What are supplementary schools?

What are supplementary schools?

There are an estimated 5,000 ‘supplementary’, ‘complementary’, ‘community’ or ‘Saturday’ schools in Britain.

They come in a variety of shapes and forms. In general they offer out-of-school-hours educational opportunities for children and young people, many of whom come from minority ethnic communities.

When did supplementary schools start?

It is unclear when supplementary schools first appeared – some say as early as the 19th century. What is known, however, is that the supplementary school ‘movement’ really started flourishing after the second world war, when refugees from Eastern Europe arrived in the UK. This growth continued in the 1960s, when immigrants from new Commonwealth countries set up their own community schools. It has accelerated again as new communities continue to arrive in Britain.

What are supplementary schools?

Supplementary schools share a number of characteristics:

  • They offer a range of learning opportunities, including national curriculum subjects (English, maths, science and others), religious studies, mother-tongue classes, cultural studies and a range of extra activities, such as sport, music, dance and drama.
  • They run throughout the week in the evenings, or at weekends.
  • They are set up by local community groups.
  • They are voluntary organisations. Very often they rely almost exclusively on volunteers.
  • They operate from a variety of venues: community centres, youth clubs, places of worship, mainstream schools and other places.

Now find out about the strengths and challenges of supplementary schools, and read some reports and papers in our evidence base.

Recent history

Until recently, supplementary education was very much an underground movement which received little recognition and coverage. In the last ten years, however, a significant shift has occurred: more agencies have acknowledged the contribution that supplementary schools make to the education and social development of children and young people, as well as to building communities.

Between 2002 and 2004 the Department for Education and Skills (now the Department for Education (DfE)) funded a Supplementary Schools Support Service (known by the acronym S4). Supplementary education has also been included in a number of government policy documents, for instance, those on extended services in and around schools. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has also officially recognised the positive contribution that supplementary education can make to children’s achievements.

But perhaps the most significant shift has been in the approach that children’s trusts (formerly local education authorities) are now taking to supplementary and mother-tongue schools. In a large number of the UK’s largest cities, children’s trusts are now providing support to their local supplementary schools or are at least attempting to engage with them.

Encouragingly, a number of mainstream secondary and primary schools are now opening their doors to supplementary schools and have established teaching and operational partnerships.

A lot still remains to be done, but there are some really encouraging signs.