Education in Benson

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Dame School

A Benson Schoolmaster was mentioned in 1733, & in 1808 3 small unendowed Schools taught a total of 60 Children English Language, the Catechism, and (in one) Writing & Arithmetic. By 1815 there were 4 such Schools all run by Elderly people (Dame Schools), and a Blacksmith taught the Anglican Sunday school.  An Anglican Day School supported by Voluntary Subscriptions (Teaching boys & a few girls for 1d a week) was started in 1822, in opposition to an apparently Dissenting (Methodist) School set up by a Wallingford man. That closed soon after, but by 1850 the Anglican School had over 100 Pupils, accommodated in an ‘old Stable with a Cottage attached’ which was rented for £12-a-yr.  The ‘Lower Class’ reportedly welcomed such initiatives, and suggestions were made for a National School to serve Benson & surrounding Parishes.  Funding, however, remained difficult in an increasingly impoverished Village with no major Landowners.

The Clergy’s desire for a National School was fuelled partly by growing Dissent. A Nonconformist Sunday School had c.60 Pupils by 1808,  and by 1849 the Curate believed that Parish Education was ‘chiefly in [Dissenters’] hands’, prompting him to seek support from Christ Church, Oxford, and to raise further Funding himself.  A Site on Oxford Road was given by Sir Francis Jarvis Stapleton, and a large Brick-built School with Accommodation for 170, designed by George Wyatt, was erected in 1851, with an adjacent Master’s House. The £550 cost was met from subscriptions, modest Grants from Christ Church, Exeter & Magdalen Colleges, and a £180 Government Grant.  The same year a Dissenting British School was built ‘in Opposition’ on adjacent Land conveyed by the Coach-Builder Albert Bailey, with Accommodation (by 1868) for 150.

Oxford Road (looking NW) in 1904, with the National School & Schoolmaster’s House of 1851 to the right of the Flagpole, and (beyond) the Extension added in 1901 after the British School’s closure.

Both Schools (Teaching boys & girls) continued until 1900, with the British School increasingly attracting larger numbers drawn partly from surrounding Parishes. In 1877 its average Attendance was 128 compared with 65 at the National School, rising to 154 (compared with 74) by 1892/3.  A separate Anglican Infant School had 70 Pupils in 1854,  and by 1862 there was an affiliated Infant School at Roke, supported partly from Church Rents but closed by 1879.  As in most places School Attendance dipped at Harvest times and at traditional Holidays such as Roke’s Village Feast.  Anglican Evening Classes at Benson & Roke met with ‘varying success’, partly through competition from rival Dissenting Classes.

According to the prevailing practice, part of the back of each Classroom was arranged as a Series of Broad steps on which stood long Benches. On these the children could sit, close together but clearly visible to the Teacher, for oral lessons & singing. For the Infants, at least, desks did not replace these so-called Galleries until 1891. Fees of 1d to2d a week per Pupil were charged by both the British & the National Schools. In the National School children were accepted from the age of 3.

A Voluntary Rate agreed in 1881 was shared between both Schools, but in 1900 the British School was forced to close following Government demands for Building Improvements, and the Managers’ subsequent failure (faced with opposition from the National School) to win support for a School Board.  Pupils were transferred to the National School, which was extended in 1901 with provision for Nonconformist Religious Instruction.  By 1928 it taught 242 pupils aged 5–14, becoming a Church of England (Controlled) Primary School under the 1944 Education Act.

An unexpected byproduct of War conditions led to the addition of a Playing Field to the School Property. It happened when the Runways were being constructed for the RAF Airfield and the Contractors found that they had a large quantity of Waste Soil. The Vicar, the Rev G West, had the bright idea that it might be used to fill up an old Gravel Pit on Land adjoining the School and that the Land Area so reclaimed might provide a much-needed Playing Field. The Owner of the Land, Mrs Young, agreed to provide access and to sell the Ground for £300 which was raised locally. What in the old Map of 1883 is shown as the Horse Pool, but which had degenerated into an untidy Swampy area of about 3 acres, became a Valuable Asset to the School.

Overcrowding was mitigated by Extensions in the 1950s–60s, and in 1972 a separate Infant School under shared Management was opened on Westfield Road, to be recombined in 2004.

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In 1967 there were 160 children and a new Hall, Kitchen and 2 Classrooms were built on at the rear of the older Buildings in the Oxford Road. By 1970 the number of Pupils had risen to 270 and Plans were made to build additional Classrooms for the Infants.

The new Site was on County Council Ground on the Westfield Road, but still Administered by the Headmaster, Mr G Howard. This new Infants School was opened in 1971 and enlarged in 1976 by the addition of a 3 Classroom Block. The County Infants School Site was sold for a housing development in about 2006, and the Infants were rehoused in new Classrooms, built onto the Oxford Road Site.

A County-Council Primary School on the RAF Station opened in 1952 and was subsequently extended, catering predominantly for Children of RAF Personnel, but remaining open to others from the area. Both Primary Schools continued in 2015, when the Village School also taught Service Children.  Older Pupils attended schools in Wallingford, Berinsfield, or Oxford, and there was Private Pre-school Provision in Benson.