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Early Education in Whipsnade

School elevation [AD3865/48]
School elevation [AD3865/48]

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. In 1709 the rector commented: "No public or charity Schole". In 1717 the rector stated: "Schools Not any" and in 1720: "No Charity School".

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 firmed 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 return from Whipsnade stated that there was no educational endowment or school in the parish and that: "The poor are desirous of the means of education".

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 Whipsnade noted: "One Sunday School, in which 15 males and 20 females are gratuitously instructed". 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 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. Whipsnade stated: "There is a Sunday school held in this parish, but no particulars have been received". Interestingly a directory of 1869 reports on Whipsnade: "The smallness of the population, and the early period of life at which the children begin to be employed by their parents in the straw plait business preclude the establishment of a day school".

On 4th September 1847 an article on the church by WA appeared in the Northampton Mercury. He wrote articles on most of the churches in Bedfordshire for the paper in the years either side of 1850. His real name was John Martin and he was librarian at Woburn Abbey, hence the initials. Finding little in the church he filled up space by writing on the village in general, noting: "There is no school; it is melancholy to reflect on the neglect in this respect, which prevails too generally in this county. We are well aware of the opposition to the promotion of education by those whose means and situation ought the render them happy and willing assistants in so good a cause - but we fear in this county, whatever may be the cause in others, there is a class above the labouring, who sadly stand in need of the schoolmaster. Until this generation of ignorance has passed away or become wiser, the epiphet applied at educational meetings of "Poor Bedfordshire", will still be deserved".

The first Education Act was passed in 1870 (more correctly it was known as the Elementary Education Act). It was a milestone in the provision of education in Britain demonstrating central government's unequivocal support for education of all classes across the country. It also sought to secularise education by allowing the creation of School Boards. These were groups of representatives, elected by the local ratepayers and the Board had the powers to raise funds to form a local rate to support local education, build and run schools, pay the fees of the poorest children, make local school attendance compulsory between the ages of 5 and 13 and could even support local church schools, though in practice they replaced them, turning them into Board run schools (known as Board Schools). Naturally, and luckily for local historians, the Act required a questionnaire of local schools in 1870 though, sadly, no return from Whipsnade is extant if, indeed, one was made. The act, however, prompted the Rector of Whipsnade to put plans in motion which resulted in the opening of Whipsnade School in 1872.