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Early Education in Westoning

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. In 1706 the reply was "There is no Lecture, School, Almes-house [sic], nor Hospital endowed within this parish". In 1709 the Vicar replied: "No public or charity Schole" [sic]. In 1717 the answer was: "No Publick [sic] or charity School, nor Children taught but at the Expence off [sic] the Vicar". Finally in 1720: "Schools: None of the above mentioned".

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 answer for Westoning was: "There is no school at which a child can learn much more than his letters. The poorer classes are without sufficient means of education, whuich they would thankfully embrace had they an opportunity".

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 Westoning return stated: "Four Daily Schools, one (commenced 1826) containing 25 boys and 5 girls; the other three are principally for Lace-making, in which about 70 children are instructed; these four Schools are supported by payments from the parents. Two SundaySchools, one of 38 boys and 56 girls, of the Established Church; the other, in which are 37 boys and 33 girls, appertains to Baptist Dissenters. These schools are supported by subscription.

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 lace schools, along with the schools teaching straw plait, were supposed to teach basic things such as reading and writing but seem to have often concentrated more on the industrial side of their task, presumably because the poor families whose children attended needed the money their straw plait or lace brought in.