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Early Education in Biddenham

The south porch of Biddenham church March 2012
The south porch of Biddenham church March 2012

Volume 81 published by Bedfordshire Historical Records Society (2002) is a series of episcopal visitations undertaken in the first twenty years of the 18th century, edited by former County Archivist Patricia Bell. At each visitation a list of questions was sent out in advance, one of which enquired about the provision of schools in each parish. The return for 1706 stated that there was no school in the parish, as did those for 1717 and 1720.

In 1818 a Select Committee was established to enquire into educational provision for the poor. This was no doubt prompted, in part, by the recent foundation of two societies promoting education and specifically the building of schools. The Society for Promoting the Lancasterian System for the Education of the Poor was established in 1808 promoting schools run along the lines pioneered by Joseph Lancaster, who had himself copied those of Dr. Andrew Bell, in which older children taught their younger fellows. The Society was renamed the British and Foreign School Society in 1814,. It was supported by a number of prominent nonconformists, Lancaster himself was a Quaker, and sought to teach a non-sectarian curriculum. In answer to this perceived nonconformist takeover of local education the National Society was formed in 1811 to encourage the teaching of poor children along Anglican lines, including the catechism. The Select Committee sent a questionnaire to all parishes in the country asking for: particulars relating to endowments for the education of children; other educational institutions; observations of parish needs etc.

The Biddenham return states: "A day school, the numbers of which vary from 10 to 30, supported by contributions of the parents; and a Sunday school, maintained by the minister, consisting of between 70 and 80 children". In those days a Sunday School was just that, a school which met on a Sunday, usually in the church or nonconformist chapel or other similar building, teaching more than the religious topics with which they are associated today. The daily school, judging by the 1833 return (see below) may have principally taught lace making rather than academic studies.

In the country generally the number of schools built continued to grow over the next fifteen years so that by 1833 the government agreed to supplement the work of the two societies, and local benefactors, by making £20,000 per annum available in grants to help build schools. It also prompted another questionnaire to be sent to each parish in England asking for details of local educational provision. The return for Biddenham states: "Three daily Schools (principally for Lace-making), wherein 30 children are instructed: also an Evening School, containing about 15 males. These Schools are supported by payments from the parents". The return went on: "Two Sunday Schools, in one of which are 35 males, supported by the parochial minister, the other of 40 females, supported by the parish. Books for the use of both these Schools are also provided by the minister".

The next national enquiry was in 1846/7 when the Church of England made an enquiry as to all its church schools. This was against the background of a new Whig government which championed secular education and the increasing importance of nonconformists, particularly Wesleyan Methodist, and Roman Catholics in providing schools. The return for Biddenham noted a daily infants' school for 23 boys and 27 girls. The following year this school came into union with the National Society. Later directories tell us that the school had been built in 1835.