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Monday, 2 September 2013

When Did Your Ancestor Leave School?

The school leaving age in the UK has changed to 17 years; there's more info here.  The age when your ancestor was allowed to leave school and start work was critical for working-class families if they were on the breadline, because then young people could earn a full week's wage for the family. Boys from more affluent homes could go on to university if their parents could afford it; it was not until the late 1870s that the first women were permitted to study for a degree.

If you are trying to trace your ancestor's childhood, then it's a good idea to check what the school leaving age was at the date you are interested in, because that will determine whether you should look for school records such as registers, or employment records, e.g. wage books.

But there may be a period of overlap because children who reached a set educational standard were allowed to work part-time, and you may find school exemption certificates (above) amongst family papers or in local archives.

You may be surprised how young your ancestor was when they began full-time work; the 1918 Education Act raised the school leaving age from 12 to 14.  As late as 1861, although the minimum age of starting work in a coal mine was nominally age twelve, ten- to twelve-year-old lads were permitted to work underground if they had a school certificate to prove that they had reached a sufficiently high standard of literacy.


Section of a school exemption certificate dated 4 April 1894 permitting a Manchester schoolchild to work one day per week. 

Girl with slate and schoolbook.  Early twentieth century postcard.  Author’s collection.

Collier’s phthisis. A Manchester doctor’s sketch of ‘black lung’ from a 65 year old collier. Reports of the Factory Inspectors, 31 October 1871.

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