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Early Education in Stevington

West End Baptist Meeting December 2009
West End Baptist Meeting December 2009

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 return made by the vicar in 1706 noted: "There is no School endowed, but two Women Dissenters teach about 20 Children". This presumably refers to the Baptists, who had been in Stevington since 1655 but would not have a permanent meeting until 1720. The return for 1717 noted: "There is no charity school". The 1720 return simply noted: "Schools. No".

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 Stevington reads: "A Sunday school supported by Dissenters [presumably the West End Baptists], consisting of about 60 or 70 children of this parish, and some from other parishes. The poor are desirous of the means of education". 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. Stevington replied: "One Sunday School, in which 46 males and 60 females are instructed; supported by donations and collections from a Baptist 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 Vicar of Stevington simply replied: No school. It is hoped to have one shortly". It would, in fact, take another 17 years - Stevington British School opening in 1864.