Ashwell Primary School

Photo:One of the original drawings of the school

One of the original drawings of the school

Drawn in 1876 by Henry Geo. Luff, architect

Photo:The school circa 1900

The school circa 1900

Photo:Also circa 1900

Also circa 1900

Photo:Pupils and teachers, 1908

Pupils and teachers, 1908

Photo:The headteacher's house

The headteacher's house

Photo:Pupils and teachers, 1940s, with Mr Dunkerley standing at the back

Pupils and teachers, 1940s, with Mr Dunkerley standing at the back

Photo:The school celebrates its centenary in Victorian style in 1978

The school celebrates its centenary in Victorian style in 1978

Silver Street

by Cliff Jenkinson

Ashwell Primary School was designed in 1876 and built in 1878 by a local builder called Mr Bailey.  Facsimiles of some of his original drawings and plans can be seen inside the school.

In April 1878 the school opened as Ashwell Board Schools, for Infants (mixed) and Girls.  It cost £2,200 to build and consisted of two large classrooms, side by side, each supposedly capable of holding 100 pupils, and one smaller classroom (now the boiler house and toilets).  The two main entrance doors from the playground (infants to the right, older girls to the left) were bricked up when the school was extended in 1957, but you can still see where they were.   There was a school house for the headmistress, which stood in Bear Lane, about where the far corner of the big hall is now. 

Pupils could start school from the age of five.  The girls could stay at school until they were 12; boys left when they were seven, to go to the Merchant Taylors’ School (founded 1681) in Mill Street.

On the first day the school was opened in April 1878 one of the mistresses wrote in the log book that the girls had been “Very inefficiently taught and...[are] exceedingly disorderly.”  That was scarcely surprising since probably few of the children had ever been to school before.  Heating was quite inadequate, with one open fire grate in each of the two big rooms.  A School Inspector, visiting during the week Queen Victoria died in January 1901, recorded that “Some of the children were crying with cold this morning.”  The outside privies (situated roughly where the steps now lead up to the big hall) froze solid in hard winters.

In 1900 there was a Head of Infants and a Head of the Girls' Department.  They were both qualified teachers.  There was one other qualified teacher for the girls and there were six young “pupil teachers”, similar to secondary school pupils on work experience today.

Infants in those days were taught reading, writing, arithmetic and animal lessons, object lessons and miscellaneous lessons, which covered very basic scientific and other general knowledge.  The junior girls went on to more detailed subjects such as ‘The Continents’, ‘Rivers and Lakes’, ‘Landing of William the Conqueror’, ‘The State of the People in the Norman Period’, etc.

Miss Hislop became Headmistress in 1906 and remained in post until the 1940s.

In the 1920s there were three sets of well-worn reading books: The Swiss Family Robinson, Nat the Naturalist, and The Black Arrow; there were also a few Bibles.  The reading and spelling lessons were usually from these books.  The children were taught that The Bible contained “Every word you would ever need.”

In 1933 the school became a primary mixed school, with all the pupils staying until they were eleven.  The Merchant Taylors' School in Mill Street then became a secondary school, now for girls as well as boys, aged from 11 to 14, which was then the school leaving age.   By this time children of 11 or over who were considered very able academically were offered a free place to the Grammar Schools in Letchworth or Hitchin.  Children with rich parents could go to grammar school as fee payers.

During the second world war Mr Dunkerley, a headmaster from a London primary school who had been evacuated to Ashwell in 1939 with his entire school, took over as head teacher on Miss Hislop’s retirement. 

In 1945 the tiny schools in Hinxworth and Newnham closed and their pupils transferred to Ashwell.  The Merchant Taylors' School in Mill Street closed in 1947.  Most pupils from Ashwell Primary School nowadays transfer to Knights Templar School, Baldock at the age of eleven.

1n 1957 the school was extended to provide a hall (now the dining hall), two new classrooms, inside toilets (for the first time!) and, added in 1958, a small staff room.

In 1973 the old school house was demolished to make way for further extensions: a big assembly hall and a double open-plan classroom, which were opened in 1974. The classroom is now (2009) the Foundation Stage Unit.

In 1975 the PTA raised enough money for a swimming pool, which was built behind the school, and since then all full-time pupils have been swimming every day in the second half of the summer term, weather permitting.  Everybody learns to swim. 

The school celebrated its centenary in grand style in 1978.  All the staff and pupils wore Victorian costume and lunch that day was stew, potatoes and cabbage, followed by ground rice pudding.  A grand reunion of former pupils was held, including Mrs Annie Chapman (née Miss Bray), then 91, who had attended the school in the 1890s before becoming one of its longest serving teachers.

Since 1978 the school has grown in numbers and now has 265 children on roll.  The buildings and grounds have been much amended in recent years, with a small extension in 1997 and a large new block, consisting of four classrooms and a music room, in 2008.

The school continues to enjoy academic success – for example, 100% of the pupils achieved the target level of National Average or Above at the age of eleven in all three core subjects (English, Mathematics and Science) in 2008 – but the village is also proud that the children are happy and enthusiastic learners who grow up keen to contribute to the wider community.

This page was added on 21/12/2010.
Comments about this page

I was born in Ashwell December 1957 and attended the school from September 1962 until December 1964 when as a family we moved from The Corner Stores(now Heritage House) to Tempsford Bedfordshire. The article was very interesting and now know far more about the school. Recently visited school July 12th this year and attended the "Summer Extravaganza". Also had a look inside the classrooms, the old part of the school looks virtually the same, and memories flooded back. Fantastic website.

By Claire Scriven nee Kingzett
On 11/12/2019

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