Small schools: The education revolution that left a legacy in almost every Norfolk community

PUBLISHED: 07:00 30 July 2014

Gunthorpe School

Gunthorpe School

No history of Norfolk is complete without recounting the revolution in education over the past 200 years. With small schools in the spotlight again, education correspondent Martin George looks at their story.

A century of debate about small schools

Questions over the future of Norfolk’s smallest schools date back more than a century, as do attempts to answer them, and some of the concerns raised by Norfolk County Council today would be very familiar to education chiefs from decades past.

In 1913, the Norfolk Education Committee found that “in nearly all cases” schools were below capacity, and, by 1947, 30 of the smallest elementary schools had closed.

Inspectors in the inter-war period said the standard of education “varied widely”, and the difficulty getting good staff for small schools was a reason for closure.

In the 1940s, the Ministry of Education urged that very small schools be closed, and the council decided that one- and two-teacher schools should be phased out, and 51 pupils would be the minimum size for most schools: “The committee recognised the valuable work these schools have done, but felt that such small schools did not lend themselves to the most efficient organisation.”

Some closures did take place – 75 in 1974-84, and 10 more in 1985 – but by 1986 there were still 101 schools with fewer than 60 pupils.

It has been one thing for education chiefs to propose school closures, but quite another for politicians to make them a reality.

In 1993, a programme of small school closures was a crucial issue in an election which ousted the Conservative administration from County Hall and cost the Tory education chairman Frances Roualle her seat.

In the words of the 2013 study, “attempts to close schools were always resisted by local parents who saw the loss of a school creating a gap in village life”.

It was an era of new industries which needed workers with new skills; there were fears about Britain falling behind international competition, and the vote was extended to working class men.

All this created a demand for a better educated working class, and the 19th century saw a boom in elementary education which transformed Norfolk society, and left a physical mark in countless villages which continues today.

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What happened to our small school buildings?

Victorian school buildings are some of the most instantly recognisable features of hundreds of Norfolk villages, and while some are still in daily use by pupils, hundreds of others have become homes, shops, village halls or even sheds.

Over a two-year period, the Norfolk Historic Buildings Group catalogued what had happened to 474 rural schools.

The team of researchers found that 147 were still in use as a school, including Barnham Broom (1841), Ellingham (1865), Great Dunham (1843) and Sculthorpe (1840).

A total of 197 are now listed as ‘domestic’, while a number are still in community use, whether as village halls, like Baconsthorpe (1816), Limpenhoe (1840, 1894) and Swafield (1852); community centres, like Blickling (1868), Briston (1848), Sprowston (1904), or Belaugh (1864, 1913); or, in the case of Reepham (1860), as part of the town hall.

Some are now shops or offices, while Mulbarton (1865) is used by as a dentist, and Cley (1860, 1896, 1912) is used for holiday lets.

Other uses include Terrington Marsh (1892), which is listed as in use for bird research, while Terrington St Clement (1818, 1861) is now a heritage centre.

According to the study, Costessey (1837) and Crostwick (1850) are now used as sheds.

Tottington (1849, new school 1910), which is within the Stanta military training area, is simply listed as derelict.

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More than 400 schools were built in Norfolk between 1800 and 1890, most by the Church of England’s National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor, while the nonconformist British Society built fewer, mostly in Norwich and the main market towns.

The Dame School, 1887 by George Frederick Cotman. Copyright: Colchester and Ipswich Museums: Ipswich Borough Council Collection The Dame School, 1887 by George Frederick Cotman. Copyright: Colchester and Ipswich Museums: Ipswich Borough Council Collection

Adam Longcroft, chairman of the Norfolk Historic Buildings Group (NHBG) and co-editor of a study of the county’s rural schools published last year, said: “These schools were providing a type of education focusing on the three Rs, but also very focused on conformity. Their main function was to ensure that these children knew their station and did not aspire to rise above it, but had just enough education to get by in what was an increasingly literate world.”

Provision was still patchy, and the landmark 1870 Forster Education Act greatly increased the role of the state through the introduction of local, secular school boards in areas with inadequate provision. They set up 153 schools in Norfolk.

For many villages today, a local school is as vital part of their community as the village shop or pub, but attitudes were often more ambiguous at the time.

Dr Longcroft said poor families and farmers often resented the loss of a child’s labour, and despite education being made compulsory up to the age of 10 in 1880, there were very few prosecutions for absences in Norfolk.

Hopton school children enjoying play time. Picture taken March 20, 1957 Hopton school children enjoying play time. Picture taken March 20, 1957

In 1851, there were 497 public day schools in the county, and it is the surviving 19th century buildings that have become the face of Victorian education in the public consciousness.

Almost forgotten are the 864 ‘dame schools’ – a network of smaller, less formal establishments held in borrowed premises, used by working class families, and often derided by the establishment.

According to the NHBC study, they “often took root in the humble parlours and squalid hovels of local inhabitants who, for a few pennies a week, nurtured the talents and educational potential of the very poorest children in Victorian society”.

The age of compulsory schools rose to 11 in 1893, 12 in 1899, and 14 in 1918, giving rural areas a pressing issue of how to provide secondary education.

School - Saxlingham Nethergate School - Saxlingham Nethergate

Some central schools were built in market centres; some schools in larger villages would provide central classses for neighbouring smaller schools, while older pupils at more remote primary schools remained where they were, following independent study under the guidance of the headteacher.

In 1902, local school boards were replaced with local education authorities, covering wider areas, and in the years up to 1914 nearly 100 schools either received new buildings, or a complete re-build, with separate rooms for infants and larger windows common additions.

But by the inter-war years the boom was over and fewer schools were built, due to the poor economic situation.

To order a copy Building an Education: An Historical and Architectural Study of Rural Schools and Schooling in Norfolk c. 1800-1944, see

Did you go to a small Norfolk school? We would love to hear your memories and see your photographs. Write to Martin George, EDP, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, NR1 1RE or email

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