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Blunham School

John Donne Lower School March 2007
John Donne Lower School March 2007

Before 1873

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 Rector, R. P. Beachcroft noted that there was a weekly school for 70 boys and a Sunday School for 70 boys and 80 girls. The school website states that the school (the tcatched building which survives to the time of writing) was built in 1813 though does not note its source for this information.

Both schools were supported by annual subscription of the inhabitants of the parish and were on the National system. He commented "...the scholars are on the increase and the poor seem anxious to be benefitted by education". The National system meant the school was run in accordance with the principles of the National Society which, in an age when education was driven by religion, meant it was Anglican in nature. It is not clear (as, sadly, no records of the school from this early date survive) whether this was a NationalSchool, or merely a school run along the same lines. It is worth noting that the Sunday School was just that, School provided on a Sunday and would have taught reading and writing and, perhaps, other subjects, in addition to the religious knowledge for which Sunday Schools are reserved today.

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. At this time the situation appeared to have altered very little, with the daily school educating 55 boys, with 74 boys and 76 girls attending the Sunday School chiefly supported by the Rector. Many of the children came from Mogerhanger. A National Schools return of 1839 includes Blunham [X25/28] and so by this date it was certainly in union with the National Society.

In 1842 an application was made to the National Society to erect an additional room for the daily school to add to the existing education provision for 104 boys at the National School 40 girls at the School of Industry (no doubt concerned largely with that North Bedfordshire staple of female employment - lace-making) and 50 infants at their own school and the site (with the original school buildings on it as well as the new) was conveyed to trustees in 1843 [L28/43]. In a report of 1844 it was opined that the master at the National School was "honest and orderly", the infants school was "remarkably satisfactory" and "the appearance of all the children [was] much in their favour".

In 1846/7 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. In the enquiry the following figures were given for Blunham schools: National Sunday School 35 boys; National Daily School 22 boys; School of Industry Sunday School 13 boys, 37 girls; School of Industry Daily School 13 boys, 42 girls; Infants Department 15 boys and 15 girls. Earl de Grey contributed £10 per annum, the Rector making up the rest; an evening school for adults was held in the winter. The school website states that an additional classroom was built in 1852 but does not give the source for this information.

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. In this questionnaire the inspector reported that no efficient school existed and that Blunham required a school for 70 boys and girls and 46 infants. Plans were drawn up and in 1873 the school opened.

The School's west elevation in 1873 [AD3865/8]
The School's west elevation in 1873 [AD3865/8]


In 1873 the NationalSchool and House of Industry were combined as a new National Mixed School. The School logbook [SDBlunham1] records for the March 31st to April 4th 1873: "We Reuben Bearcock & Rosa Bearcock this day entered upon the duties of Master & Mistress of BlunhamNationalSchool. Commenced with 82 scholars. Only 12 could read, about 8 write and not one could do an addition sum. No order among the children they being used to come and go at their own pleasure". Reuben Bearcock resigned in December 1893 and after a short period with a locum Head teacher was replaced by Harry & Kate Southgate in March 1894. They resigned in December 1896, noting the remaining staff as Miss Sharpe and Winnie Maries (monitor). Walter and Caroline Wilson took over in January 1897.

A school group about 1890 [Z50/19/15]
A school group about 1890 [Z50/19/15]

A land mark Education Act was passed in 1902, coming into effect in 1903. It disbanded the School Boards (in parishes which had them, Blunham did not) 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; Blunham being a NationalSchool thus became a Public Elementary School. A new classroom was added in 1902 [P76/29/2-5]

Bedfordshire & Luton Archives & Records Service has an album of cuttings of reports by School Inspectors for most schools in the county for a few years before the First World War and the inter-war years [E/IN1/1]. In 1910 it was noted "The older children are in good order and taught carefully, but the small class of infants is again on the verge of inefficiency". In 1912 the inspector considered that the school was "quite creditable" considering the absence of a headteacher but noted "In the Lowest Division some of the scholars are of rather advanced age for the Class in which they are working" also "The School-rooms have a somewhat dreary appearance, and the record of temperature places it beyond all doubt that the heating arrangements are wholly unsatisfactory". In May 1914 the Inspector noted "This is an exceedingly well conducted village School. Order and tone are all that can be desired…. The written work of the lower section of the older scholars deserves special commendation" The infants' level of attainment was not high but the best that could be expected in the circumstances given they had been "taught under difficulties".

The First World War was a difficult time for education and the effects persisted for some while afterwards. At Blunham it was noted in February 1920 "During the whole of the present school year, with the exception of brief periods in October and November, this school has been under staffed", the headteacher had only returned the previous Easter from five years' service in the army; recommendation was made to the Board of Education to increase staff numbers. By November 1921 discipline was improving and the new Headmistress was gaining the confidence of the children - but "It should, however, be recorded that much of the work is very bad indeed; the Arithmetic is weak, the Handwriting is badly formed and the Exercise Books are dirty. Reading is not good and Speech is unsatisfactory". A brief report in September 1922 noted that the previous, bad, report had not been pasted into the school log book (one wonders why!) stated "The School has evidently improved in various ways…" In 1923 the Inspector was able to report "In the last two years this School has made considerable progress and improvement in certain directions, but very much remains to be done before it can be considered satisfactory. It has risen from the verge of inefficiency to a weak school, and that is to the credit of the Teachers".

The May 1925 report concentrated on buildings: "The Girls' Cloakroom is unventilated and dark and too small for the numbers using it" The window of the classroom near the offices [i.e. the toilets] could not be opened in hot weather "The reason is that the urinal is not properly faced; it smells foully - probably the walls are saturated". The July report of that year noted that the school was "now generally satisfactory". In 1926 there were 115 children on the roll and desks in the main room were overcrowded, there would be 41 infants after Christmas of that year and only 30 seats! In 1932 the overall verdict was reasonable, though the infants had suffered from having no teacher provided by the LEA for over a month after the previous one left. The headmistress had been there since 1928 and affected a number of changes for the better. The Inspector reported in 1933 that the playground was in a very bad state, flooding in wet weather, there was dampness in the building and the lighting was unsatisfactory, altogether the buildings needed a considerable repair programme. By 1935 things were so bad that the Board of Education in Whitehall wrote to the LEA demanding that they ensured that the School Managers attended to six areas of repairs at once to such things as door locks, cracks, playground surfacing, lighting and roof leaks.

Like many schools in the county Blunham had to take evacuee children during World War Two. Blunham had twenty two children from Leyton in Essex and, due to lack of staff by 1941 was only running on a part-time basis [E/PM3/1/2]. On 12th August it was reported: "While I was helping with the organisation in another room this morning [the teacher] was in charge of the main room of sixty five children. On my return [the teacher] reported that a boy had answered her insolently - by giving his name when required in an insolent manner. She sent him into a cloakroom; later I sent for him and [the teacher] dealt with him, but the boy refused to apologise to her". As a result the teacher, from Leyton, left the school at 10.20 a.m. and eventually returned to Leyton. A letter to Bedfordshire LEA from Leyton LEA followed: "Since receiving your telephone message this afternoon I have had a visit from [the teacher], who has described to me the conditions prevailing in the school, and under which she was expected to work. From what she says it would appear that very stringent measures are required with a view to introducing some measure of discipline. I have also now enquired into the position which prevailed when Mr. Ling was there previously, and I find that he had similar difficulties. It would seem that it is necessary for a man teacher to be sent to this school capable of tightening up the discipline, and I should be glad if you will kindly consider the possibility of arranging for the transfer of one of your staff for this purpose…I propose in the near future to skip over to visit the school in the interests of the Leyton children there".

The Bedfordshire Director of Education replied: "This is the first intimation I have had of unsatisfactory discipline at the school. In normal times, the school lrunning as a Junior School, I should have said that the discipline was as satisfactory as could be expected anywhere, but it may be that the presence of older children and the presence of evacuees has created difficulties…At the same time I am bound to point out to you that I am unable to find a male teacher to send to this school. My own teaching staff has been seriously depleted by the calling up of men for military service and the Evacuation Authorities have, generally speaking, not been very helpful in this matter". He asked for the teacher to return as, with the Headmistress on extended sick leave a chronic shortage of staff could only make things worse. The school had 76 children from Bedfordshire and 28 from Leyton as well as ten from London, 14 from Hornsey [Middlesex] and two "miscellaneous" - a total of 131. For this number there were a Headteacher and another teacher from Bedfordshire, a teacher from Leyton and one from Hornsey, all female. In the end Leyton replaced the female teacher, who refused to return, with a male teacher.

School prospectus from 1995 [E/Pu4/4/218]
School prospectus from 1995 [E/Pu4/4/218]

1946 to date

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. The act came into force in 1946 and Blunham became a VoluntaryAidedCountyPrimary School

The school logbook [SDBlunham6] entry for Saturday 6th March 1971 reads: "At approximately 5.30 p.m. a police officer called at my home and asked me to report to the school, as the building had been severely damaged by fire. By the time I arrived, the fire had been extinguished, and Police Constable Wigglesworth handed over to me full responsibility for the school building. Apparently the fire started in the central heating boiler flue. It must have been burning for quite a long time before it was discovered, as the thick structural beams in the roof were very badly damaged. The alarm was given at nine minutes past three in the afternoon, by Mr. Jeeves, who noticed smoke coming through the slates. About twenty fireman, from Sandy, Biggleswade and Bedford, prevented the fire from, spreading to the thatched roof of the older part of the school buildings. I decided to hold a staff meeting at 4 p.m. tomorrow, as nothing could be discussed (regarding plans for school on Monday) until the central heating and the electricity supply had been restored. Mr. Shallard (Chief Education Officer), Mr. Watkins (Deputy Chief Education Officer) and the School Managers, who had come out to the school to see the extent of the damage, said they would like to be present at the staff meeting tomorrow. At 10 p.m. Mrs. Hall, the school cook, was still providing hot soup and cups of tea for the firemen". School continued in the Village Hall on Monday morning.

A new teaching block was designed and built over the next two and a half years and was opened by the Bishop of Bedford on 2nd October 1973 [SDBlunham6]. 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 CountyPrimary and CountySecondary Schools. Thus Lower Schools now taught children aged 4 to 9, Middle Schools from 9 to 13 and UpperSchools from 13 onwards. On the opening day in October 1973 Blunham VACP School became JohnDonneVoluntaryAidedLowerSchool (after the famous poet, a Rector of Blunham from 1621 to 1626) schooling pupils aged five to nine years.

John Donne Lower School in 1978 [Z50/19/50]
John Donne Lower School in 1978 [Z50/19/50]

The school website notes that a new library block was built in 2005. On 1st April 2009 Bedfordshire County Council was abolished, Blunham's new Local Education Authority being a unitary authority called Central Bedfordshire Council.