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Records kept by old schools form a rich source of information for all family historians. Correspondence, Registers, Punishment Books (although these are usually closed for 100 years after the last recorded punishment), Minute Books of Governors Meetings, building plans, Inspector's Reports and most valuable of all, School Log Books, each had to be retained, although not every school kept a complete set of records. Over the years, many of these documents have found their way via the County Education Office to County Record Departments where they are available to the public.

 

The Schoolmaster's house and adjoining schoolroom at Coldridge

The Schoolmaster's house and adjoining schoolroom, Coldridge

 

Until the early 1820s, each parish was expected to provide a token amount of education for the children of working families. This may have been paid for by the parishioners or endowed by a local squire or other landowner. Children were taught little besides the Catechism and the letters of the alphabet; certainly the majority could not read or write. For fifty years after this time, many voluntary church schools came into being with the assistance of the so-called National Society (which catered only for England and was also known as the British Society). The Education Act of 1870 set up School Boards to expand the voluntary schools  into all areas of the country and to bring each school into the standardised system for testing attainment which had been started in 1862. Government Grants for running the schools were linked to success in these tests. One of the tests related to attendance and in agricultural areas children were often called out of the classroom to work in the fields. It was not until 1890 that a fairer system of funding was applied to all schools regardless of attendance or the progress pupils made.

 

Not until 1902 was there any real legal compulsion on parents to send their children to school each day. An Act of 1876 had said that children aged 5 to 10 must attend for all of each day, and that children aged 10 to 13 must attend for a part of each day but everyone knew that the rural economy would collapse without the use of child labour so this Act was unenforceable.

At Ermington, the School Board's Clerk who was supposed to keep a check on truancy also kept the village shop. He told his Board plainly that he wasn't prepared to do anything about truancy because it might injure his trade! The truth is that children were needed to supplement the family income by working - an average wage for a farm labourer at the time was 11s a week. With so many children absent for so much of the time, attaining the so-called National Standards was almost impossible in rural schools, who were then punished by the Government by grant cuts, making their pupils even more disadvantaged.

 

Threshing circa 1896

The turning point came with the adaptation of steam to power new farm machinery, significantly reducing the amount of labour required in the fields. Only then, as adult workers realised the potential threat to their jobs, was cheap child labour banished from the fields to the schoolroom throughout the year.

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  Last modified:
30/09/2005