REV. A. J. PLUMMER, M.A. (1958)

The history of Education in England is an interesting but also, especially to foreigners, a very complicated one.
In Medieval times learning was largely the prerogative of the Clergy, so that both schools and teachers were almost entirely in the hands of the Church.

Many of our Public Schools, Winchester, or Westminster for instance, go back to the 14th century, and at the time of the Black Death (1349), there were already over 400 Grammar Schools scattered up and down the country. But the pupils who went to these institutions were mainly future clergymen or clerks. For the sons of ordinary people there was no education save of a severely practical kind. Clever boys of humble origin could rise to eminence in the Church, but there was no attempt to teach reading or writing to the mass of the people and, of course, no obligation existed to go to school at all.

Despite the Reformation and the consequent founding of still more Educational Establishments with money taken from the monasteries (Crediton Grammar School dates from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I) Education remained in this unorganised and unsatisfactory state till the Eighteenth century. In the age of the George’s upper class education was admitted on all hands to need reform yet nothing was done to reform it. Schoolmasters of this age were licensed tyrants who often cruelly flogged the boys, and there was cruel bullying of younger boys by the elder. Of Lower class education there was still no sign, and girls were not deemed to be fit subjects for book learning of any sort.

But just as it was the influence of the Church that started education, so it was by the influence of churchmen that it was eventually extended to all classes.

In 1780, Robert Raikes, a Gloucester man, started a Sunday school in his parish, in which the children were instructed not only in the Bible, but also in reading, writing and other elementary subjects. This schooling was soon extended to weekdays. Hannah Moore and others followed his methods, and the movement spread rapidly despite opposition from some conservatives who felt that popular education would lead to revolution.

In 1811 was formed the ” National Society for the education of the Poor in the principles of the Church of England,” which was the chief agent in promoting popular education in England and Wales until the State set up Board Schools in 1870. It was under the influence of this movement that many village schools were started.

The School at High Bickington is probably one of the oldest in the diocese of Exeter. Prior to about 1856 the only place of instruction in the Parish was a small private one run by an old lady, what is often termed a Dame School. In 1856 Miss Gertrude Pyncombe made provision in her will for the instruction of a number of poor children in certain subjects, including the Church Catechism. This seems to have been the origin of the school, as we know it. The building chosen for adaptation as a school after a fire had gutted it was originally the poor house, and, like most of the Village was thatched. At one time it may have been the residence of the Village priest. The building was open for use in 1858. The schoolmaster originally combined his job with that of the Parish clerk. In 1928 the building was improved; the Infants classroom was enlarged, the corridor added, the cloakrooms altered, and the whole place plastered. A new floor was put in, in 1937. The playground is the property of the Pyncombe Trustees, for which the School Managers pay a nominal rent each year. At one time a portion of the Churchyard adjoining had been occupied by a kind of Composite structure. The upper portion reached by an outside flight of stone steps, was a schoolroom, while the rooms underneath were used as the parish almshouses.

This building was quite ancient and somewhat dilapidated; the lower rooms had no ceilings and through the wide cracks in the floor of the upper room the doings of the poor old men and women in the almshouses below were open to the prying eyes of the children, and very certainly a great many practical jokes would have been played on them.

About 1890 another local day school which had been carried on at the Higher Chapel was closed and the children transferred to the Church School. This necessitated the adding of an enlarged classroom to the 1856 building.

The School became subject to Government inspection in 1874. The Education Act of 1880 made education compulsory for all children.

Since that date its history has not differed very considerably from that of most elementary schools.

In 1940 at the beginning of the War 88 children and four teachers from Sydenham, South East London, were accommodated in the School and the Hall. At the end of the war the number of local children attending the School remained large, but at the present moment the numbers are down more than they have been for some time.

The 1944 Education Act brought in several changes. The children over eleven are now removed to Chulmleigh Secondary or to Grammar Schools. In 1952 a new instrument of management came into being by which the Local Education Authority became wholly responsible for the upkeep and renewal of the School. The fact that in origin the School was a church school is acknowledged by the regulation that the Parish Priest and one other person proposed by the Parochial Church Council and appointed officially by the Diocesan Education Committee are Foundation Managers. Other authorities appoint the other four managers, of who two must now be women. The deeds of the building are vested in the Diocesan Education Committee who, if the School were ever to be closed, could dispose of the building as they wished. The Rector, or some person appointed by him, may enter the school once a week for the purpose of giving instruction according to the Church Catechism, but only provided that a majority of the parents have signed forms to say that they are in agreement. Those who wish may state that they desire that their children shall be given something else to do while the instruction is going on.

In 1949, the children of the neighbouring village of Atherington were transferred to High Bickington School, their own school having been closed. Despite rather natural opposition from Atherington when this proposal was first mooted, it seems to be working well, especially now that the two villages are ecclesiastically under the authority of the same Rector, and many of the children have relations or interests in both villages.

Some of the scholars from this school have eventually found their way to one of the Universities, and some have done well in trade or one of the professions or made a name for themselves in public life. Many capable teachers have taught at the school. Miss Newbery who has recently retired was one of a family whose roots seemed intertwined with those of the school, her Mother and her Grandmother having been teachers in it before her. Under Miss Vickery, the present Headmistress, the school continues to go forward. Long may its good work and influence continue.