1870: The Education Act required the establishment of non-denominational elementary schools for children aged five to 13 – nationwide. Schools could charge parents no more than nine pence a week to educate a child.


1880: Attendance was made compulsory until the age of 10.


1891: Elementary education effectively became free.


1918: Leaving age was raised to 14.


1944: Butler’s Education Act sort to encourage the “spiritual, mental and physical” well-being of the community. It created a “tripartite”, hierarchical system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools. Selection was decided by an exam taken at the age of 11. The school leaving age was raised to 15.


1951: General Certificate of Education (GCE) O-levels and A-levels were introduced, replacing the School Certificate and the Higher School Certificate.


These were primarily grammar school exams. Some education authorities established their own leaving examinations for youngsters not taking GCEs.


1964: Harold Wilson’s newly-elected Labour government promised to set up comprehensive schools, combining pupils of all ability levels in one school that served a specific catchment area.


1973: School leaving age was raised to 16.


In 1976 another Wilson administration compelled all local authorities to introduce comprehensives but this legislation was repealed by the Tories in 1979.


1965: The Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was introduced for secondary modern pupils to cater for those not sitting O-levels.


1988: The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) replaced O-levels and CSEs.


The National Curriculum, stipulating subjects to be studied until the age of 16, was also introduced.


1994: An A* grade was added to GCSEs to differentiate between top and lower A grades.


1995: The government introduced National Curriculum Tests, often called SAT’s, for all children aged 7, 11 and 14 (tests for seven year olds were first tried in 1991).


1996: General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) were offered as a more work-based alternative for non-academic students.


1997: The National Literacy Strategy was introduced in England. It aimed to raise literacy standards to those of the UK’s main competitors.


2000: Advanced Subsidiary (AS-level) exams were brought in for 17 year olds. These were qualifications in their own right but also served as a halfway stage in the A-level course, unlike the Advanced Supplementary exams they replaced.


Plans were also revealed to replace the lower tiers of GNVQ with vocational GCSEs, with the stated aim of putting academic and vocational education on a par.


2002: Several hundred A-level papers were re-graded amid fears that the reforms have been rushed through.


2004: Mike Tomlinson, the former inspector of schools in England, proposed replacing GCSEs, A-levels and the “soup” of vocational qualifications with a four-part diploma for 14 to 19 year olds. It called for “core skills”, such as numeracy and literacy, to be compulsory before pupils can qualify. If it went through, the plans would alter the English education system more radically than any others since 1944. However, Mr Tomlinson said the changes would be “evolutionary, not revolutionary”, taking around 10 years to implement.


Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex