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St Mark’s School, Talbot Woods – 150th anniversary

As St Mark’s School, Bournemouth, celebrates its first 150 years, John Newth has been discovering the circumstances of its foundation and how the modern school has earned the rating of ‘outstanding’

The calm, wooded atmosphere outside St Mark's contrasts with the frenetic road-side school entrances of other primaries

What is now St Mark’s Church of England Voluntary Aided Primary School, Bournemouth, has been known by different names during its 150 years of life, Talbot Village Undenominational School and St Mark’s Aided School among them, but some older people still refer to it as ‘Talbot’ or ‘the village school’. The names reflect the school’s position in the heart of Talbot Village, and for most of its life its prime role has been to educate the children of that village, which is now incorporated into Bournemouth’s built-up western edge.
Few people are wealthy enough to found an entire village, but the Talbot family were very wealthy indeed. They lived in Surrey and in Grosvenor Square, London, but they spent their summer holidays at Hinton Wood House on Bournemouth’s East Cliff. One of the daughters of the family, Georgina, felt such compassion for the rural poor living on the outskirts of the town that in the 1850s she established a model village of eighteen houses initially, each with an acre of land on which to grow food. There were also six farms, seven almshouses and 150 acres of heathland with free grazing rights. She was much influenced by the writings of the German social reformer, Heinrich Zschokke, especially Das Goldmacherdorf (The Goldmakers’ Village), in which he described an ideal, self-sufficient community which Talbot Village set out to emulate.

Carved stone plaques on the front of the school commemorating the contributions of the Talbot family

A priority for the new village was a school, so in 1862 one was opened in a new building designed by Christopher C Creeke, Surveyor to the Bournemouth Improvement Commissioners. There were 63 children on the roll. In 1873, Mary, Georgina’s sister, endowed the school with a substantial sum, one of the conditions of the endowment being that ‘the portrait of Georgina Charlotte Talbot shall be hung in the schoolroom and the inscription kept.’
However good the intentions, it is not certain that the standard of education provided by the school measured up to them at first. A new headmaster, Samuel Kerley, arrived in 1877 and reported, ‘I found the school in the charge of an uncertificated teacher…. The children were in a backward state as far as Arithmetic was concerned. None of them knew the Multiplication Table thoroughly and some knew nothing at all about it, yet I found a number of them dabbling in money sums.’
Kerley was obliged, in his own words, ‘to take the whole school to the very beginning and work them forward’. In this he appears to have been successful: Inspectors’ reports worried less about the standard of education than about the problem of accommodation as the school became more popular (in 1891 there were 121 older children in a space designed for 100), and the school was enlarged several times. This despite the fact that in those days, children from outside Talbot Village had to pay fees: 3d a child, 2d for a second child in the same family, and 1d for a third or subsequent child. However, apart from the inevitable epidemics – scarletina closed the school for three months in 1887 – and accidents, including a boy who lost seven front teeth after being pushed from a desk, the school’s progress was fairly serene. In 1951 there were 208 pupils, and today that has doubled to 420.

A shot of the whole school in period Victorian clothing, taken for the 150th anniversary celebrations. Image courtesy of www.hallettphotography.co.uk

That number represents seven year-groups from Reception (four- and five-year-olds) to Year 6 (ten- and eleven-year-olds), with a two-form entry of sixty children each September. The fact that it feeds ten different secondary schools shows what a wide and varied catchment area St Mark’s serves. It includes the edges of Winton, parts of Poole, the comparatively affluent Talbot Woods and less privileged areas in Wallisdown and Kinson.
The regard in which parents hold the school is demonstrated by the 185 applications last year for those sixty places in Reception. If you were to ask parents the reason why they are so keen to get their children into St Mark’s, most would surely answer that it is because of the school’s success in bringing the benefits of the Christian ethos into everyday life and teaching. It is, after all, a Church school, and its quoted aim is ‘achievement, respect and care in a happy Christian community’. Members of the staff are not required to be practising Christians, but one of the questions an applicant is always asked is ‘Do you subscribe to the Christian ethos of the school?’ and Caroline Burn, who has been Head of St Mark’s for the last nine years, says, ‘I would find it difficult to appoint anyone who answered “No” to that question.’ She also points out that teachers lead class worship three times a week, with whole-school acts of worship on the other two days in the hall, which was extended a few years ago as it was becoming impossible to fit all the school into one space. Every classroom has a ‘worship table’. Links with neighbouring St Mark’s Church are close, and the Vicar is an ex-officio Governor. Despite – or perhaps because of – its strong association with Christianity, the school recognises the importance of also teaching pupils about other faiths as a conscious policy.
The Church connection has practical implications for would-be parents, as the first criterion for admission is that the child comes from a church-going family. In practice this usually means that they have attended church regularly for the last two years, and a register is kept at St Mark’s Church to check on this qualification. Some may feel uneasy about such a regimented approach to demonstrating one’s faith and about the whiff of hypocrisy that could taint certain determined parents who are not seen in church once their child has secured a place at St Mark’s, but no-one has come up with a better way of operating the school’s admission policy.

Students Evie Bidgood (left with rabbit) and Natasha Trickett caring for the school's rabbit, 'Salt'

The school community is a particularly strong one. A School Council, with an elected representative from each form, meets about every three weeks and is run by the children: ‘I have to put my hand up like everyone else if I want to speak,’ says Caroline Burn, only slightly ruefully. Peer mediators from Year 6 help to sort out any problems at playtime. An all-inclusive approach, and a belief that everyone benefits from a range of ability in a classroom, mean that maths is the only subject that is setted. Special needs children are kept in the mainstream as far as possible. There is an enthusiastic take-up for extra-curricular clubs and activities, and the school has a traditional reputation for music and sport in particular. There are breakfast and after-school clubs to help working parents, so a child can in theory spend from 7.30 am to 5.30 pm at St Mark’s, although such a long day is not encouraged. An active Parents’ Association provides strong support and recently bought the school a new minibus.

Few primary schools can boast their own indoor swimming pool. This one at St Mark's has a dipping crane to help disabled childen get safely in and out of the pool.

In the 1960s, the parents helped to build a swimming pool which is still in use but is now covered. Every child makes use of it as part of the curriculum all the year round. Like the rest of the school’s buildings, it actually belongs to the Talbot Trust: an unusual situation for a voluntary aided Church school, whose buildings are usually owned by the diocese.

A planting scheme of red, white and blue flowers was put in place for the Jubilee celebrations in St Mark's School's raised beds

Back in 1877, Headmaster Kerley was shocked to find that some boys ‘had knocked off fir cones and stored them in their pockets to take home. I took them from them, read them a lecture on the enormity of their offence and warned them and the whole school of the consequences of a similar transgression.’ In 1920 the school advised the nearby Meyrick Park golf course that it was against the law to tempt boys to play truant to act as caddies. As late as 1966, bad behaviour was still being punished by ‘one stroke of the cane on each hand’. Today’s behaviour policy is rather more enlightened, being based on rewards. One period each Friday is set aside for an activity of the pupil’s choice, but he or she can lose time from that privilege for bad behaviour.
This has been a year of celebration as the school marks its 150 years. Every month there has been some event, with trees being planted, bulbs being grown – 150 daffodil bulbs by each year-group, the harvested flowers being presented to the residents of the almshouses – a special church service, and a Victorian day culminating in a theatrical performance with a Victorian theme.
In a nice blend of ancient and modern, the school maintains its obligations by displaying Georgina Talbot’s portrait, but it no longer hangs in the old schoolroom, now a Year 1 classroom, and looks down instead on the massed ranks of screens in the computer room. If she were to return today, she might not know the meaning of OFSTED, which awarded the school rare ‘outstanding’ status at its last inspection. What she would see is a school that successfully maintains the Christian principles of hard work and of mutual care and respect on which she founded it.

A portrait of Georgina Talbot gazes serenely down on the St Mark's IT suite

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