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Early Education in Stanbridge

Volume 81 published by Bedfordshire Historical Records Society (2002) is a series of episcopal visitationsundertaken 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. In 1706 and 1709 Stanbridge was included in the return for Leighton Buzzard, of which it was a hamlet, and there was no educational provision reported in the village. In 1717 Stanbridge had a separate report which stated: "Schools None".

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 1818 there was no school in Stanbridge. John Wilson, the curate, wrote that ‘the poor are desirous of having 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. By 1833 there were two daily schools for making straw plait which taught 22 boys and 18 girls.  Their parents paid fees to support their education.  There was also a Sunday school of 50 boys and 30 girls which was supported by annual collections. 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 plait schools were regarded as an evil in South Bedfordshire because they tended to teach straw plaiting and only pay lip service to other skills such as reading and writing. The plait was sold to hat manufacturers in Luton and elsewhere.

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 Stanbridge return stated that there was a Sunday school of 25 boys and 20 girls and that ‘The school is from necessity held in the church, there being no funds to build a schoolroom.’

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 return for Stanbridge also included Eggington and Tilsworth. The Stanbridge situation was that there was "No efficient school" and that "A school for 134 boys and girls, and a classroom for 50 infants near Stanbridge Church" were required.

A School Board was formed for the three parishes and the first elections were on 14th December 1874. The Board, unusually, was dismissed by the Education Department in 1880 for its failure to provide a school and a new board was imposed. In 1884, once Stanbridge Board School had been built, the District was again allowed to return to a School Board elected by its own ratepayers.