A dame school was an early form of a private elementary school in English-speaking countries. They were often located in the home of the teacher, who was usually a woman.
Often, dame schools had a poor reputation and were seen as a cheap form of daycare. The London inspector of the British and Foreign School Society in 1838 reported that "I am quite satisfied in the dame schools they cannot teach reading"; he had never found a dame-school child who could read unless the child had been taught in an infant school.
The British Newcastle Commission reported in 1861:
The number of children whose names ought (in summer 1858 in England and Wales) to have been on the school books, in order that all might receive some education, was 2,655,767. The number we found to be actually on the books was 2,535,462, thus leaving 120,305 children without any school instruction whatever.
The Commission looked at the previous year's data and found that 2,213,694 children of the poorer classes were in elementary day schools. But of this number:
- 573,536 were attending private schools, such as dame schools where a woman provided child care facilities and a little reading, writing and arithmetic in her own home. These failed to give the children an education which would be serviceable to them in later life.
- The other 1,549,312 children were attending public elementary day schools belonging to the religious denominations (church schools), but all but 19.3% were under 12, so were in primary departments. Only 300,000 were receiving any form of extended education, which was believed to be essential.
- As many as 786,202 attend for less than 100 days in the year and could therefore hardly receive a serviceable amount of education.
- A large proportion of the teaching was inefficiently done.
- "Much, therefore, still remains to be done to bring up the state of elementary education in England and Wales to the degree of usefulness which we all regard as attainable and desirable" 
The Elementary Education Act 1870, an outcome of the Newcastle Commission, set the framework for schooling of all children between the ages of 5 and 12 in England and Wales. Subsequently, most dame schools closed.
Surviving former dame school buildings
- Orton, Eden, Cumbria
- Thursley, Surrey (survives as free-standing building in the churchyard)
- Upper Stratton near Stratton St Margaret, Swindon (survives as residential property)
- Roche, Cornwall (survives as residential property in Chapel Road)
- Davenport House, Tyldesley (survives as a private residence). 
In North America, "dame school" is a broad term for a private school with a female teacher during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The education provided by these schools ranged from basic to exceptional. The basic type of dame school was more common in New England, where basic literacy was expected of all classes, than in the southern colonies, where there were fewer educated women willing to be teachers.
Motivated by the religious needs of Puritan society and their own economic needs, some colonial women in 17th century rural New England opened small, private schools in their homes to teach reading and catechism to young children. An education in reading and religion was required for children by the Massachusetts School Law of 1642. This law was later strengthened by the famous Old Deluder Satan Act. According to Puritan beliefs, Satan would try to keep people from understanding the Scriptures, therefore it was considered necessary that all children be taught how to read.  Dame schools fulfilled this requirement when parents were unable to educate their young children in their own home. For a small fee, women, often housewives or widows, offered to take in children to whom they would teach a little writing, reading, basic prayers and religious beliefs. These women received "tuition" in coin, home industries, alcohol, baked goods and other valuables. Teaching materials generally included, and often did not exceed, a hornbook, primer, Psalter and Bible. Both girls and boys were provided education through the dame school system. Dame schools generally focused on the four R's of education—Riting, Reading, Rithmetic, and Religion. In addition to primary education, girls in dame schools might also learn sewing, embroidery, and other "graces". Most girls received their only formal education from dame schools because of sex-segregated education in common or public schools during the colonial period. If their parents could afford it, after attending a dame school for a rudimentary education in reading, colonial boys moved on to grammar schools where a male teacher taught advanced arithmetic, writing, Latin and Greek.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, some dame schools offered boys and girls from wealthy families a "polite education". The women running these elite dame schools taught "reading, writing, English, French, arithmetic, music and dancing". Schools for upper-class girls were usually called "female seminaries", "finishing schools" etc. rather than "dame schools".
The first known school in Australia was founded in Sydney in December 1789 by Isabella Rossen. The second known school in Australia was founded by Mary Johnson in Paramatta in 1791. Both women were convicts supervised by clergyman Rev. Richard Johnson.
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