In large cities, a school can weave itself into the fabric of its locality almost without anyone noticing it’s there. But in smaller towns and villages a school, particularly a large one, can play a much greater part in the day-to-day life of its inhabitants.
In some towns and villages, the school is even the focal point. Take Peaslake in the Surrey Hills. In 1993, the village school was closed down as it was considered ‘too small’ to be viable. When a campaign by local residents and parents to keep it open failed and government funding was removed, the Peaslake Schools Trust was formed.
For three years the school operated in a private home; then, in 1996, the original school buildings were reclaimed by the school, thanks to the efforts of 18 households who raised more than £180,000. In 1997 it returned to its previous buildings, and in 2013 the school became part of the maintained sector again, as a free school.
Parents of Peaslake pupils play an active role in school duties, with a particular emphasis on fundraising. It creates a huge sense of loyalty.
In the case of some of England’s larger schools, whole villages — if not towns — have grown up around them. Eton is probably the most famous example: the town exists, essentially, because of the school. Until the 1400s it was a small hamlet, but in 1440 Henry VI chose it to be the location for his new school. The high street formed the main artery of the college, and much of the land around the existing hamlet was given over to it.
The population of Eton town is just over 2,000, while there are more than 1,000 boys at the school. Of the 2,000 locals, many work for the school, live in houses owned by it, or both. This creates an Eton community whose residents use many of the facilities. The children grow up together, the parents play squash together, and on Christmas Eve, they celebrate Midnight Mass together.
This type of integration is not a given, however. Millfield School in Somerset is, with more than 1,200 pupils from the ages of three to 18, the largest co-educational school in the country, and could almost be classified as a town in its own right. It sits on the outskirts of the large village of Street (population 11,000). ‘When I was at Millfield the school was the second biggest employer in Somerset after a helicopter factory,’ says a former pupil who was there in the 2000s. ‘The fact that it was situated on top of a hill above the town did create a definite feeling of “that lot up there”. But we were certainly accepted, even by the locals who had no immediate relationship with the school. I think they probably realised it had a big impact on the prosperity of the town.’
In other towns, as in Eton, the buildings of the local independent school sit alongside residential homes. At Eastbourne College, the boarding houses began life as regular town houses, and from the front look like any other family home. It’s only when you get inside that you realise they house 40 or so boys or girls. This goes for Marlborough and Kimbolton in Cambridgeshire, too, where the boarding houses line the high street, and the senior and junior schools are at opposite ends of the village.
Cuts in council funding mean that the village school is more likely to be an independent one than formerly. Either that, or it could have closed completely, with a damaging effect on the life of the community similar to the loss of the shop, pub or post office. Britain’s schools play an important role in shaping our communities. A village lucky enough still to have one is a very different place to one without.