JERRY FITZPATRICK, pictured right, who was the chair of Oval Primary’s governors for 16 years, looks back at the history of Croydon’s first state school as it marks its 150th anniversary
The autumn of 1873 saw the opening of Croydon’s first two publicly funded state schools. They were Oval Road School (now Oval Ark Academy) and Brighton Road School (now Purley Oaks Primary School).
In 1870, Parliament passed the Elementary Education Act.
At that time, only half of British children attended school. The new Act paved the way for compulsory education for all, at the outset from the ages of six to 12. Local government would drive the programme forward. Each area would have a Board of Education, which would be responsible for providing schools for their local children.
It was to be a further 20 years before education became strictly compulsory.
The Elementary Education Act was extremely controversial.
Many leaders of industry saw advantage in the development of a better-educated workforce. But there were those who opposed it on the grounds that an educated lower class might rise up against the established order. Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on one’s political viewpoint), the experience of the following 150 years seems to show that schooling has not instilled a revolutionary spirit in many of the young clientele.
The main problem for legislators was religion.
In mid-Victorian England, in which the only two significant political parties were Tory and Liberal, religion was an issue evoking fierce partisan interest. The government was Liberal headed by the devoutly Anglican William Gladstone. He did not want to see the existing Anglican schools (which had some state funding) absorbed by the state.
Gladstone also wanted the curriculum to provide for religious education which favoured Anglican doctrine.
However, many of his MPs were elected by non-conformists, including those who were Methodists or members of other protestant groups which rejected the established Church of England. As a compromise, an agreement was reached that religious teaching in state schools would be non-denominational, and the Act was passed.
At the time of Oval School’s 100th anniversary in 1973, Lilian Thornhill, a former Oval teacher, wrote its centenary souvenir booklet. Thornhill (who died in 1998, aged 91) was a local historian of immense distinction, a mainspring of the Croydon Society (now defunct) and secretary of the archaeological section of the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society.
Her articles and booklets on archaeological excavations in Croydon and surrounding districts are still widely available. Her writing has a lucidity and trenchancy much-valued in earlier generations. She is well-remembered by her Oval pupils, who describe an inspiring teacher with high standards, and a strict disciplinarian who could wield a mean slipper.
Thornhill drew on a century of school logs to write her booklet, as well as other records. The result is a fascinating social history. To do it any justice requires a separate article. I will get to work on it…
A school is, or should be, at the heart of its community. When I was chair of governors at Oval, the school had a 125th anniversary celebration. Two nonagenarians who had attended the school before the First World War were at the event.
The experience of meeting them brought to concrete reality the concept that we exist as a small part of a community, the present and future of which is organically linked to its past.
I curse now that we did not seek to record the memories of those venerable guests.
Ark Oval Academy is celebrating its latest big anniversary with a huge programme of events on Friday, September 29, the actual day the school opened in 1873. If you are a former pupil (or staff member or governor), you can find out more about the celebrations by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you are reading this and attended Oval School before or during World War II, or know someone who did, I am sure you would get the red carpet treatment if you were to make contact.
- Jerry Fitzpatrick, a former Croydon councillor, was chair of governors of Oval Primary School from 1990 to 2006
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