In the 17th and 18th centuries there were important developments in educational theory and the school curriculum began to take on a form we would recognise today.
The modern concept of a common education emerged in Europe after the Reformation amid quarrels between learned groups of Protestants, and between the Protestants and the established monastic orders.
Comenius (1592-1670) (pictured: painting by Rembrandt), a Czech teacher, scientist, educator and writer, was one of the earliest champions of universal education, a concept he developed in his 1632 book Didactica magna. He argued that teachers and learners should leave the divisive sects and unite in common institutions of learning.
He went on to develop the idea of human learning as a progression from youth to maturity and from elementary to advanced knowledge. 'Nothing should be taught to the young', he wrote, 'unless it is not only permitted, but actually demanded by their age and mental strength' (Comenius 1632, quoted in Nunes, undated). 'These three elements of commonality, community and progression have characterised most education systems developed since' (Benn and Chitty 1996:1).
Comenius stressed the educational importance of the first six years of a child's life and developed the idea of teaching children of five or six 'without any tediousnesse to reade and write, as it were in a continuall course of play and pastime' (Informatorium der Mutterschul, Leszno, 1633, quoted in Hadow 1933:24).
In 1640, the House of Commons invited Comenius to England to establish and participate in an agency for the promotion of learning. It was intended that by-products of this would be the publication of 'universal' books and the setting up of schools for boys and girls. At the start of the Civil War in 1642 Comenius left England, but the plan was furthered by Samuel Hartlib with the backing of Oliver Cromwell.
There was much lively debate about the nature and purpose of education...