A history of village schools in Norfolk, 1800-1944

21 May 2019

We were delighted to welcome Dr Susanna Wade-Martins who came to talk to us on Norfolk schools. As one member said, ‘We have all been to school and didn’t really know it was history until now’.  For many of us educated in village schools, Susanna brought back a sparkling reminder of why the village schools were so important in the collective memory.  However, few of us knew that their origins owe so much to local power struggles: attitudes from employers in rural areas were often not supportive.  Why educate the poor when they could be working on the land?        

Susanna is a much published historian, with biographies of Coke of Holkham, ‘Turnip’ Townsend of Raynham, and vicar Benjamin Armstrong.  She departed from model farms, nineteenth century great estates and studies of rural landscapes to focus on a 2013 research study of the village school in Norfolk.  And a rich picture she painted.                                                         

In earlier times schooling was largely sponsored by churches and a purpose of education was to control children, to limit ambitions and ensure a compliant and respectful poor. Susanna took in our earliest schools (grammar School in Martham, 1323), the variable quality of Dame Schools (where at least parents had some say in children’s education), and the rise of Board Schools in the 19th Century - designed to ensure we were god-fearing, respectful and clean.  Learning by rote and recitation was the common experience and schools were designed with this in mind, organising pupils in long rows by Standard (1-7). Many schools were not supported by local farmers and didn’t get off the ground. 

It was a relief when the 1870 Education Act called for a school in each village, when there were routine inspections and some training of ‘pupil teachers’. Eventually all employers supported the school boards. The architecture of schools reflected local pride, local wealth and control, and attitudes to learning. A few (night) schools were designed for adults. Getting children to come to school was often difficult – the fields needed stone picking, families needed help at home – but as a national system took hold it became compulsory to attend and important for authorities to support. 

Once the county councils took over in 1902 school buildings increased and education was seen as essential for all.  In the twentieth century the curriculum was strictly gendered with girls learning to knit, cook, budget and sew for example.  Education was seen as a solution to poverty and by 1944 secondary education became important too.  It has been a long uphill struggle to secure an enlightened education in villages.  Our evening concluded with shared reminiscences about outside toilets and local schools, and a lingering embarrassment that almost no trace of our Board School remains, except in the memories of some.

Peter Lavender


(Above: Martham School)
(Below: Journal of the Norfolk Historic Buildings Group Volume 5 (2013) Schools)


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