In February 1680 the Reverend Ralph Davenant, rector of St Mary's Whitechapel, drew up his will, leaving all of his household goods and plate to his wife with the provision that it should eventually be sold and that the monies raised should be used to build a school for 40 of the poor boys of Whitechapel
A short time later, in addition to this bequest, a number of properties were also given over to the school so that rents and capital could be raised. These consisted of a farm at Sandon near Chelmsford, the site of Tilbury Fort. Funds raised thereby went towards the additional educating of 34 poor girls. Boys were to learn reading, writing and arithmetic whilst the girls were to learn reading, writing and sewing.
A site for the proposed school was found in the Whitechapel Road on the site of the Lower Burial Ground, a lime pit used during the great plague. The old school buildings still stand on the site.
In 1813, a dramatic change took place when Davenant earned itself the title of 'Cradle of the National Schools of England'. This was awarded because it adopted a system, invented by Dr Andrew Bell, for educating hundreds of children with only one Master assisted by senior boys. This became known as the monitorial system. 1,000 children (600 boys and 400 girls) were educated by this system in a new building which was erected in Davenant Street.
The Charity School continued to function in the original buildings which were eventually enlarged in 1818 to accommodate 100 boys and 100 girls. The school by now maintained two institutions educating 1,200 children — extraordinarily large for 1818. The third strand of the school came into being in 1858 when a Commercial or Grammar School was built in Leman Street under the direction of the Reverend Welden Champneys, the then Rector of Whitechapel. In 1888, the two charities of Whitechapel and Davenant merged to become 'The Foundation School'
In 1896, the new Renaissance Building was erected behind the 1818 building providing additional up to date classroom space and a magnificent assembly hall that remains to this day. In 1939, the school was evacuated and the buildings were taken over by the Heavy Rescue Service who did irreparable damage to the buildings and destroyed many of the documents and honours boards - which were used to board up broken shop windows. In 1944, the school became Davenant Foundation Grammar School for Boys, a title which it retained until 1980. By now it educated only some 200 boys.
In 1966, at the invitation of the Essex County Council, the school moved to the leafy suburb of Loughton. Many East End families had in any case moved out to the suburbs by this time. The population in London was in decline and there was a need for grammar school provision for boys in Loughton. There were, in 1966, many fine grammar schools in the East End including Raine's, George Green, Coopers Coborn and Parmiter's. Davenant's best chance of survival was to move.
The school continued as a two-form entry boys' grammar school until 1980. In that year Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother made her second visit to the school to celebrate 300 years since its founding. The school returned to co-educational status and developed as a Christian Ecumenical School for 1,000 girls and boys. The school also gained specialist status as a Language College and a Sports College. The school converted to academy status on 1 April 2011 and continues to adapt and change to ensure that all students are given the best opportunities and that the legacy of Ralph Davenant lives on.