Colonial education has been controversial and widely divergent interpretations have been offered from contrasting ideological perspectives. British imperial education policy was highly contended during the colonial era and remains a contentious issue amongst many contemporary historians and a critical review of the historiography of the subject is long overdue. British colonial education policy starts in India in 1813, the intention being to promote both Oriental culture and Western science. But a former Director of Public Instruction, writing in the 1920s, claimed that education had done far less for Indian culture than for the material and political progress of India. More recent academic writing about the history of education in British India has been both intermittent and of mixed quality. To date, much of the criticism of British policy appears to have been motivated more by emotion rather than by detailed scholarly analysis and this account argues that more ‘plodding’ in archives is urgently needed at the present time to substantiate, refine or refute the claims of India’s educational historians. This is the first part of a two-part article, the second of which will deal with Africa and the rest of the colonial Empire.