Opened 9 September 1959
Newletter 19. September 1999.
A Quiet Gem
The current Finmere school has a low, understated exterior that conceals its notable place in the development of school architecture. In common with most Finmere residents, I was unaware of this importance until a chance meeting in 1996 with, Pat Tindale, at the then Department of the Environment. This newsletter, published to celebrate the school’s fortieth anniversary, reviews its architectural significance.
There has been a school at Finmere from at least the mid-eighteenth century (Newsletter 18). In 1824, Richard Grenville, who had been created Duke of Buckingham and Chandos two years earlier, built a school near the church. This proved insufficient for the growing population and in 1926, pupils over 11 years old were transferred to Fringford school. In 1948, Finmere school was closed. The infants were transferred to Fringford and the juniors to Mixbury.
Villagers were unhappy with the loss of a key rural and social amenity but there were no resources available to build a new, larger school here. After the Second World War, the priority for the government was to rebuild and replace war-damaged schools in the cities. During the 1950s, the demand was for new schools to service mushrooming housing estates, burgeoning suburbs and the New Towns.
These priorities led to rural schools being neglected. Teachers had to cram children and heavy furniture into minute rooms heated by ancient open stoves and serviced by outside toilets. Finmere had been such a school before its closure.
Children shopping at the school on
27 November 1959. Can anyone identify them?
A Fresh Approach
A new school for Finmere had been in discussion since at least 1955, when the Parish Council sent a letter of protest about the proposed site to Oxfordshire Education Authority. The Council objected to building the school in Finmere House Paddock because children played there and village events and fetes were held there. These concerns were over-ruled and on 14 April 1958, Caroline Symes-Thompson of Finmere House sold the 1.25 acres of land in the Paddock for £800 2s 10p.
Unlike today, funding for school building was held by central government at the Ministry of Education. In 1958, the Ministry’s Architects and Building Branch was asked to tackle the problem of rural schools. One solution considered was to refurbish selected schools as examples of what could be achieved. More needed to be achieved, however, and this option was rejected in favour of building new schools more suited to contemporary teaching needs. The idea was that once modern design principles were established, they could be extended to other new schools or, where possible, to converting existing buildings.
There were no spare funds available in the Ministry’s annual building programme for major schools. Instead, funds were found for just two new schools from its Minor Works building programme, in which the cost of projects were limited to £10,000. One school was built at Great Ponton, Lincolnshire; the other here in Finmere.
Oxfordshire was an ideal location to develop an innovative school design. Village school teachers had a high morale and were supported by a forward-looking programme of visiting teachers, and local authority and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate courses. Their enthusiasm inspired the architects to design a school that met their needs, including rethinking the conventional classroom.
Classrooms in schools had become overloaded by the furniture and equipment needed to teach the growing curriculum. The problem was worse in rural schools, like Finmere, where 50 pupils aged 5–11 were taught in only two classrooms. Space was needed for small groups of pupils as well as the collective work of full classes of 25 pupils.
The school was the outcome of a close collaboration between the architects and the then Oxfordshire Education Department. It was designed and furnished by architects in the Architects and Building Branch of the Ministry of Education, David and Mary Medd, with Pat Tindale.
A Novel Design
The new school was designed as two independent classrooms spaces with a third shared area for activities such as music, meals and physical education. The spaces could be separated or merged by sliding partitions. Other smaller zones included a library, workshop, study, kitchen, restroom and veranda. Outside the school, the existing pond was reconstructed as an educational feature. To aid PE, the columns in the third area are designed as ladders for children to climb.
The architects had designed a school that reflected the small, closely knit community of its village setting. Traditional classrooms were extended to become a linked series of learning areas. Children worked in small groups, regrouping according to age, ability and interests. Flexible internal partitions allowed different sized spaces to be created for teaching, group work or assembly.
A Fortieth Anniversary
The new school opened on 9 September 1959. The opening is carefully recorded in its Log Book:
Sept 9th 1959 first pupil on this present site.
Miss O. Bates headmistress.
Miss G Broughton infant teacher.
Number of children on roll 46.
Headmistress, Olive Bates also recorded the novel character of the school in the Log Book:
The layout is of an experimental nature for the development of group work and study of a rural environment.
The school was officially opened on 25 June 1960 by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Education, Mr Kenneth Thompson. A marquee was erected for refreshments and programmes printed. There were 80 visitors including the Archdeacon of Buckingham, the Rector of Finmere and the Director of Education for Oxfordshire.
The Headmistress on Record
Eleven years after the school opened, headmistress Olive Bates was interviewed by broadcaster John Simpson. In Hello Finmere, broadcast on 13 June 1971, Olive described life in the school:
[The school] doesn’t really look [old], does it? Its kept very well and people think that it’s still the latest thing … It has many corners and bays where the children go off to work on various projects. We never shut ourselves off … We all work together as one family, although it’s getting a rather large family now. We should have a family of 50 children but its got to 68, it’s a bit of a job to find enough corners to put them in nowadays.
The School in 1959
The school’s importance was quickly recognised. In its first years, received a steady stream of visitors. In 19060/61 there were over 80 visiting HMI and architects coming from as far away as America, Australia, and Zanzibar. The school had a significant influence on school design:
The new school at Finmere set the whole trend of primary school design for the 1960s … [providing] a greater measure of learning opportunity for fifty children than had ever been achieved before
(Eric Pearson, Trends in School Design, Macmillan 1972).
Initially, the school was designed for a maximum of 50 pupils from Newton Purcell, Mixbury and Finmere. But as Olive Bates noted (left) it had become very crowded. In 1973, the school was sympathetically extended to take an additional 25 pupils.
Sadly, Pat Tindale has suffered a stroke and Olive Bates has died. This Newsletter has been compiled with the extensive help of architects David and Mary Medd. My thanks also to Anita Bilbo and Yvonne Barker, and to the Centre for Oxfordshire Studies for permission to publish the photograph overleaf.
We are currently working on the Millennium History of Finmere due for publication in the middle of next year. If you have any memories, photographs, or mementos of schooldays in Finmere, please let Andy Boddington know.