The Old School

Oakley's iconic old school is was central to the village's life

Before the mid nineteenth century schooling for the majority of children in England, if it existed at all, was haphazard and often dependent on the charitable whim of a local wealthy resident (in Oakley’s case, that meant the Dukes of Bedford) or on the efforts of the local vicar.

These were surveys carried out for the Bishop into all of his parishes, which included Oakley. They tell us something of early schooling in North Bedfordshire.  The Bishop of Lincoln’s Visitations 1717 and 1720.

Local entries include:

RISELEY Wil. Rider, Esq. who has an estate at Knotting gives £5 a year (during pleasure) towards the teaching of poor children to read and write. (1720)

MILTON ERNEST No public or charity school but the Vicar teaches the poor children gratis to read, write and account and takes care to instruct them in the principles of religion. (1717. 1720 same.)

BROMHAM The Right Hon the Lord Trevor gives five pounds per annum for the teaching of poor children to reading and the instructing them in the Church catechism. (1717. 1720 same.)

OAKLEY No schooling of any sort available for poor children.

Indeed the Church’s early involvement in the development of schooling - particularly through Sunday Schools - continues to reverberate in our schools today.

In Oakley, children as young as 4 were far more likely to be employed than educated, perhaps in agriculture by the Duke of Bedford himself, or in the local cottage industry, lacemaking. To the children of Oakley before 1800, ‘school’ meant only one thing - lacemaking school. Things were about to change....

The Duke of Bedford owned vast swathes of land and many properties in Bedfordshire, including most of Oakley. Oakley House and the acres around it were used by the Duke’s son The Marquis of Tavistock as a hunting lodge and sometime residence. Perhaps his particular interest in the poor of Oakley stemmed from his proximity. According to J.J. Goodall, Vicar of Oakley, writing in 1828, His Grace (John, 6th Duke) was worried “about the destitute state of the parish...there are scarcely any of the poor who could either read or write,” he agreed, “with the approval of some of the most respectable parishioners... to convert the Town House into a school and apply the trust funds as a salary to a schoolmaster.” Converting the two cottages known as the Town House into a school cost the Duke £100, a considerable sum in those days.


William Ryman, Oakley’s first schoolmaster took up his new post, opening Oakley’s first school on 29th September 1802. Until the newly refurbished cottages were ready, apparently, he ran the school from a loft above the Hunter’s Stables. This is according to a letter written by William Ryman himself to the Vicar in 1829. Other sources of information about the school are fairly scanty, but over fifteen years three national reports were published touching on the subject of schooling. All three mention Oakley’s new school, giving us some clues about it.

1818 A Parliamentary Select Committee was set up to enquire into educational provision for the poor. 

A circular letter was sent out to every parish to be completed by the incumbent or his representative. This is what it says about Oakley:

OAKLEY :: population 432 ::Robt Mesham, vicar.

A school, free to all in the parish, in which 30 children, on average, are educated; the funds arise from 20 acres of land producing £25 per annum, from which the master receives £15 together with a gratuity of 5 guineas from the Duke of Bedford; and the remainder is expended in coals, repairs and charitable distributions, the whole being under the management of trustees.

 1821 The Charity Commissioners’ Reports.

Since the dissolution of the monasteries, the foundation of educational charities became one of the most important forms of endowment replacing direct giving to the Church (Think of Sir William and Dame Alice Harpur) In the early nineteenth century, the Charity Commissioners began the mammoth task of investigating and where necessary regulating all known charities. In 1821 they reported on educational charities in Bedfordshire. This is what they said about Oakley School:

Coals for Oakley, Charity Estate.  This consists of a tenement called the Townhouse and 20 acres of land. The 20 acres of land were let to John Campion, on lease for 12 years from 21st May 1814 at the annual rent of £25. The whole of the rent is at present applied by the trustees in educating poor children and in affording relief to poor persons belonging to the parish of Oakley. Fifteen pounds a year from the amount of the rent are paid to the schoolmaster in Oakley as a salary for teaching the poor children of the place to read, write and cast accounts. The number of scholars is not fixed by the trustees. The school is kept in the ancient messuage or town-house before mentioned and the master admits all such poor children of Oakley whose parents apply. He receives a gratuitous addition of £5 a year from the Duke of Bedford as a reward for his exertions. A further sum of £2 a year is paid to the same master out of the rents of the estate, for teaching a Sunday school. Two pounds a year are reserved by the trustees for the necessary repairs of the school-house and for finding its use during the winter.

The 1833 Education Returns

The Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, sent questionnaires to the Overseers of the Poor in all parishes asking about the existence of Day and Sunday schools in the parishes. This was the Oakley return:

OAKLEY Parish population 516.  One Daily School containing 39 males, endowed with £30 per annum, of which £18 arises from charity land, £7 from the parish, and £5 from the Duke of Bedford; also a school in which about 15 females are taught plain needlework, supported by the Marchioness of Tavistock. One Sunday School, consisting of 51 males and 51 females, supported by the parish; salary of the mistress is £4 per annum. These schools are of the Established Church.

Finally, in 1836 Oakley School Fund shows a deficit... the school accounts also show some interesting social history...

Each child to pay 1d per month for the purchase of books and other purposes of the school. (Known as ‘School Pence.’)

Master's salary £33-0-0
30 bushel coal £1-5-3
Respectable female to look after girls to be paid for by the master  
TOTAL £34-5-3
Deficiency £1-0-3


In about 1840 the Marquis Of Tavistock decided to build a new entrance to Oakley House. Unfortunately the 1802 school was in his way. According to J.J. Goodall, vicar of Oakley, it was “in a sad dilapidated state and a perfect eyesore close to the entrance to Oakley Park. His Grace gave us a much better site and munificently erected thereon a commodious schoolroom and residence adjoining for the schoolmaster.”

A solid and very attractive purpose built schoolhouse, costing the very generous Duke Francis, 7th Duke, £480, Oakley School opened in 1842 and was in continuous use as such until 1971 when due to the rapid growth of the village it was no longer big enough to house all of the children of the village. Now known as ‘The Old School’ it is currently (2004) in use as a doctor’s surgery.

As the nineteenth century progressed, central government was becoming increasingly interested in the developments in educational provision they could see taking place across the country, even though, so far, they’d done little to promote it. The Anglican Church, the nonconformist churches, the Roman Catholic church and many and various educational charities were busy expanding their spheres of influence into elementary schooling. Some members of both houses of parliament were actively involved in what was going on, many others were disturbed by it, some thought the poor had no business to be educated at all. Whatever, central government could no longer ignore the developments that were taking place. In 1839 the Whigs proposed government inspection of all schools which received grants. This was strongly resisted by the Church of England until 1840 when it was agreed the Archbishops should be allowed to nominate the inspectors. This meant that from 1840 to 1870 inspection of church schools was conducted by clergymen. British and non-conformist schools were inspected by laymen acceptable to them. Matthew Arnold was a notable example.

In our part of the country, in 1844 The Rev John Allen submitted his report on schools in the counties of Cambridgeshire, Huntingdon and Bedfordshire which suggested that standards in Bedfordshire were very low. Of Oakley he says,

“ excellent schoolroom. Master capable of improvement...”

Turmoil continued through the 1840s as the various groups vied with each other for control over elementary education. Squabbles between groups over buildings, finance and curriculum were going on all over the country. The state aimed to reduce clerical dominance over education, the various churches aiming to cut state interference. The established church vied with dissenters. It became important to the Church of England to know exactly how many schools it controlled, and under what conditions. It therefore set up the Church School Enquiry of 1846/7 which mentions Oakley as follows:

OAKLEY Sunday School 44 boys, 39 girls

Daily School 40 boys, 10 girls 


From 1863 onwards, all schools in receipt of a government grant were obliged to keep a record of events of significance. The best log books are a rich source of material on local events, customs, and attitudes. Oakley School’s first log book entry is dated March 26th 1867. Kept at the County Record Office, the log book is full of fascinating, amusing, and telling details of life in Oakley during the second half of the Victorian period and on into the 20th century.

“April 2nd 1867. I had a great deal of trouble with a boy named Smith for obstinacy. Sent to the Vicar about it.”

 The above was one of the first entries.

“April 4th 1867. I sent a child home because she was attending lace school alternately with this one.”

Children could attend either but not both.


In 1868, Midland Railways opened Oakley Station to passengers. For the first time it became possible to travel from Oakley into London in under two hours.

Central government education initiatives were also gathering pace:


This aimed to make school available for all children aged 5-10. A school should be placed within reach of every English child. They would not replace existing schools, just provide new ones where none yet existed. These new schools were known as ‘Board Schools.’ Many of them were built throughout the country during the 1870s and 80s. Oakley, of course, already had a school. The Act also involved a careful parish by parish examination which looked at the quality as well as the quantity of available education. This was the entry for Oakley:

“Oakley: existing: Oakley Church of England School. Accommodation for 82 children.”

To check on provision the Act set up School Boards covering the entire country. Oakley School Board came into existence on 20th December 1878.


Satisfied that there were now enough schools for all children, the government made it law that all children from 5-10 should attend school.

The battle with illiteracy continued in classrooms across the country as schools taught 3 million children to read. It was working. By the General Election of 1886 2,416,272 votes were cast (all working men over 21 had just, in 1884, got the vote, but no women had the vote yet) only 38,547 were illiterate. The proportion of illiterates was going down rapidly. As late as 1839 33.7 % of men and 49.5 % of women married in church could not sign their names in the marriage register.


This made education free. Children no longer had to bring in their ‘School Pence’ The weekly pence were a temptation to children, who sometimes stole them, an unwelcome expense to parents and a constant trouble to teachers who had to collect them. The log books make it abundantly clear that School Pence were a constant headache to everyone concerned.


...raised the school leaving age to 12.


The development of elementary education was always closely linked with child employment. Even very young children could make an essential economic contribution to the household through lacemaking (North Beds) or straw plaiting (South Beds) and while this was the case the poorest families could not spare their children to go to school.

The following is an extract from a report by J. E. White, 1863 concerning principally the Nottingham lace industry. A page is devoted to pillow lace, the speciality of our area.

“Pillow lace is little made in the towns but chiefly in the village cottages, though not entirely in the homes of lace-makers themselves... the number of persons employed and the amount paid for labour are very large. One manufacturer alone employs 3,000 persons... The work, requiring great manual dexterity and experience, but very little muscular strength or size, children are put to learn it at a very early age, six being thought the best by some teachers, though many begin at five and even younger. For this purpose they usually go to work at a school kept by a woman in her cottage. These rooms are generally the living rooms of small cottages, with the fire place stopped up to prevent draught...”

Major Burns’ Report collects evidence from individual lace-makers. Unfortunately he does not mention any Oakley lacemakers, but these lacemakers from Ampthill were fairly typical.

No. 381 Elizabeth Hickson, aged 20 years. Been lacemaking 10 years; I attended a school. Children used to work then 10 hours a day as they do now. I consider it very bad for a great many, them that’s a weakly constitution: I don’t feel it hurt me, it never used to seem to hurt me when young. If we work 10 hours a day for the whole week we can’t earn above 4s and must work very hard to do that. The children always taught reading when I went to school; all the children attend Sunday School.

No. 320 Charlotte Sharpe, aged 16 years. Can’t write, can read a little; go to church Sunday school. Been in the same lace school 8 or 9 years. Sometimes feel very tired, sometimes back aches; have very good health does not hurt me; have plenty to eat; meat a little bit about two times a week, at other times bread, and sometimes potatoes; bread and butter of a Sunday. Father and Mother have seven children, I am the oldest; earn about 2s a week, and hard work to get that.

The Oakley School Log Book details many instances of children missing school in favour of earning money at lace making.

It took a series of Factory and Homeworking Acts, enforced by inspectors imposing financial penalties, making it illegal to employ small children, to make the Education Acts effective.

Bedford School Attendance Committee hand bill 1895

By the turn of the century elementary education for all children to age 12 was pretty well established and secondary education was now firmly on the agenda.

The development of secondary education was as haphazard as ever. The type of school a child went to, and the age at which it left, would vary from one village to the next. Developments might take place under the auspices of School Boards, or by local councils. Central government wanted to rationalise and control developments...


This abolished School Boards and put in their place Local Education Authorities who were obliged to keep efficient all elementary schools whether Council or Voluntary

Oakley School Log Book - “The Managers of the Oakley group of Council Schools comprising the schools of Oakley and Stevington in accordance with Schedule I, Education Act 1902, 1st meeting on 7th Oct 1903 in Oakley schoolroom. 6 men elected onto the committee”

By 1926 90% of all Oakley children were receiving elementary education up to the age of 14. All ages were taught at Oakley. The Hadow Report of 1926, finally made law in the Education Act of 1944, recommended that primary education end at 11 with an exam, secondary at 14. After 11 children should go to one of the following:

  1. Grammar School (Literary/scientific curriculum)
  2. Modern School (realistic or practical trend)
  3. Senior class within elementary school

Oakley School already had a senior class but also sent a few pupils to Bedford Modern.


The HMI visited Oakley School in November 1938 and concluded that, “The School is an excellent Junior School with responsive and happy children thoroughly interested in their work.”


The Log Book of Sept/Oct 1938 shows that,  “School has been used most evenings during the last fortnight in connection with fitting and supplying gas masks to Oakley people.”

In September 1939, “Mora Road Infants School, Willesden, have been evacuated and are living in Oakley. Mora Road uses the school buildings for a 3 hour shift during the mornings (9-12) and Oakley Council School uses it from 1pm-4pm.” Full sessions returned when Mora Road moved to the Chapel School room as a full time school.

March 18th 1941 - “Gifts from children in America to children in Oakley sent through the American Red Cross have been distributed.”


In March 1943 a special permit was issued by the Ministry of Food to purchase 10 gallons of milk per week for the children, supplied by Tinsley of Clapham.

School dinner

In August 1944 building work began on a new kitchen, and on 4th December, the School Log reports, “The canteen opened today: 35 children were supplied with a splendid dinner.”

1950s County Reorganisation

Due to a swiftly growing rural population, Bedfordshire LEA set about reorganising schools in the county, publishing “County Development Plan for Primary and Secondary Schools and Scheme for Further Education and Plan for County Colleges.” Due to anticipated substantial housing developments at Clapham, Milton Ernest and Oakley owing to Aeronautical Research Station Development Plan, new schools were clearly going to be needed.

Land was purchased as a site for the planned Oakley-Clapham Secondary School. The pre-enclosure map of Oakley dated 1795 shows the field name as Lincroft Leys. Lincroft School later came to be named after the field it was built on.

All new secondary schools were to be equiped with playing field and gymnasium, although in two instances, as at Lincroft and Margaret Beaufort, building costs meant the latter were incorporated into assembly halls. This cost cutting decision has caused difficulties almost ever since.

The Oakley School Log Book October 12th 1961 complains, “The school playing field is in a mess, being roughly strewn with the topsoil from the site of the new Oakley-Clapham Secondary Modern School.”

Lincroft Secondary Modern School was opened in January 1963.

The last all age school in the County was at Clapham and it’s senior pupils transferred to Lincroft at the same time. Oakley School kept it’s juniors, after age 11 children went up to Lincroft.

By the 1960s the old Oakley School was experiencing serious problems with overcrowding. Some sharing of facilities with Lincroft took place, the two schools even raising funds for a swimming pool together. The pool was opened on June 20th 1966 at 10.15am by Marion Cowe. According to the Oakley School Log Book, “The whole school went in and enjoyed the experience tremendously.”

1967 Plowden Committee

This recognised the close association between home background and academic achievement. It recommended Open Days (Oakley School was way ahead, having held it’s first Open Day on 27th January 1927!) meetings with teachers, reports, a welcome to school with information for new parents and more communication generally.

Bedfordshire’s new 3-tier system 1969

Oakley Primary to become a First School

Lincroft Secondary Modern to become a Middle School

A new 3rd school to be built - Sharnbrook Upper School. (Opened in 1974)

The 1969 Plan proposed a new Lower School on the Lincroft School site as part of Bedfordshire’s plans for a 3 tier system. The Lower School opened in 1972

Back at the old Oakley School, pressure of numbers continued to increase. By January 1971, the School had 114 junior children on roll.

The old Oakley School finally closed in 1971