School inspectors felt that large numbers of children younger than seven in schools for older children were disruptive to teaching. However, they did not want to entirely exclude these younger children both to avoid older children being kept home to provide childcare and to make use of all of the relatively short periods when children were available to attend school. In 1840 the Council on Education in England and Wales "‘directed that a collateral series of plans of school-houses should be drawn, in which an infant school and playground are added to the schoolroom for children above six years of age, in the hope that these plans may promote the adoption of arrangements … for the combination of an infant school with the [older] boys’ and girls’ school".[10]

In 1862 the payment by results system of funding schools was introduced. While children under six were exempt from individual examinations and the exemption was expanded to children under seven a decade later, the system encouraged more emphasis on teaching the three r's at the infant stage. The focus of teaching in infant schools moved towards rote learning.[10] The 1870 Education Act made 5 years the minimum age at which school boards could make education compulsory. This was somewhat controversial at the time, with some people believing it was too young. However, it was believed young children could be taught moral lessons at an early age and children who started school sooner could be released to start work sooner.[12] The 1880 Education Act made 5 years the start of compulsory schooling across England and Wales.[13] Britain[note 2] was unusual in the Western World in having that early a start to compulsory schooling. In addition, many children as young as 2 or 3 years were also enrolled at school both before and after these acts. The proportion of children between 3 and 5 years at school increased throughout the remainder of the 19th century from 24.2% in 1870 to 43.1% in 1900. The skilled working classes, whose wages were broadly going up throughout this period, made use of infant schools as childcare for their preschool children. When fees were abolished at state schools in 1891, many more of the less financially secure working classes sent their children to school before the age of five. This largely brought about the end of dame schools.[12]

An investigation into infant schools, conducted in 1870, found that they were typically broken into two classes. In the "babies class", for the under 5's, children were taught "to speak clearly, to understand pictures, to recite the alphabet and to march to music". The "infants class" for the 5- to 7-year-olds taught "a curriculum based on the three Rs, simple manual tasks and sewing." Babies' classes were somewhat inadequate for the youngest children; often overcrowded, using pens to keep children in their seats and led by adolescent or unqualified teachers.[12] This was a period when the ideas of Frederick Froebel, who believed in a variety of more experimental education methods, were being imported into Britain through "kindergartens" aimed at the middle classes.[15] A mixture of practical considerations and class prejudice meant that his ideas were broadly considered unsuitable for infant schools. However attempts were made to introduce some of Froebel's methods into infant schools, often turning them into whole-class activities that lost much of their original value.[12]

Infant children in West Riding, Yorkshire celebrating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee (1899)

Infant classes in the early 1900s were almost always separated from the older children in all but the smallest village schools. They were generally large with fifty or sixty children seated in rows. The culture of the payment-by-results system remained even though it had ended and instruction focused on the three R's taught, to a large extent, through rote learning. There was an emphasis on discipline and conformity across the curriculum. For instance, pupils were forced to write with their right hand, art lessons consisted of exactly copying an image provided by the teacher and physical education took the form of drills along with marching, on occasion to martial music. Some schools were starting to take a more informal approach to teaching babies' classes for those under 5, for instance using moveable furniture and in a few of the more liberal-minded schools allowing periods of free play with toys. Though class instruction in the three R's was a major part of the teaching of even this youngest group.[16]

Shift to child-centred approach

High levels of military recruit rejection on health grounds, during the Second Boar War, drew the government's attention to the poor living conditions experienced by much of the British population. The Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration was established and released its report on public health in 1904. Witnesses spoken to by the inquiry claimed that very young children attending school were being prevented from moving around and made to do tasks they were not yet developmentally ready for damaging health. Some witnesses said that nurseries rather than schools were needed for children between three and five years. Female school inspectors were asked to do a further report on children under the age of five attending school. This report, released in 1905, was very critical commenting "that the children between the ages of three and five get practically no intellectual advantage from school instruction... the evidence is very strong against attempts at formal instruction for any children under five". The report said that children from the poorest households gained a health benefit from being removed from the home, but that nurseries were preferable to schools. From the government's point of view, there were a variety of economic and practical reasons for excluding children under five from school and new guidance issued to local education authorities in 1905 allowed them to do that. The proportion of three- and four-year-olds in England and Wales at school fell to 22.7% in 1910 and 13.1% in 1930. While there were some efforts to create nurseries aimed at the working classes, except for a brief expansion during World War I to free up mothers to work in the ammunition factories, it would be sometime before a significant number were created.[17]

The 1905 code for elementary schools encouraged infant schools and classes to move away from a focus on reaching a particular standard of attainment in the three R's towards "the more general aim of encouraging mental and physical growth and of developing good habits". Lessons for five- to seven-year-olds were to be a maximum of fifteen minutes long. Children of this age would be "trained to listen carefully, to speak clearly, to recite easy pieces, to reproduce simple stories and narratives, to do simple things with their hands, to begin to draw, to begin to read and write, to observe, to acquire an elementary knowledge of number". A year later the ideas of John Dewey came to British attention after the publication of a collection of his essays. He interpreted Froebel's ideas in a broader way. A new attitude developed in infant education which was more open-minded about teaching methods and placed greater emphasis on child development. A senior school inspector Edmond Holmes wrote in 1911 that "the atmosphere of the good infant schools is … freer, more recreative, and truly educative than that of the upper schools of equivalent merit".[17]

Around the time of World War 1 a substantial education reform movement grew out of various groups with grievances towards the education system. This led to the development of a new type of child-centred infant education in the interwar period. This new philosophy drew on various sources including the work of Susan Isaacs and ideas from America. The main principle of this method was that activities were based on the preferences of the child. However good infant schools of this era used a variety of methods to encourage the children to expand their interests. For instance, pupils would be exposed to writing in the classroom to encourage a desire to learn to read. This was especially important to those from the poorest households who might have almost illiterate parents with no books. Subjects such as "nature study, pre-history, and craft-work" were introduced, based on the idea that children recreated human beings' intellectual development throughout time in their play. Subjects such as drama and music, along with speech and language activities also played a role. Project work played a major role in the teaching of especially older infants. There were flaws in this system. Some teachers failed to teach reading to poorer pupils, with no reason to develop an interest in the subject outside of school. Large classes in older schools were often ill-suited to the new methods, while new infant schools were better fitting but frequently inadequate.[16]

The new teaching methods were by no means universal and some schools used a significant amount of formal instruction in the older style. While school inspectors generally supported the new ethos there was some opposition. For instance, an employee of the Board of Education, Lord Eustace Percy later wrote in his memoirs: "Educational philosophy had become dangerously romantic since the war [World War I]... It aimed at civilizing children rather than instructing them". However, the Hadow reports of 1931 and 1933 broadly encouraged the child-centred approach. Infant schools had a positive reputation across the western world in the 1930s.[17] Meanwhile, in the 1930s, efforts to expand nursery provision were starting to have some effect. Several new nursery classes were added to infant schools and the proportion of three- and four-year-olds at school increased marginally after multiple decades of decline. Nurseries tended to have an attached playground and beds for naptime. Nanette Whitbread comments on nurseries that:[16]

Class activities included singing nursery rhymes, eurhythmic dancing, percussion and story-time. There was a regular routine to the day, with time allowed for free play. Toys and apparatus were carefully chosen for their educational value and children were encouraged to experiment with building, painting and other activities that promoted muscular control, sensory perception and healthy physical development. They were taught to wash, dress, use the lavatory and keep the classroom tidy.

Part of primary education

Children arriving at Oswestry Infant School (1955)

The 1944 Education Act placed the infant stage in primary education. Local education authorities often found it practical to build combined primary schools in new housing estates created by the post-war housing programme. The proportion of infant stages that were in separate schools fell from more than 70% before World War II to 56% in 1965. More middle-class parents sent their children to state schools, at least initially, than in pre-war times. The child-centred approach became increasingly dominant in infant schools, albeit focusing more on teaching the three R's. Studies had suggested that delayed teaching of reading could lead to a child abilities in the subject being permanently stunted. The portion of three- and four-year-olds at school declined as in the context of the post-war baby boom the focus was on catering to children of compulsory school age.[18] Historians Gareth Elwyn Jones and Gordon Wynne Roderick give the following description of 1950s infant school teaching;[19]

In the first year, the 'reception class', children were usually occupied with activities similar to those in a nursery school, but were also taught to acquire the rudiments of reading and number, learned to draw and paint and to measure and weigh, while music, dance and movement also played an important part. Teaching methods with the older children varied: some teachers relied on formal instruction, others on informal individual and group activities.

The Plowden Report in 1967 endorsed the child-centred approach and gave additional autonomy to teachers.[20] A 1970 academic report described infant schools where children were taught in mixed-aged classes and given a level of autonomy over what activities they did. It argued that this made lessons more effective and comfortable for both the children and the teacher.[21] The 1988 Education Reform Act introduced far more centralised control over state schools with a standardised curriculum and testing being introduced.[22] The creation of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999 began an era of greater diversion in education policy between Wales and England.[23] The Foundation Phase, a new play-based curriculum, was introduced in Wales for children aged three to seven from 2008 onwards.[24] In 2022, primary schools in Wales switched to a new curriculum which gave more autonomy to teachers.[25]

Outside Britain

Infant class at a school in Queensland, Australia (1946)

Infant schools based on the British model were introduced into the United States in the 1820s and 1830s. However, a growing hostility to the idea of young children being educated outside the home led to them largely disappearing by the mid-century.[26] The early infant school movement also influenced the creation of École maternelle in France.[8] Between the 1820s and 1850s, infant schools were established by missionaries across the British Empire with the aim of "civilising" indigenous children through introducing them to Christianity and the English language.[27] Colonial governments also imported British practices into their territories. For instance, in 1855, the government of Victoria, modern Australia, wrote to the central education authority in England and Wales requesting two trained teachers to run a model example of an Infant School. They would be offered money for their passage as well as a substantial wage. A married couple quickly accepted.[28]

See also


  1. ^ The actual age of pupils transferring into Infant School 'Reception', is dependent on when their birthday is within the academic year. They join in the September following their birthday.[2]
  2. ^ The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 also introduced a start to compulsory education of 5-years-old in Scotland.[14]


  1. ^ "infant school". thefreedictionary.com. Retrieved 12 April 2018.
  2. ^ "School admissions". www.gov.uk. Retrieved 12 April 2018.
  3. ^ "infant school". dictionary.cambridge.org. Retrieved 2021-10-26.
  4. ^ "The national curriculum". GOV.UK. Retrieved 2021-10-26.
  5. ^ "Introduction to Curriculum for Wales guidance - Hwb". hwb.gov.wales. Retrieved 2024-03-05.
  6. ^ Salmon, David; Hindshaw, Winifred (1904). "J.R Oberlin". Infant schools, their history and theory. London, New York, Bombay: Longmans, Green, and co.
  7. ^ a b c d e Whitbread, Nanette (1972). "Industrialization and Philanthropy: 1800–40". The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant Education in Britain, 1800-1970. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203706961. ISBN 978-1-135-03062-9.
  8. ^ a b Salmon, David; Hindshaw, Winifred (1904). "Robert Owen". Infant schools, their history and theory. London, New York, Bombay: Longmans, Green, and co.
  9. ^ Stephens, T.B (1998). Education in Britain, 1750-1914. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-333-60512-7.
  10. ^ a b c d e f Whitbread, Nanette (1972). "Advance and Setback: 1836–62". The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant Education in Britain, 1800-1970. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203706961. ISBN 978-1-135-03062-9.
  11. ^ Grigg, Russell (2022). "Origins and development of the inspectorate in Wales, 1839–1907". In Keane, Ann (ed.). Watchdogs or Visionaries?: Perspectives on the History of the Education Inspectorate in Wales. University of Wales Press. ASIN B0BLCS7YDK.
  12. ^ a b c d Whitbread, Nanette (1972). "The School Board Era: 1870–1902". The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant Education in Britain, 1800-1970. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203706961. ISBN 978-1-135-03062-9.
  13. ^ Lloyd, Amy. "Education, Literacy and the Reading Public" (PDF). Gale Primary Sources. University of Cambridge. Archived (PDF) from the original on 5 November 2020.
  14. ^ Corr, Helen (1990). People and Society in Scotland, II, 1830-1914, "An Exploration into Scottish Education". Edinburgh: John Donald. pp. 291–298. ISBN 0-85976-211-4.
  15. ^ Whitbread, Nanette (1972). "The Middle-Class Kindergarten: 1850–1900". The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant Education in Britain, 1800-1970. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203706961. ISBN 978-1-135-03062-9.
  16. ^ a b c Whitbread, Nanette (1972). "Progress in Infant Schools: 1900–39". The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant Education in Britain, 1800-1970. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203706961. ISBN 978-1-135-03062-9.
  17. ^ a b c Whitbread, Nanette (1972). "The Rise of the Nursery School: 1900–39". The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant Education in Britain, 1800-1970. Routledge. doi:10.4324/9780203706961. ISBN 978-1-135-03062-9.
  18. ^ Whitbread, Nanette (1972). "Towards a Rationale: 1945–70". The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant Education in Britain, 1800-1970. Routledge. ASIN B0B7Q623MR. doi:10.4324/9780203706961-8.
  19. ^ Jones, Gareth Elwyn; Roderick, Gordon Wynne (2003). History of Education in Wales. University of Wales Press. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-7083-1808-9.
  20. ^ Garland, Derek (2018). "Education in the UK: a history - Chapter 12". education-uk.org. Retrieved 2023-12-06.
  21. ^ Hetzel, Donna C. (1970). "An Overview of British Infant Schools". Young Children. 25 (6): 336–339. ISSN 0044-0728. JSTOR 42643342.
  22. ^ Garland, Derek (2018). "Education in the UK: a history - Chapter 15". education-uk.org. Retrieved 2023-12-06.
  23. ^ "BBC NEWS | UK | Education | Wales". news.bbc.co.uk. 25 April 2000. Archived from the original on 2022-08-06. Retrieved 2022-08-06.
  24. ^ "Outdoor classes start in schools". 2008-09-02. Archived from the original on 2022-08-06. Retrieved 2022-08-06.
  25. ^ Lewis, Bethan (2022-06-14). "Wales schools: New lessons 'exciting but a challenge'". BBC News. Archived from the original on 2022-06-13. Retrieved 2022-06-14.
  26. ^ Vinovskis, Maris A. (1993). "Early Childhood Education: Then and Now". Daedalus. 122 (1): 151–176. ISSN 0011-5266. JSTOR 20027154.
  27. ^ Barman, Jean (2015). "Review of Empire, Education, and Indigenous Childhoods: Nineteenth-Century Missionary Infant Schools in Three British Colonies". Journal of British Studies. 54 (1): 237–238. doi:10.1017/jbr.2014.242. ISSN 0021-9371. JSTOR 24701761. S2CID 162218909.
  28. ^ Bischof, Christopher (2019). Teaching Britain: Elementary Teachers and the State of the Everyday, 1846–1906. Oxford University Press. p. 130. ISBN 978-0-19-883335-2.