By the banks of the Peover Eye, Lower Peover School has stood for over three hundred years and as such has witnessed virtually every significant development in educational policy. Richard Comberbach founded the school in 1710. Comberbach had been the curate of St. Oswald’s Church up until around 1691 when he resigned his curacy after refusing the Oath of Allegiance to William of Orange and Mary thus remaining faithful to James II and the doctrines of Divine Right and Passive Obedience. Remaining on good terms with his successors, however, it appears that after acquiring land from Sir James Leycester, he founded and built the original school building near the churchyard with the aid of funds from his wife. The local historian J.C. Sladden has suggested that one of his motives may have been the consequences of the 1689 Toleration Act which had opened the door to Nonconformist elementary schools.
Comberbach and his wife taught in the school with the aid of the curate of St. Oswald’s until 1722 when they endowed £300 in trust. Profits from a further £100 investment was to be used in the upkeep of the building and the purchasing of spelling books, Psalters, New Testaments and Bibles; any surplus was to be used in the encouragement of Latin or buying books for scholars. It appears that the original syllabus consisted of the teaching of English and the repeating of the catechism. As an educational charity the school continued with the incumbent of St. Oswald’s `doubling’ as the school master with the aid of an assistant up until the Education Act of 1870. Following this act and the implementation of the dual system, a new school was built next to the original site and a lay head was installed. Since then the school has seen three building extensions the most recent being 1999. The Trust Deeds were revised in both 1874 and 1896 to facilitate government policy but the general mission of the school, however, has remained that of giving `sound and practical education to boys and girls in accordance with the doctrines of the Church of England’
Historical and Theological Perspectives
As noted above, Lower Peover School was founded by Richard Comberbach in 1710. Just over ten years earlier The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) had been set up with one of its objectives being to promote and encourage the erection of charity schools in all parts of England and Wales. Such societies, it seems, were a direct consequence of a revolution taking place in preaching which was seeing a focus upon moral argument and practical simplicity. In parallel to this, evangelical piety was growing across Europe and Church attendance seems to have been good.
Prior to this in 1685 James II came to the throne. A professing Roman Catholic he refused to receive communion according to the rites of the Church of England yet promised to protect the established Church. Unfortunately, his views were not trusted and in 1687 he fled leaving the Protestant William of Orange to take his thrown. This, however, caused problems for the established Church as the doctrines of Divine Right and Passive Obedience maintained that James was still king. Consequently, a small number of Anglican churchmen known as the Non-jurors refused to take the oath of allegiance, Richard Comberbach being amongst them. In 1689 these men were suspended from the Church and later deprived. Their strong stance acted to weaken the Church, however, in that those who were left were more likely to compromise their beliefs than suffer. The Toleration Act bears witness to this and by the turn of the century Nonconformist views were strengthening. This turn of events, as we shall see, played a significant role in the shaping of educational policy for the next two hundred years.
Comberbach Turned to Farming
Comberbach turned to farming and it was here that he raised the money to found the school. The first decades of the school’s life was witness to a number of historical developments both in secular and theological contexts. In 1711 David Hume was born and for the next one hundred and fifty years the Enlightenment would form the socio-philosophical context within which society developed. The role of reason questioned the need for religious institutions and Deism became a force within theology. Strikingly, however, the school seems to have been run according to Comberbach’s original High Church persuasions although the encouragement of Latin may signify the recognition of classical education beyond the limits of a dogmatic education.
The birth of the Industrial Age saw revival across England. This had ramifications within an educational context. The need to provide education to the masses of factory children was apparent and it was the Churches which sought to alleviate the situation. Lower Peover initially sought to serve the children of the four townships of the chapelry and it is unknown as to the extent that it served apprentices. With the advent of Sunday schools, however, it is likely that it did serve the needs of the poor in a missionary context. Perhaps the most significant development for education during this period which was to affect the character of Lower Peover School was the founding of The British and Foreign School Society (1808) and The National Society (1811). These organisations, one Nonconformist, the other Established, would forge the shape of the English education system for the next one hundred years. The relationship between Lower Peover and The National Society at this time is sketchy although the school’s policy of maintaining an Anglican teacher was in line with the policy of the National Society.
In the mid Nineteenth Century a significant force within the Church of England was the Oxford Movement. Originating from Oxford University, the movement infused the Church with a new spiritual fervour of a distinctly Catholic bias. With its High Church origins, it seems likely that those at Lower Peover would have ascribed to its ideology but as Moorman notes, there was little contact between the movement and ordinary parish life. The Oxford movement, moreover, seems to have strengthened the resolve of The National Society in general, making it more exclusive in educational terms. In Westminster at this time, a number of Acts were being passed but of present there were still no state schools, to the agrievement of the Nonconformists. The school at Lower Peover was still strongly affiliated to St. Oswald’s yet it was becoming increasingly apparent that such schools could not meet the growing needs of an industrial population. Finance became a fundamental issue and while this was perhaps not an issue for Lower Peover, which at the time was teaching over one hundred and sixty children, it was to become a central issue for the next fifty years.
While Nonconformist Voluntaryists and secularists fought to remove education from state control most clergy welcomed state aid. In the 1850’s the Committee of Council on Education insisted that trust deeds for new schools included an exemption clause, allowing children from other creeds to be exempt for religious teaching. At the time, this did not affect Lower Peover but the path had been chosen and in the major Education Act of 1870 dramatic changes occurred. The Rev. John Holme was to become the last Vicar of St. Oswald’s who would act as the school master, the High Church (to which Lower Peover seems to have aligned itself) had lost its battle to maintain a doctrinal focus and education was to become increasingly controlled by government.
The Draft Scheme of 1874
The Draft Scheme of 1874 for the management of Lower Peover highlights a number of consequential shifts in direction. Article 23 notes that it was now the duty of the governors to make proper regulations for the instruction of religion while Article 24 notes that the subjects of secular instruction would be regulated and inspected by the Education Department. Most significant, however, is Article 27 which notes that no child should be exempt from the school for failure to attend regular acts of worship and religious instruction. As Kay and Francis note; ‘The timetabled conscience clause and the removal of inspection of religious teaching favoured the church schools very little. Religion was now compartmentalised within the school rather than an integral part of the curriculum.
The early part of the Twentieth Century saw little progress in educational policy and the Dual System continued to shape schooling. As grants subsided, however, towards the end of World War Two and theology reflected a more analytical rather than missiological emphasis Church schools waned and with the introduction of the Cambridge Syllabus a few years earlier many Anglican Schools opted into local authority control. Significantly, Lower Peover was not one of them and following the Butler Act of 1944 Lower Peover became a Church Aided school. This move highlights the continued emphasis that has qualified much of the schools life of a strong relationship with the Church. While funds may have been relinquished in the tradition of Richard Comberbach, the Church maintained a majority control of the school. Historically, then, the school has maintained a strong relationship with the church which has been expressed theologically through a High Church orientation. Since Comberbach first relinquished his curacy, the tradition of maintaining a doctrinal stance has been firmly embedded within the character of the school.
The Last Fifty Years
The last fifty years has seen continued support and close relational ties between the Church and school. While repetition of the catechism is perhaps no longer the form in which religious education takes place the school recognises that one of its key responsibilities as a Church of England school is to help each child gain knowledge of the Christian faith and to develop a set of Christian moral values as a pattern for life. Understanding its central role in the provision of education, the school recognises faith as a fundamental element of its life, the ingredients of which being the provision of quality education, the care and nurture of children and staff and the strength of the school – church link. Within an increasingly pluralistic, materialistic and secular environment, the school, through its acts of worship, teaching of the syllabus and teaching of religious education, is thus able to offer a more holistic educational experience which aims to promote pupils’ social, moral and cultural development by addressing fundamental issues of life. The school thus is able to provide a `lifestyle’ orientated education that sees beyond purely economic factors.
The teaching of other religions as a supplement to Christianity is a further aspect of the way the school seeks to engage in an increasingly pluralistic society. Rather than taking dogmatic positions of intolerance, the school is actively responsible in equipping children to live in a multicultural society and as such mirrors the concerns of the broader Anglican Church in general. Lower Peover School has come a long way in three hundred years, but Comberbach’s legacy still survives. The strong expression of a faith orientated community in the face of an ever more challenging social setting is testament to the beliefs and events that led to the school’s initial founding. The expression of faith that led Comberbach to renounce his curacy has continued through history. While the philosophical agenda has changed significantly from an exclusive High Church position to a more accommodating pluralistic context, Lower Peover still stands on its mission to give a sound and practical education to boys and girls in accordance with the Doctrines of the Church of England. As is true of all institutions, evolution takes place, what is significant and special about Lower Peover is that while change has occurred, the school has maintained an awareness of its roots and kept a close link with the Church. This has stood the school in good stead and provided it with a foil for the transitory nature of socio-historical political interventions. While history may be remembered for its divisive expressions amongst Christians concerning education, the future remains open. As A.R. Rodger writes in his postscript concerning faith in an open society; ‘The logic of faith drives towards openness and inclusiveness rather than closure and exclusiveness… Christians ought to be in the forefront of creating a truly open society and school’.
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