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Early Education in Milton Ernest

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 for Milton Ernest are as follows:

  • 1709: "No public or charity Schole, but the Vicar teaches all the poor Boys to read, write and cast accounts, Gratis".
  • 1717: "No Publick or Charity School, but the vicar teacheth the Poor Children gratis, to Read, Write and Account, and takes care to instruct them in the Principles of Religion".
  • 1720: "No publick or Charity-School, but I teach the Poor of the Parish to Read, Write and Account gratis".

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 return for Milton Ernest was by the curate Thomas Davies, who stated: "A Sunday school, containing about 70 children, supported by E. Knight, esquire, and friends. There are not sufficient means of education, and the poor are desirous of possessing them". 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.

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 Milton Ernest reads: "Two Sunday Schools; one, of the Established Church, consisting of 33 males and 27 females, supported by contributions; the other (commenced 1833) consists of 22 males and 16 females, and is supported by a Wesleyan congregation".

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 made by Milton Ernest noted that the church Sunday school contained 50 boys and 47 girls. It further stated: "A Daily school is needed. There are many children of the village tradespeople &c. who would gladly go to a good Daily school, did such exist in the parish". The first National School in the village opened in 1851.