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Women and Education: Context

Resources on women's education in the IOE archives

A brief history of women's education in Britain

The 19th century saw a recognition of the need to educate women beyond the elementary level. Private secondary girl’s schools began to open which offered middle class girls the same educational opportunities as boys. In 1864 a Schools Enquiry Commission surveyed secondary education and saw a general deficiency in girl’s education and recorded only 12 public secondary schools for girls in England and Wales. The Education Act of 1870 set the framework for the elementary education of children, but secondary education was largely unavailable to working class girls. The 1918 Education Act raised the compulsory school leaving age to 14, but it was not until the 1944 Education Act that secondary education became free and the compulsory leaving age rose to 15.  The majority of secondary schools were single-sex until the comprehensive reform of the 1960s and 1970s.


In the late 19th century, higher education colleges and universities began to accept female students. Girton College, Cambridge, opened in 1869 as the College for Women, was the first residential college for women. Other universities began to offer courses for women which did not lead to degrees. In 1878, the University of London was the first university in the UK to accept women students on equal terms with men and award degrees to female students.


In the 19th century, teaching was one of the few professions open to women though their status and position was much lower than their male counterparts. At this period teacher training was formalised as many teacher training colleges or departments were opened, including some designed specifically for female teachers such as Whitelands College.  Female teachers were paid significantly less than male teachers, organisations such as the National Union of Women Teachers campaigned for equal pay. After the First World War, educational cuts led to the reduction of wages for all teachers, wages of female teachers being hit the hardest.  The educational cuts and rising unemployment also moved many local education authorities to introduce marriage bars which led to the sacking of married teachers in some areas while others required female teachers to resign on marriage. The introduction of the Burnham Salaries Scale in the 1920s helped some female teachers, though their wages were at 80% of the men’s wages. The 1944 Education Act outlawed marriage bars and in 1961 it was agreed that equal pay should gradually be introduced. In 1975 the Sex Discrimination Act prohibited the discrimination in promotion of teachers, allowing female teachers to progress in their careers more easily.

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