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Features > Pastimes >

Word from Wormingford

Ronald Blythe thinks back to an older style of children’s education

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AND so it has come to pass. St Andrew’s Church of England Prim­ary School, Wormingford, has ceased to be. For a year or so, it bragged about being the smallest school in the county — 13 pupils — which would have made the edu­cation committee look at its books. But I looked at the work on its walls and marvelled at its beauty, the art and natural history, the painfully brilliant lettering of its poetry, the repetitive re-creation of our village myth, George and the Dragon.

On such evidence, I could believe that our school could go on for ever. But 13 boys and girls. . . And who of us has seen them, skyed as they are in the bedrooms, eyes fixed on screens, small hands on mice? You might catch a glimpse of them at the Nine Lessons and Carols.

The attendance was about 35 when I was a school governor, and when I occasionally walked over the footpaths to tell stories, or take assemblies. The teachers lived many miles away, and, through no fault of their own, failed to be “local”. Church­wise, they could not have been called parishioners.

As in countless villages, there is an unreachable element, certainly to someone of my generation. Nor should I attempt to reach it; for it is not for me. For one who is a historian and poet, however, our soon-to-be-emptied class­rooms will stay full of voices.

The young men on the war mem­orial will continue to sing in them. The strictly required songs on the Syllabus will for ever beat against the church windows; for the Syllabus was, of course, a holy law. It would, for generations, have hung on a tack in the chalks cupboard, swinging whenever the door opened, saying: “Thou shalt not teach anything other than me.”

The 1870 Education Act astounded the farmers. Since when did boys and girls not pick up stones on their fields to mend the lanes, scare rooks, or work? Not to labour until they were 12 years old! There was rural war.

There were also many rural schools, with some made-up “syllabus” by the rector, or often by his wife, which preceded Whitehall, such as that which John Clare at­tended in Glinton vestry for a penny a week. And he taught himself arithmetic on the dusty walls of the threshing-barn. Paper was the great country poet’s need, and paper was stingily handed out for decades in village schools such as ours. First, slates, then, dazzlingly, an exercise book and ink. To blot your copybook was your first crime.

Our school is lasting Victorian Gothic. Flints from our fields glitter in both sun and rain. Sleeping policemen make sure that it is ap­proached at one mile an hour, thus reverently. All the years I have known it, the religious element has been cautious and courteous, and getting the children over the road and into the church a near impos­sibility.

The old sense of belonging is chiefly expressed in weddings and funerals. Or by the new families in our manors — we have about five. The school has simply died out, has done what first the Syllabus de­manded it to do, then what governors such as I required it to do. But its institutional purpose just faded, as bigger schools got, well, bigger. And these ten minutes away in the car.

When I commiserated with a neighbour about our loss, she wondered where we could hold our flower-show refreshments. I wondered about nearly a century-and-a-half’s boys and girls.

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