Grammar schools aren’t from the 1950s, they’re from the Middle Ages

It is very trendy to say that reviving grammar schools would be a return to the 1950s. However, grammar schools are actually a medieval concept.

A consequence of the Norman Conquest in 1066 was the growth of merchant trade in England. Slavery was banned, buildings were thrown up, and trading boomed. But the population was underskilled for such changes.

As is often the case, wealthy tradespeople decided that more education was the answer and many put their pennies into building schools that would teach Latin, the universal language used by tradespeople across Europe. The focus on language lent its name to the institutions that soon became known as “grammar schools”

Available only to children whose parents were wealthy enough to afford the fees, the schools focused on drilling the Latin language. Long days – from sunrise to sunset – focused on chanting the phrases, as well as teaching pupils logic (arguing) and rhetoric (public speaking).

In the 1400s, the grammar schools moved to become supervised by universities – in particular, Cambridge and Oxford. A marvellous journal article by Herbert Salter and Mary Lobel, published in 1954, describes the lucrative nature of the “grammar masters” appointed each year by university committees whose job sounds a lot like that of executive principals: visiting schools each week and checking on the work of school-based masters and non-graduate teachers.

In a move that would make Nick Gibb’s heart skip a beat, children were also expected to write out items “on parchment on a holiday”

The roles were found to carry so much potential for corruption that the universities insisted on changing staff every three years to limit it. Even worse, the non-graduate teachers were heavily taxed to pay the masters’ wages.

Though, in a nod to transparency, a list of their names was kept in school and read out loud publicly three times a term, so that if any were not “true scholars” they would be excluded – which is about how transparent the current headteacher board system is today.

Salter and Lobel’s piece also describes a 14th-century statute on what the masters had to teach. Sounding scarily similar to today’s primary school writing assessments, pupils were expected to be given “verses to compose and letters to write, taking care about choice of words, lengths of clause, and so on”.

In a move that would make Nick Gibb’s heart skip a beat, children were also expected to write out items “on parchment on a holiday” and “repeat them by heart on the following day”. Character education was also in vogue with words that might corrupt the young removed from sight.

But the person who would really excite the current government is John Anwykyll, poster-boy of the grammar masters, and the first to publish school texts teaching Latin along humanist lines; they included question and answer sessions, mnemomics, illustrations and quotations.

As head of Magdalen college, the country’s first free grammar school, his work was rewarded with a 15-year contract for which he would be paid £10 a year (equivalent to a salary of £65,160 today) and a rent-free house.

Sadly, he died just one year later, but his books went on to be republished several times after his death.

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  1. Sandy Leaton Gray

    Remember that if you walked into a grammar school classroom you would probably hear everyone chanting Latin out loud a lot if the time. People read out loud too, rather than in their heads, Medieval classrooms were likely to be strangely noisy places.

  2. Matthew Adams

    It’s important to remember that one of the reasons grammar schools taught Latin is because Latin was the international language of scholarship, of the law, of the church, of medicine…Grammar schools were not teaching their pupils some arcane irrelevant language: they were providing them with the means to succeed in later life.

  3. ThePlace

    Grammar schools are a great idea save when there is a subject or two that a pupil can’t keep up with, but I’m sure in this century that issue can be addressed.
    As useless as Latin may seem, it may have more practical applications than recognising and preventing FGM.