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Biddenham School

National Society union certificate for the school [P74/29/1]
National Society union certificate for the school [P74/29/1]

An enquiry into church schools in 1846-1847 had noted an infants' school for 23 boys and 27 girls already existed in Biddenham; it had been built, according to directories, in 1835. This school came into union with the National Society as a National School in 1848 [P74/29/1].

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. The Biddenham return noted that Biddenham National School had accommodation for 101 children. The school remained a National School until 1903 as no School Board was ever formed in Biddenham.

The 1881 census reveals that the schoolmistress of the time was Adelaide E. Osborne, aged 23 and unmarried. As well as schoolmistress she was also the postmistress for the village, the post office being run from the school house where she lived with her family. She had been born in Bedford. Her father William Osborne was aged 58, a superannuated prison officer, who had been born in Girton [Cambridgeshire] and her mother was Ellen M. Osborne, aged 59 and born in Clapham. She had a sister, Emily S., aged 19, a dressmaker, born in Bedford. Directories reveal that it was a tradition in the village for the post office to be run from the school house. We know that Mary Nichols was infants’ mistress and postmistress in 1853. A directory of 1864 lists Sophia Nicholls. A Miss Green was postmistress and National School mistress in 1869 and in 1885, 1890 and 1894 it was Adelaide Osborne. Arthur Ingram became postmaster in 1898 and the post office moved to 28 Main Road.

A land mark Education Act was passed in 1902, coming into effect in 1903. It disbanded the School Boards and gave day to day running of education to newly formed Local Education Authorities, usually the county council, as in Bedfordshire. The old Board Schools thus became Council Schools whilst the old National, British and other non-Board schools became known as Public Elementary Schools. Biddenham National School thus became Biddenham Public Elementary School and continued as a church school though the Local Education Authority now shared the responsibility of administering the school with the Diocese.

Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has a scrapbook of cuttings of visits made to most Bedfordshire Schools by School Inspectors for a period from just before the First World War through the inter-war years [E/IN1/1]. The first report dates from 1910 and reads: “The older Scholars are in good order, and their work is, as a rule, quite of a satisfactory character; all written work is careful and good. The weak point is the Infant Class where the methods are unsuitable and not sufficiently intelligent, and the children make too little progress”.

The next report is from 1912, when average attendance was 34. “The older Scholars are in good order and are carefully taught and all their work is very creditable. The Infants’ Class has considerably improved since the last report was made and its condition now is satisfactory. The discipline might with advantage be rather firmer”.

A school class from the Biddenham Women's Institute scrapbook [X535/6]

The photograph above dates from 1920; the people in it are as follows:

  • Back row (left to right) Mrs. Riddy, the teacher; Flora Sergeant; Irene Jackson; Charlie Bransom; a child named Borley; Eva West.
  • Middle row: Marjorie Barton; Dorothy West; Phyllis Wiles; Mary Faulkener; Lily Stringer; Queenie Cartwright; Eunice Frossell
  • Front row: G. Davis; E. Church; R. Tebbutt; E. Johnson; C. Shaw; S. Dudley; G. Cambers

There was no further inspection of the school for ten years, largely due to the Great War. In 1922 an inspection devoted to the premises was undertaken. The result is below.

1. It appears that the rain water comes in through the roof in three places in the School room, and also in the lobby. I understand that some new spouting has been put up at the end and at the back of the School but something should be done in front”.
2. The little yard near the Girls’ Offices [toilets] gets flooded, and the drain there does not take the water away. This also requires attention”.

“As the younger children now read very well some additional story readers are wanted. The Head Teacher is going to order some new Readers and dictionaries in due course; but a small supplementary supply, if it can be allowed, would be very useful”.

A month later an inspection was made of the teaching: “This little School is well conducted. There is much honest work, much care in the teaching and in correction; and the beginnings of Reading in the Infants’ Section and the progress in Reading in Standards I and II are very promising. The written work varies from fairly good to good: but the tradition of economical use of paper seems to have resulted in an arrangement of sums which is not very clear, and the absence of “Statement” which prevents easy understanding of problems. The exercises in Composition might allow rather more freedom of expression than appears to have been demanded up to the present. Speech is, usually, especially among the younger children, fairly distinct. In fact the lower Sections contain material which should make quite a good School – but to make sure of this a more varied and modernised supply of Reading matter will be required”.

In 1924 average attendance was 42: “During the past fourteen months the older children – Standards II-VII – have been in the hands of five or six different teachers. Their attainments are certainly not high, but under the circumstances they are probably as satisfactory as could be expected. The infants lost ground during the absence, through illness, of their teacher, who always does good work with these young children; but adequate progress is now being made. The order is very satisfactory”.

Two years later the average attendance was only 25. The report read: “This School, recently reorganised as a school for children under 11 years of age, has passed through a difficult period during which various temporary Head Teachers, of varying degrees of capacity, were in charge. The last one let the School down: and were it not that the Infants and Standard I always make an excellent start it would have been more difficult to raise the school standard to a satisfactory level than is anticipated will be the case. It will, however, require constant application and work on the part of both children and Teacher: and a higher standard is necessary in the examinations. There is much good work in the Infants’ room; and some promising children in the Standards should do good work. They are responsive, and appear willing to do their best”.

Things were better by January 1928: “As regards the ‘Standard’ children – one in IV, six in III and three in II – the work is satisfactory. The children all speak out well in reading and Recitation, they show a good deal of interest in their lessons and have ability to put down their ideas in good sentences. Written Arithmetic is also well up to the normal: Mental Arithmetic is sure – but very slow. Handwriting clear and clean might easily be of better formation. Singing is enjoyed and tuneful. The 7 upper Infants and 3 lower ones, though in some cases and in most respects good, are relatively weaker and are on the whole rather old for their attainments. The work is a little below the normal in Reading: Number is better: Handwriting needs care: in Recitation they speak out but need prompting. They sing with the other children. The National Savings Association is very successful here. On the whole it may be said that this is a good Junior School but that the lower class work is hardly good enough. The various weaknesses indicated have been, with other pupils, discussed with the Teacher. The children are in good order and industrious in school”.

A year later an inspection of the premises was undertaken: “The temperature chart from October to December 1928 is fairly satisfactory. But since January 3rd, 1929, it has been very bad. Never above 55°, and between that figure and 50° only 12 times, it has fallen on 32°and 31°: many times between 32°and 40°, and for the remaining records about half are between 40° and 45° and the rest between 45°and 40°[sic]. About 60 of the 71 records are thus too low. The thermometer is placed at the far end of the room, a couple of yards behind the last bench, and hanging over a disused fireplace. If this is to be used – it is available – as common sense would dictate, the figures would have been higher: but even then, considering that the figures on the only two days on which a fire was lit were 39° and 35°, they would still have been bad”.

Biddenham School in 1956 from the Biddenham Women's Institute scrapbook [X535/6]
Biddenham School in 1956 from the Biddenham Women's Institute scrapbook [X535/6]

An inspection in 1931, with average attendance 19, reads as follows: “In this small junior school, conducted with great kindness, the children are kept well occupied and are evidently happy. The training is successful in Recitation, which is enjoyed and well chosen and in written work. The Composition and answers to questions on matter read are both good; and writing and spelling are careful, as are also the Arithmetic examinations. The children who 3 years ago were described as backward in Reading aloud have improved enough to reach the usual Standard. The others hardly reach this level. The newcomers were reading from a book, selected by the Teacher, which was rather advanced for the period of their short school life; but her help was so liberally given that there must be a tendency to smooth over difficulties too much in ordinary working. The group above them had a book but little more advanced, and their performance was halting. Singing, heartily enjoyed, is badly handicapped by the tinny piano which would be all the better for tuning. In Drawing, which is clear and clean, observation is rather more truthful than is often found. The war savings association is successful. It is interesting to see that since the first week in September, the weekly contributions have regularly increased. The teacher is doing much hard work, and the behaviour of the children in school is very good”.

The final report in the volume is from April 1935, average attendance 18: “The last permanent Head Teacher left on account of illness on 17th July 1933. This proved to be more serious than was hoped would be the case; wherefore, after a few changes in the Temporary Headship, the present Mistress was appointed in May 1934 when she found the work had deteriorated and discipline was unsatisfactory. Then came epidemic sickness, with the attendance falling to 7 out of 20 on one occasion; four weeks’ average attendance – the lowest being 44% - under 60% of the number of the books; and one child away for seventeen weeks, and several eight, nine, or ten weeks. Some of these cases were among the 7 children to be promoted to a Senior School in September this year. Writing and Figuring are, at the moment, very poor – but there is improvement. Speech in Recitation and reading, and the children’s response to questions on subject matter, and their method of tackling the more unusual words – e.g. “absurd situation” from a passage in Lamb’s Tales – show care and skill on this side of the work. It is, in fact, good now, and full of promise. The written work and its problems were discussed at the visit, and the standard now attained should be much improved after another term’s work. The children are friendly, well behaved, and keen to show what they can do. In the circumstances, it is felt that the Mistress has made a very promising start in circumstances of real difficulty”.

The third of the great Education Acts was that of 1944 which established the principle of County Primary Schools for children up to the age of 11, at which time they took an examination to determine the nature of the secondary school they would attend until they were 15, the most academically able going to grammar schools, the rest to secondary or secondary modern schools. The act also created two types of successor to the public elementary schools - the Voluntary Aided and Voluntary Controlled schools. Voluntary Aided schools are those in which the Local Education Authority funds the school but the governing body is independent, they are usually Anglican or Roman Catholic schools. Voluntary Controlled schools own their own buildings whilst the staff are employed directly by the governors. Biddenham became a voluntary aided school. During the Second World War the school was designated as a civil defence rest centre for civil defence workers and for anyone bombed out of their houses [WW2/AR/C2/106 and 119]. Fortunately there were none of the latter in Biddenham. From the 1960s the school house was no longer used as a residence for the teacher and was leased out. It was sold as a private house in 1973 [P74/29/3] which it remains today [2012].

In the 1970s Bedfordshire County Council introduced comprehensive education, doing away with the 11+ examination and grammar schools and introducing a tier of school between the old County Primary and County Secondary Schools. Thus Lower Schools now taught children aged 4 to 9, Middle Schools from 9 to 13 and Upper Schools from 13 onwards. Biddenham became a lower school. The old school was demolished in the early 1970s and a new school built on the same site though set further back from the road [CA2/650].

Saint James Lower School March 2012
Saint James Lower School March 2012