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Uncovering the hidden history of Norfolk's rural schools

Billingford School Norfolk

Sat, 21 Aug 2010

A new project has been launched by the University of East Anglia to explore and record the surviving Victorian and Edwardian school buildings of rural Norfolk.

Billingford School, Norfolk

The university is working with Norfolk Historic Buildings Group for the two-year survey, which is funded by a £50,000 grant from English Heritage. The project, entitled A Thematic Survey of Rural Schools - A Norfolk Case Study, aims to record as many of the 400-plus rural primary schools and former primary schools as possible and assess their historical and architectural significance.

Co-ordinating the project is Dr Adam Longcroft, a senior lecturer in the School of Education and Lifelong Learning at UEA. He said: "Most schools were enlarged several times during their existence so we want to find out what form these changes take and what this tells us about the changing requirements for schooling.

"This project aims to make a significant contribution to academic research in the field of rural and social history, and the history of education. It will act as a model for other local groups to follow, as well as provide an important resource for heritage managers."

The major period for the building of rural schools followed the foundation of two voluntary societies - The British and Foreign School Society in 1808 and the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in 1811 - and came before the Butler Education Act of 1944. Very few rural schools were founded either before or after these dates.

The survey will look at the major phases of school building that took place and whether there is a typical style associated with either the chronological phases of school building or the promoters or patrons of the schools concerned. It will also examine what this shows about the finances available to the founders and their aims in building the schools, as well as the changing aims and methods of delivering education.

With the help of respected researcher and well known agricultural historian Dr Susanna Wade Martins and about 20 volunteer recorders recruited by Norfolk Historic Buildings Group, detailed records will be made and photographs taken of the structures, some of which have long-since been converted to residential use. Where a school is of particular architectural or educational interest, or where a detailed survey is possible, for example because the building is undergoing alteration from educational to domestic use, the initial description will be followed up by more detailed recording and analysis. The team will be encouraged to identify what is important about each school and flag its significance by assessing its vulnerability and potential for change.

Elain Harwood, English Heritage architectural historian, said: "We have some wonderful rural school buildings in this country, many with beautiful architecture and valuable social history associated with them, but many are vulnerable because of demographic change. With imagination and the better understanding of their characteristics that this study will bring, most of these fine buildings can be adapted and put to a wide range of other uses."

The resulting survey record will be made available to the public through a publication of the research findings and via the Historic Environment Record held with Norfolk Landscape Archaeology at Gressenhall. The project will also result in a major exhibition at Norfolk Record Office and a conference at UEA.