Medieval Schools & Universities
There were many different kinds of schools in medieval England, though few children received their sometimes dubious benefit. There were small, informal schools held in the parish church, song schools at cathedrals, almonry schools attached to monasteries, chantry schools, guild schools, preparatory grammar schools, and full grammar schools.
The curriculum of these schools was limited to basics such as learning the alphabet, psalters, and religious rites and lessons such as the Ten Commandments and the Seven Deadly Sins. The grammar schools added to this Latin grammar, composition, and translation.
In addition to the schools listed above, there were also privately endowed schools like Winchester and Eton. The most famous public school, Eton, was founded by Henry VI in 1440.
The term "public school" can be misleading. It refers to the fact that the school drew its students from all over the country rather than just the local area. In reality "public schools" are anything but public. They were, and still are, elite boarding schools for the rich or ambitious.
Most schools had no books and the students were taught by rote and the skill of individual masters. Most masters were minor clergy, who themselves were often indifferently educated. Classes at some of the larger schools could be as large as 100 or more boys (no girls, though they were accepted at some of the small local schools), and the school day lasted as long as 13 hours with breaks for meals. And to top it off students could expect to be beaten regularly with a birch rod.
Legend has it that Oxford University was founded by King Alfred in 872. A more likely scenario is that it grew out of efforts begun by Alfred to encourage education and establish schools throughout his territory. There may have been a grammar school there in the 9th century. A grammar school was exactly what it sounds like; a place for teaching Latin grammar.
The University as we know it actually began in the 12th century as gatherings of students around popular masters. The university consisted of people, not buildings. The buildings came later as a recognition of something that already existed. In a way, Oxford was never founded; it grew. Cambridge University was founded by students fleeing from Oxford after one of the many episodes of violence between the university and the town of Oxford.
University students chose their own course of studies, hired their own professors, and picked their own hours of study. They were free to leave one professor if they tired of him, and join another, attending several lectures before deciding whether to pay him or not. The only books were the professors, and students wrote notes on parchment or, more commonly, on wax tablets.