Before the nineteenth century many people in Britain were illiterate or only had fairly basic literacy and numeracy. This was because there was a lack of education unless you were wealthy enough to pay for it. Additionally, most ordinary working people could manage without much reading and writing so didn’t necessarily see any need for these skills.
When it comes to Market Harborough let’s start with the foundation of the Grammar School in 1614, obviously at that time it was new rather than ‘Old’. Robert Smyth was born in Market Harborough’s and went to London, made his fortune then came back and set up a Grammar school to enable other boys from poor families to better themselves as he had done. There were many similar grammar schools at the time. Most boys paid fees but there were some free places paid for by wealthy benefactors like Robert Smyth. In order to get one of these free places the boy had to be an Anglican and read English. The school’s purpose was to provide a ‘classical’ education in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. This was usually to prepare them for Cambridge or Oxford Colleges. Many of the boys then went on to become vicars or teachers.
Not surprisingly the free places often weren’t all filled as many poor boys couldn’t read English and they and their families didn’t need or indeed want a ‘Classical’ education. In 1673 a visitor found 60 boys, all fee paying He was told that no poor boys had applied. In 1832 the rules changed and boys who were not Anglican were allowed to attend the school. In 1852 the school started to offer some ‘elementary’ education including reading, writing and Mathematics. One of the Grammar School’s most well known students was William Henry Bragg (1862-1942). In 1915 he and his son William Lawrence Bragg received the Nobel Prize for Physics. Specifically, it was for X-ray crystallography. This was because they had found a way to use x-rays to examine the structure of a diamond and other crystals.
In 1892 a new building for the school opened on the Coventry Road. In 1909 the Old building was closed, and all students were moved to a new building on Burnmill Road then known as (Market Harborough) Edward VII County Grammar School and girls were now admitted. There were six classrooms, a laboratory and special rooms for Art, Cookery, Needlework and Handicrafts. We can be fairly certain that the boys wouldn’t have been doing the cookery and needlework or girls doing wood work! You had to pass an entrance exam to go to this school. There were some free places (scholarship) but otherwise fees were paid. In 1944 all fees were abolished, the entrance exam known as the 11+ disappeared a bit later, then in 1978 It became The Robert Smyth School.
By 1800 lots of churches ran Sunday Schools which gave children from working families some elementary education. The first Sunday School was set up by Hannah Bell in High Wycombe in 1769. A Gloucester printer Robert Raikes was very interested in the idea, he visited Gloucester Goal regularly and had become convinced that education was the best way to stop people ending up in there.
He helped set a Sunday School up in 1780 and used his newspaper,’ The Gloucester Journal’ to promote Sunday schools. It’s been hard to find precise dates but there were 4 Sunday Schools in Market Harborough in the early 1800s, one of the first being at The Congregational Church. Most children would have spent the rest of the week working, often alongside their parents. In Market Harborough’s case this probably involved agriculture.
In 1811 The Church of England set up ‘The National Society for the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Anglican Church’. You didn’t have to be an Anglican to go to one of their ‘National schools’. In 1814 various Non- Anglican Protestant groups got together to form their own Society known as ‘The British and Foreign School Society for the Education of the Labouring and Manufacturing Classes of all Religious Persuasions’. There was still a lot of Christian religious education taught there but it wasn’t specific to any church. In fact, some Anglicans preferred these schools as they disagreed with the National Society being exclusive.
The two societies were in direct competition. Both used the ‘monitorial’ system where by a trained teacher taught the oldest children who would then teach the younger ones. Both Societies claimed they had invented it, and both also ran their own teacher training colleges, students there often being former monitors at school.
From 1870 Elementary Schools like those run by the two societies could get money from the government. However, this came with two rules. There was a ‘Conscience Clause’. No school getting this funding could make Religious Education compulsory for its pupils whose parents could remove them from religious worship such as assemblies and RE lessons. No teacher could be made to teach Religious Education either. This would allow all denominations to attend or work in them. This remains the case today. Also, any school getting this funding would be regularly inspected by the government. After all they wanted to make sure they were getting value for money. Unfortunately for the Market Harborough National School an Inspector was very critical of the building in 1878. As a result a new school was built for the boys in 1879. Worryingly their old building was then used for the infants until it was condemned in 1893. A new school was opened in 1894. This was converted to a primary school in 1930.
There had been a school or academy attached to the Congregational Church in the 1700s. In 1838 a British and Foreign School opened. In 1878 the Inspector described it as ‘’Roomy but Comfortless”. If he was the same inspector as above this might show that he was rather picky! This school was expanded in 1886, perhaps because school attendance had become compulsory in 1880 for children aged 5 to 10 years. In fact, school attendance was often much worse in more rural areas. A series of Factory Acts had stopped children from working in industry. These didn’t apply to agriculture and on a family farm there were quite a lot of times in the year when all hands were needed, including very small ones! A Catholic school opened in 1878. Eventually this would become St Joseph’s as we know it today.
In 1902 a new Education Act placed all schools under the jurisdiction of recently established County Councils, in Market Harborough’s case that was Leicestershire. The National Society Schools came under the umbrella; but the Anglican church was still allowed to have some control over their schools as was also the case with Catholic schools as well. The former British School eventually became Fairfield Road Council School in 1930. In 1912 a separate Infants school was opened. Much more recently several other primary schools have been opened in the town.
In 1935 a new senior school was opened on Welland Park Road, this was known as a ‘Secondary Modern School’ and it catered for those children who hadn’t got into the Grammar School. There was much more emphasis on practical or vocational subjects rather than Latin, which was left to the Grammar School. Big changes happened in Secondary schools across Leicestershire from 1957. This Leicestershire plan was applied to Market Harborough in 1964. Welland Park School became a High school with children attending until the age of 14. Then they transferred to what had been the Grammar school. By that time, it wasn’t really a Grammar School anymore as Leicestershire had abolished the 11+ exam that you had to pass to get in to one. As mentioned previously it became The Robert Smyth School in 1978. County Schools are now either 11-16 or 11-18.