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Early Education in Eggington

Eggington Church from the north January 2013
Eggington Church from the north January 2013

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. The returns made in 1706 and 1709 are for Leighton Buzzard because Eggington was a chaplery in that parish; they do not mention any school in Eggington. There is a separate return for Eggington dated 1717 which states” “No School endowed. The Children are taught to read and learn the Church Catechism by a poor Woman. The number uncertain”.

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. 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. Eggington formed part of the Leighton Buzzard return and it is clear that there was no school or Sunday School in the village at that date. The Vicar of Leighton Buzzard wrote: “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. This time it was noted that there were four daily schools in Eggington containing, in total, 11 boys and 49 girls. The disparity between the sexes suggests that these were plait schools where children learned how to make straw plait, for which, of course, they received a pittance of money as well as how to read and write. In practice a lot of plaiting was done and very little of anything else.

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 reply from Leighton Buzzard regarding Eggington was: “The Clergyman and his Lady conduct the school. It is thought that a Daily school would not answer, unless the children were allowed to plait half their time”. Eggington British School was set up at the Independent chapel in 1848.

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. Eggington’s response was joined with those by Stanbridge and Tilsworth. It was stated that there was “no efficient school” but that one for forty infants was required at Eggington. A School Board for Eggington, Stanbridge and Tilsworth was formed on 14th December 1874.