A look at the history of Derbyshire schools
PUBLISHED: 09:21 02 September 2020
As pupils return to school across Derbyshire, Nathan Fearn takes a look at our county’s educational heritage
Education in its various guises has always been firmly embedded in our culture. The mechanisms may have changed, but the general principle continues ad infinitum.
The University of al-Qarawiyyin in Morocco, founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859, lays claim to the oldest educational institution still in existence today. The University of Bologna, in Italy, is the oldest in Europe – founded in 1088. It would be just eight years later, in 1096, that the prestigious University of Oxford is believed to have come into existence in some form.
Of course, education didn’t begin with these long-running academic powerhouses, in fact evidence suggests the Sumerians of ancient Babylonia had scribal schools soon after 3500BC.
As Derbyshire’s collective class of 2020/21 return, it’s interesting to think back to the foundations our modern-day education system is built on. Nowadays, there are over 550 schools and colleges across the county but that doesn’t tell the whole story of Derbyshire’s rich past and evolution in this area.
There are schools with a proud history which have adapted, stood the tests of time and weathered the storms of change down the centuries. Equally, there are more modern institutions – be that primary schools, secondary schools, academies and further education providers – which have sprung up relatively recently as demands and requirements have changed.
Many schools have disappeared completely. Some former school buildings have been repurposed, some torn down, while many which stood centuries ago are lost to history, their physical remains and previous alumni long since gone.
There are places that offer us a glimpse as to their past lives, with many examples of ‘Old School Close’ or ‘Back School Lane’ and the likes dotted around the county. These places would once have witnessed the excited pitter patter of feet, playground games, the chiming of the school bell, the tears, tantrums and hum of parents’ conversations – all now living on through simple street signs; a nod to a bygone time.
Schooling is emotive. Partly, perhaps, because our memories of school take us back (probably) to more simple and innocent times. As new intakes come and go and schools change or disappear altogether, we’re left with nostalgia.
Look at any memoirs, read any autobiographies, listen to any radio interview and it’s often not long before the subjects’ minds centre on their school lives; it’s a time that shape many of us.
Few Derbyshire buildings typify the above sentiments better than Latin House in Risley, a Grade II-listed building that was part of a wider school complex, dating from 1706. Built originally for Elizabeth Grey of Risley Hall, it stands just east from an earlier school dating from 1593. While centuries have passed since pupils passed through its doors, its school-like character remains and you can imagine generations of pupils passing through its doors.
Less imagination is required at the likes of Derby School (now Derby Grammar School), Repton School, Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne, Lady Manners School in Bakewell and Abbotsholme – all prestigious institutions which continue their quests to educate students to this day.
Derby School is a good example of the ebbs and flows of education in Derbyshire through time. Founded way back in 1160, it admitted pupils for over eight centuries – predominantly as a grammar school for boys. It evolved relatively recently, becoming a comprehensive in 1972 before closing in 1989. Like a phoenix from the flames, a new independent school named Derby Grammar School for boys was founded in 1994.
Repton, a co-educational independent school, is one of the county’s most prestigious institutions, beginning life in 1557 when Sir John Port of Etwall left funds on his death for the creation of a grammar school.
For the first 400 years it accepted boys, admitting girls from the 1970s onwards. Notable alumni include Roald Dahl, Olympic gold medallists Harold Abrahams and Shona McCallin, 1932 Wimbledon tennis finalist Bunny Austin as well as former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey. A potted history of Repton School can be found in June’s edition of Derbyshire Life.
Ockbrook is another steeped in history and as relevant now as it was when it was founded. Established in 1799 by the Moravian Church, the school is a perfect example of a school which retains its centuries-old ethos while simultaneously adapting with the times.
Today, the former all-girls school still prides itself on its Moravian foundations but welcomes a diverse range of students from a wide variety of backgrounds. A history of the school was published back in 2000 as part of its bicentenary celebrations.
While the 16th century and the era of the Tudors is well known for its brutality and beheading of wives etc it was, nevertheless, especially under the final Tudor monarch Elizabeth I, a period of enlightenment and progress. As such, many schools started appearing throughout the 1500s and the names of some of these establishments give a clue as to their longevity.
Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne, named after the longest-reigning Tudor monarch and daughter to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, began life in 1585 and retains its impressive reputation to this day; now as a comprehensive for 11 to 18-year-olds.
Lady Manners in Bakewell takes its name from the locally-revered Manners family and dates a little later, 1636, and retains its motto – Pour y parvenir (strive to attain).
Finally, the aforementioned Abbotsholme – which recently recorded record results for the 2019/20 academic year – dates back over 120 years, sitting on a 140-acre campus on the banks of the River Dove.
Abbotsholme was founded by Cecil Reddie in 1889, initially as an experiment for his progressive educational philosophies and theories. Coeducational since 1969, the school is another which has created a tangible balance between retaining its long-held values (its Christian ethos remains integral) while progressively moving forward to meet the demands of 21st Century life.
For every well-known example such as those above there are hundreds of schools - from tiny village schools scattered throughout Derbyshire to larger institutions - which have all left their mark on the places they have served and the students they have taught.
When it comes to education in Derbyshire, these footnotes in history are an evocative reminder as our children and grandchildren start or return to their schools in what are undoubtedly difficult times amid the challenge with Covid-19. Whether these schools will still stand when they take their own children and grandchildren to school in decades to come cannot be known, but the social fabric created and the imprints on life that form in these places will undoubtedly transcend bricks and mortar.
What those early adopters, the educational pioneers of Babylonia with their early scribal schools, would have made of how education would develop and evolve is anyone’s guess.
But for those attending our primary schools, secondary schools or further education providers such as Derby College, Chesterfield College, Burton and South Derbyshire College and the University of Derby this academic year, all will be influenced by the current incarnation of Derbyshire schooling, creating their own memories and influences along the way.