An infant school forms part of local education provision giving primary education. In England and Wales children start at infant school between the ages of four and five in a Reception class. They sometimes attend part-time (mornings only or afternoons only) for the first term. Reception is not compulsory. (*The actual age of pupils transferring into Infant School 'Year One', is dependent on when their birthday is within the academic year. They join in the September following their birthday).
The initial Infant School year represents Key Stage 1 in the English education system. At the end of their few years in Infant school, pupils will then move on to a linked Junior school. (There are also Academy schools in both primary and secondary education.)
In some areas of England, provision of education at this age is made in Primary Schools catering for pupils aged up to eight or nine. (This is where Infants and Junior Schools are combined under a single Head Teacher or Principal. This unites both of the schools in the field of Primary Education). Under the Welsh Assembly some parts of the Welsh valleys have seen children attending infants school from the day after their third birthday.
The first infant school in England was at Brewers Green, Westminster in 1818 which was placed under the charge of James Buchanan, a weaver. Buchanan had served at what is considered the first infant school in Great Britain, Robert Owen's at New Lanark. The second in England was opened in 1820 by Joseph Wilson in Spitalfields and placed in the charge of Samuel Wilderspin. In 1823 Wilderspin published On the Importance of Educating the Infant Children of the Poor. In June 1824, Henry Brougham, William Wilberforce, Samuel Wilderspin and William Allen formed the Infant School Society. The purpose of the society was to train teachers and to promote infant school formation.
Unlike Owen's school, those opened under Wilderspin's influence placed great emphasis on religious training for the young children of the poor. Dame Schools, which had existed long before, had shown the need for child care of very young children for women who worked outside the home. The new infant schools were to provide a safe environment for these children as well as give them some educational advantages. Wilderspin's schools were based on the reform education theory of Swiss thinker Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi. James Pierrepont Greaves, secretary of the Infant School Society, worked with Pestalozzi for several years, as did Reverend Charles Mayo, who along with his sister Elizabeth Mayo, worked with the Home and Colonial Institution (later the Home and Colonial Infant School Society) to set up infant schools and train teachers.
When education became compulsory in England from 1877, infant schools were incorporated into the state school system.
Infant and junior schools were often separate schools, but from the 1970s through the 1990s, many infant and junior departments were merged into single primary schools, as both an infants school and junior school gives primary education. The 1970s and 1980s saw hundreds of infant schools in Britain abolished in favour of first (primary) schools, but some were turned back into infants schools by the early 1990s. Since 2000 there have been several changes back and forth between infants and junior schools, and the combined primary school model. By the 2010s, there was no single way in which schools are structured, and the academy school education model had been introduced. In 2016, the British government expressed an intention for all primary schools (combined infants and juniors) to become academy schools, and this plan is facing some criticism in England and Wales.
- Whitbread, Nanette (1972). The Evolution of the Nursery-Infant School: A History of Infant Education in Britain, 1800-1970. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. p. 11. ISBN 0415432898.
- Latham, Jackie (2002). "Pestalozzi and James Pierrepont Greaves: a shared educational philosophy". History of Education. 31 (1): 59–70. Retrieved 5 December 2015.
- Hadow, W. H., Sir (1933). "Report of The Consultative Committee on Infant and Nursery Schools". Education in England: the history of our schools. His Majesty's Stationery Office. Retrieved 5 December 2015.
- School Standards and Framework Act 1998