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Early Education in Willington

The church from the south March 2007
The church from the south March 2007

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 1706, 1709 and 1717 the Vicar reported that there was no 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 Willington return noted six boys from the parish went to a charity school in Cople.  There was a small Sunday school which was attended by around 40 children. At this date Sunday School meant just that, school held on a Sunday at which such subjects as reading and writing were taught as well as the religious education which is its sole prerogative today. J.H. Bowers, the curate wrote that, "The poor, being generally employed in lace-making, might prefer employment to education. The Sunday school has been necessarily abandoned in winter, for want of a proper master, but the minister is going to resume it, and hopes to make it permanent". Another Sunday school was started in 1832 and was attended by about 35 children.  It was supported by subscriptions from the curate, rector and others; the master was paid from this money.

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 Willington reported: "One Sunday School, (commenced 1832) in which are about 35 children of both sexes; it is supported by subscriptions from the Rector [sic], Curate, and others, out of which the master receives a salary of £5 5 s. and the mistress £2 per annum".

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 Willington noted that the Church Sunday School contained 22 boys and 19 girls.