How Norfolk’s rural school buildings helped shape education

A new book reveals how the many rural schools found across Norfolk helped shape education in the region.

Building an Education: Rural Schools and Schooling in Norfolk c.1800-1994, investigates the role that small rural schools played in communities over the past two centuries.

The fifth in the Journal of Norfolk Historic Buildings Group (NHBG) series, the book was funded by English Heritage and edited by Adam Longcroft and Susannah Wade-Martins from the University of East Anglia’s School of Education and Lifelong Learning.

Drawing on precious surviving documentary records, such as photographs, plans and a survey of schools conducted in 1903, the team began to piece together the complex story of how schools and schooling changed over time, from the early 1800s through to the Education Act of 1944.

The new study is the most comprehensive and detailed of its kind ever undertaken in the country and contains records for nearly 480 separate schools and more than 500 photographs, maps and drawings.

Dr Longcroft said: “There is one thing that almost all of us share in common – we have all been to school. What is often not recognised, however, is the very special role that schools play in our local rural communities and the enormous variation they exhibit in terms of their architectural design, construction and layout – variation that reflects changes in the way rural schools were funded, changes in teaching practices or pedagogy, and changes in legislation.

“Norfolk may be only the fourth largest county in England, but its division into hundreds of small parishes means that it has probably the largest number of surviving historic rural schools in the country, more than 470 in total.”

The survey has shown researchers how school design and teaching methods were influenced not just by the Indian ‘Madras’ system of using older children to teach their younger peers but also by ideas from across the globe. Trowse School, for example, was directly influenced by the Prussian system of school design where a collection of small classrooms were arranged around a central, larger school hall.

The hugely influential role of local landowners is also now much clearer than ever. Their patronage, and that of other local philanthropists, resulted in the construction of highly elaborate schools built in a rich Jacobean style like those at Oulton and Blickling built by Lord Lothian, and less complex but still beautiful structures like Fring school, financed in 1875 by a Mrs Locke at a cost of £800.

The study has also shown and explained, for the first time, the fascinating spatial relationships that existed between rural schools and other key features in the rural landscape: in particular parish churches, parish boundaries and greens and commons.

The book is the result of a pioneering partnership between English Heritage, the Norfolk Record Office, UEA, the NHBG and a team of 30 volunteers. It contains a gazetteer on CD, containing individual detailed records - including numerous colour images, maps and historical documents - for each school.

Black and white and colour copies are available to buy at £10 and £15 respectively from Ian Hinton, The Old Rectory, Barnby, Beccles, NR34 7QN or via the NHBG’s website: Cheques should be made payable to The Norfolk Historic Buildings Group.