Scarning school legacy is firmly rooted in its soil

The William Seckar Trust founded Scarning Primary School over 400 years ago - From left, John Grett

The William Seckar Trust founded Scarning Primary School over 400 years ago - From left, John Gretton, Rosey Grauwiler and headteacher Nick King. Picture: Matthew Usher.

As the William Seckar Trust makes one of its largest donations in its 400-year history, £150,000 towards a new pre-school, KATHRYN CROSS looks at the foundation of one man's extraordinary legacy which has benefitted the education of thousands of children.

A plaque is dedicated to William Seckar on the oldest part of the school. Picture: Matthew Usher.

A plaque is dedicated to William Seckar on the oldest part of the school. Picture: Matthew Usher.

The year was 1604. Elizabeth I had died a year earlier and the English throne had passed to the King of Scotland, who was to be James I of England, creating the kingdom of Great Britain.

But in a rural corner of Norfolk a relatively unimportant farmer died.

Unimportant in the respect that he was by no means gentry, but William Seckar did own the land he farmed and the house he lived in, putting him at a higher social status than the tenant farmers around him.

Scarning Free School, picture was taken around 1918.

Scarning Free School, picture was taken around 1918.

In those days such landowners would be given the rather grandiose title of Yeoman and Seckar, Yeoman of Scarning, owned just under 100 hundred acres in the village near Dereham.

But while nowadays estates are generally left to immediate family with perhaps a small donation to a favourite charity, Seckar left a legacy which, while in its wording he clearly intended it to last forever, perhaps even he did not anticipate the enormous impact it would have for generations of children.

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His will decreed that while his house and land would be left to his wife Alice for as long as she lived, on her death the income from the estate would be used for 'the maintenance of one free school, to be kept for ever in the said house, while the world endure, in Scarning'.

Alice remarried twice after Seckar's death on November 1, 1604, both times tying the knot just a month after the death of the previous husband.

But after being widowed for the third time Alice lived a further 16 years before her death in 1638. The school eventually opened in 1645.

It is said that sons of labourers were taught separately to the sons of yeomans and farmers so they did 'contaminate' the wealthier pupils.

An extract from White's Norfolk Directory of 1845 states that the school was originally endowed with 86 acres and a further 16 were added in 1766.

It reads: 'The master occupies the large house and garden, left by the founder, and also about 12a (acres) of the land. The other 90a are let for £164 a year, out of which the master receives a salary of £80, and £5 a year to provide stationery for the poor scholars.

'The residue is applied as a fund for repairing the premises, and for providing for the arbitrary fines levied on the copyhold lands, on the admission of new trustees. The schoolmaster teaches reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography, without any charge, to all the children of the parish above the age of five years, who are sent to him, and has generally about 50 pupils.'

John Gretton, current chairman of the trustees, said the trust had its fair share of ups and downs over the past four centuries.

'In the early 18th century some of the trustees were treating the revenues as their own income,' he said. 'And there was a time, within living memory, that the school nearly closed down through lack of pupil numbers so I'm not sure what would have happened to the trust if that had happened.

'Now the financial support the trust provides means Scarning Primary is the envy of many of its surrounding schools.'

As it has been for 400 years the trust fund is boosted by income from land rents but nowadays the monies are invested in a professionally managed share portfolio.

In its present constitution the trust supports the education of Scarning and Wendling resident children and students to the age of 25 for educational needs, such as course materials or travel costs.

Grants typically support the school's extra-curricular activities such as swimming lessons and coach trips to museums or theatres.

Headteacher Nick King joined the school in September and said the trust was described to him as 'like having a fairy godmother'.

He added: 'It is fantastic the support we get from the trust and incredible that it has been part of the fabric of the school for hundreds of years.'

Recent grants have paid for the reseeding of a football field, building an amphitheatre, and creating a reading room, he said.

'We try to ask for grants that will benefit the whole school and we are now looking at ways to improve our music provision,' said Mr King.

Mr Gretton said the current trustees were always mindful that their responsibility goes back 400 years, and then forward for ever and had to make careful judgements on the merits of each application.

He said: 'There have been some land sales which have added to the capital and there was a period when the school was very small so very little was spent and it accrued quite considerably then.

'It has been suggested that we offer land for housing in the local plan but that is not something we want to do. We are taking the long-term view. There is no need to sell now.

'Of all the schools in the area Scarning is the one that can expand the most. William Secker's act was one of considerable philanthropy and foresight.'

There is no doubt that the latest grant it has bestowed is one of its most generous.

Scarning Pre-School, which is based in a deteriorating mobile classroom in the grounds of the primary school, applied for funds towards a new brick building which would offer its young users a more suitable and sustainable environment in which to learn and play.

'The local authority has no obligation to provide pre-school facilities,' explained Mr Gretton.

'This rebuild is well within the charity's remit but is a major project for the trust.

'Its committee have demonstrated a clear need and we are very impressed by their drive and enthusiasm to bring the project to completion over the next couple of years.

'We very much hope that local and national fundholders will join with us in match funding our £150,000 commitment.'

Have you been helped by an ancient legacy? Email kathryn.cross@archant.co.uk.

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