This article serves as context for the other papers in this special issue, all of which deal with developments in UK secondary education since c.1980. The paper comprises a review of selected impulses and imperatives that saw the substantial legacy of medieval and humanist schooling in Britain re-shaped, during the period c.1830–c.1980, into the outline of today's landscape of secondary schooling. Three parallel themes are examined: the influence of universities and examinations in framing the secondary curriculum; the role of ideas about ability in shaping the growth of secondary education; and the place of practical/technical education in the secondary school years. By tracing these themes, an account of the changing patterns of institutional provision across the British Isles is provided that, by 1980, had led to a thriving independent sector of schools for a small minority coexisting alongside the massive enterprise of broadly comprehensive, state-funded secondary education in which significant tensions remained between separate 'grammar' and 'upper-elementary' traditions. Conclusions are drawn as to significant aspects of this historic inheritance acting on developments in secondary education in the contemporary era.