Known as Augustine of Canterbury, after the city where he was to become Archbishop shortly following his arrival in England, Saint Augustine had been the prior of a monastery in Rome. In 595AD, Pope Gregory the Great picked him to lead the Gregorian mission, a campaign to Christianise Britain.
This quest to spread Christianity had the secondary effect of bringing the first organised schools to England and then on throughout Britain. Although schools had been commonplace in Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and China for many hundreds of years, it wasn’t until St Augustine reached England in 597AD that the idea of group education was introduced here.
The first schools were founded by St Augustine because he needed to educate men to become priests, and boys to sing in the church choirs. This double approach to education led to Saint Augustine and his followers establishing two types of school. The first was the grammar school, which was created to teach Latin to English priests, and the second was the song school, where the ‘sons of gentlefolk’ were trained to sing in cathedral choirs.
Saint Augustine designed his schools in a similar fashion to the Roman and Hellenistic schools he was used to at home. These schools concentrated on seven subjects that were regarded as essential for going on to study theology, law and medicine: grammar, rhetoric (conversation), logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.
Historical documentation from the sixth century suggests that the very first grammar school in England was established at Canterbury in 598, and was endowed by King Ethelbert, who had been baptised as a Christian by Augustine a year earlier in 597. Many of the early ‘song schools’ still exist alongside our private schools and cathedrals today, including Dorchester in Oxfordshire (around 634), and Winchester (648).
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.