When the government replaced school boards with local education authorities (LEAs) in 1904 the Permanent Secretary to the Board of Education, Sir Robert Morant, was asked to produce a 'code' for public elementary schools.
The elementary schools were where most children spent the whole of their (often very short) school career. In age range they covered what later became primary and the first years of secondary education. Those older children who were not in elementary schools were in either independent schools or what were then called secondary schools: that is, grammar schools. The fees for these were more than most working class families could afford.
I've just seen the introduction to Morant’s Code and think it’s worth copying the opening here because it strikes me as surprisingly liberal. According to the book by Bradford Corporation that I found this in (see end for ref),
“the opening paragraphs of the introduction seemed 'like a breath of fresh air after the stifling atmosphere of the earlier codes'….”
'The purpose of the public elementary school is to form and strengthen
the character and to develop the intelligence of the children entrusted
to it, and to make the best use of the years available, in assisting both
boys and girls, according to their different needs, to fit themselves,
practically as well as intellectually, for the work of life.
'With this purpose in view it will be the aim of the school to train them
carefully in habits of observation and clear reasoning, so that they may
gain an intelligent acquaintance with some of the facts and laws of
nature, to arouse in them a lively interest in the ideals and achievements
of mankind, and to bring them to some familiarity with the literature
and history of their own country; to give them some power over language as an instrument of thought and expression, and while making them
conscious of the limitations of their knowledge, to develop in them such
a taste for good reading and thoughtful study as will enable them to
increase that knowledge in after years by their own efforts.
'The school must at the same time encourage to the utmost the
children's natural activities of hand and eye by suitable forms of practical work and manual instruction; and to afford them every opportunity for the healthy development of their bodies, not only by training them in
appropriate physical exercises and encouraging them in organised games
but also by instructing them in the working of some of the simpler laws
of health. It will be an important though subsidiary object of the school
to discover individual children who show promise of exceptional
capacity and to develop their special gifts (so far as this can be done
without sacrificing the interests of the majority of the children) so that
they may be qualified to pass at the proper age into secondary schools, and be able to derive the maximum of benefit from the education offered them.’”
As I said, it sounds liberal. But that was the curriculum – or rather the rhetoric of the curriculum; the structure of education was a different matter, the main purpose apparently being to deny the working class the chance of having anything like a grammar school education, except for the few who won scholarships.
Although the elementary school system in some LEAs generated more advanced senior elementary schools (higher grade schools and central schools), the regulations, as I understand it, strictly limited the curriculum to subjects that offered no competition to grammar schools and were deemed appropriate to working class occupations and station in life; and there was a strict upper limit on the age to which children could stay at school. Real academic advancement for bright working class children under the elementary school regulations was effectively precluded.
Incidentally, the book I found this in, produced by Bradford Corporation in 1970 to commemorate a hundred years of public education, tells an inspiring story of the achievement of a good education against such odds. Bradford, which through their MP W.E. Forster had been behind the 1870 Education Act and had pioneered school meals and medical services, was one of the most progressive authorities. For instance, they were determined to provide something better than the legal minimum for children after 11; they created a generous provision of secondary schools and central schools, and already in 1928 – well ahead of 1944, where it happened everywhere – introduced secondary modern schools: a clean break for all children at 11 (instead of carrying on in the same school until leaving age), a reorganisation to ensure the schools were big enough to offer a proper range of subjects and a redesigned curriculum. All this with a great deal of teacher involvement, through committees and working parties.
Bradford Corporation. (1970). Education in Bradford since 1870. Bradford, Educational Services Committee, Bradford Corporation, pp.159-60