Until 1870, official responsibility for education had been largely confined to the encouragement of voluntary effort by the provision of grant aid. The 1870 Elementary Education Act created School Boards and gave the Education Department the statutory responsibility of ensuring the availability of adequate accommodation and efficient school maintenance, which became the work of the Elementary Branch in 1899 when the Board of Education was established and the Elementary Branch inherited the functions of the Education Department relating to elementary education and teacher training.
Subsequent legislation increased these basic powers, especially in respect of school attendance and types of school recognised. Through the Inspectorate, the Education Department and subsequently the Elementary Branch, the Board ensured that schools complied with the various regulations on which receipt of grant aid depended. The Education Act 1902 created a number of local education authorities in three tiers, for countries, county boroughs and urban districts, replacing the need for the Board to deal separately and individually with parishes, School Boards and individual schools, thus greatly simplifying the supervisory role of the Branch.
The regulations under which grant aid has been administered have varied from time to time. The administering authority had to satisfy itself that the code of regulations was being followed in each individual case. Before a grant was made, a preliminary statement giving details of a school's establishment and finances was submitted. Information thus obtained was supplemented by periodic censuses of school accommodation, the first of these being carried out under section 61 of the 1870 Act. In general thereafter much of the business of the Education Department and the Elementary Branch was transacted directly with the individual school or School Board. Even after the establishment of local education authorities (LEA), individual school files were maintained. Both school files and LEA files reflected local applications of elementary education policy and were used as precedent files.
Several other important aspects of the Branch's work were dealt with separately. The 1870 Act authorised schools to provide practical instruction in domestic subjects and in 1906 grants for this purpose were specifically provided and the Board supervised local provision of such courses. The 1870 Act empowered the Education Department to determine questions of religious education and provide grants to denominational schools and to supervise the issue of compulsory purchase orders. School attendance was enforced by Acts of 1876 and 1880 and the school leaving age was fixed in 1893 at eleven years and 1899 at twelve. In consequence the Branch inherited responsibilities for the issue of exemption certificates with regard to the school leaving age, the enforcement of restrictions on child labour and the elimination of truancy. It also adjudicated an apportionment of costs in cases of extra-district children (children who attended schools outside their own LEA area).
Following a Board minute of 6 April 1900, the Branch began to encourage the establishment of higher elementary schools which provided a four year course including elementary science and which received a higher rate of grant than normal elementary schools. The Branch also supervised the allocation of pupil maintenance grants, introduced in 1902. In 1910, duties relating to teacher training were transferred to the Universities and Teacher Training Branch. In 1927 staffing quotas were introduced and local education authorities were obliged to submit annual returns of pupil-teacher ratios to the Board. When the Poor Law was finally abolished in 1929 the Board took over responsibility for the poor law schools, which became public elementary schools under the terms of the 1921 Act, the Board supervising their conversion.
In 1944, the responsibilities of the Elementary Branch were taken over by the Schools Branch when the Board of Education was replaced by the Ministry of Education.