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Early Education in Wootton

 

The earliest reference to education in Wootton in anything held by Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service is in 1633 when the parish register records the burial of William Wright, schoolmaster. There is also a will for Edmund Allen, schoolmaster, dated 1667 [ABP/W1667/51].

The Bishop of Lincoln carried out visitations to Bedfordshire in 1717 and 1720 and for both of these a list of questions was sent out in advance, one of which enquired about the provision of schools in each parish. The returns for Wootton are below:

  • 1706: There is a School here, but not Endowed.
  • 1709: No public or charity Schole [sic].
  • 1717: There is a publick [sic] school. The number of children taught in it is sometimes more, sometimes less. They are taught the Church Catechism, and they come to Church.
  • 1720: No School.

This pattern was typical at the time. Schools in a parish seem to have depended on someone with flair, imagination and drive setting one up but it was not bound to success and would end when that person left, died or became discouraged. In this case that person was probably the vicar, since the school noted in 1717 seems to be a church school. Rev. Andrew Moore served from 1711 to 1719 and was succeeded by Rev. German Pegg. The former reverend gentleman was obviously enthusiastic to educate the children of the parish, the latter not so.

The accounts of the Overseers of the Poor for the parish [P3/12] record a number of instances of money being paid for the schooling of poor children between 1786 and 1811, presumably these children were sent outside the parish given the lack of a school in 1720 and in 1818, as will be seen below.

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 Wootton noted that there was no educational endowment and no school in the parish, ending: "The parish have not the means of supplying a fund for the education of the children of the poor".

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 Wootton stated: "One Daily School (commenced 1824), contains 20 males and 10 females, belonging to the Baptists. Three Sunday Schools, in one of which (supported by the Rev. T. Gadsby, Vicar, who gives £4 as a salary to the teachers) are 57 males and 53 females; in another School 40 males and 60 females; this appertains to Methodists; and the other of 30 males and 30 females, to Baptists. The teachers in these Dissenting Schools give their services gratuitously". 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. The return for Wootton notes a Sunday School for 58 boys and 50 girls, further noting: "No Daily school. A school would be a great benefit to the parish. A room for Sunday school is wanted; the school is now held in the church".

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; Wootton still had "no efficient school" and required "accommodation for 150 boys and girls, and 100 infants in Wootton village".