Currently one in three state-funded schools in England has a religious character, catering for one quarter of pupils, but for most of the 19th century, churches and charitable groups were the principal providers of education to the masses.
Even after a state system of elementary schools was established in 1870, most children continued to be educated in these voluntary schools.
In 1908, 60% of public elementary schools in England and Wales were voluntary schools, accounting for 45% of pupils. Six years earlier, their financial difficulties meant responsibility for running costs had passed to local education authorities (LEAs). By 1938, voluntary schools still outnumbered council schools, but now accounted for only 30% of pupils.
Lack of funds meant that many voluntary schools were in a state of disrepair. The Board of Education reported in 1943 that nearly 92% of voluntary schools were in buildings dating from 1902 or earlier. The Education Secretary, Rab Butler, summed up the problem with a ministerial turn of phrase: “God, of His abundant grace, hath sent copious plenty of children, but not plenty of money to maintain them.” His 1944 Education Act established that half of voluntary schools’ maintenance funding would be provided by LEAs (a proportion that has since risen to 90%). The 1944 Act also allowed schools to choose whether to become ‘voluntary controlled’, so that full responsibility passed to the LEA, or voluntary aided, in which case they would receive less funding but retain more independence.
School can be voluntary. This chart shows the percentage of schools and pupils in England in the voluntary sector. Note: Public elementary schools only prior to 1948.
The number of voluntary schools decreased in the decade following the 1944 settlement, but since then the proportion of schools that are voluntary, and the proportion of pupils educated in them, has remained surprisingly stable. As they were a hundred years ago, nearly all faith schools are Christian in character, although in 1908 there were twelve Jewish elementary schools catering for about 10,000 children. The first Muslim state school was established in 1997, the first Sikh school in 1998, and the first Hindu school in 2008.