The best of Dorset in words and pictures

100 years at the heart of Stur

William Barnes School in Sturminster Newton celebrated its centenary this year. Joël Lacey paid it a visit.

Head Polly Patrick with a group of the school's children outside the William Barnes School in Sturminster Newton

When, as part of its centenary celebrations, the William Barnes School in Sturminster Newton recently threw open its doors to the community, there were some interested visitors to the school – not least the four generations of townspeople whose education started here.
Memories of walls and tiles being different colours, and of rooms being in different places or having different functions, were mixed with the unexpected surfacing of the occasional partially erased memory when looking at the school’s punishment book, which starts in 1937. ‘I don’t remember doing that!’ exclaimed one visitor on reading of his having been punished several decades before.
No-one could infer from looking at some of entries during the period before corporal punishment was abolished, that William Barnes School, had ‘spared the rod and spoilt the child'; like so many schools, infractions against school rules in those early days were summarily and repeatedly punished, rather than the causes of it explored.
With the present-day school’s motto of ‘Where every child counts’, the whole attitude towards encouragement and punishment has clearly changed beyond measure since the school opened its doors in 1913. However, whilst the understanding of the best ways to get the most out of children may have become much more enlightened, the Head’s requirement of getting as much as possible from one’s budget – and regretting the absence of vital equipment, seems to have altered little in the last century.
Reading the first Head’s complaint – entered in the school logbook on the first day of the school being open, about not having enough textbooks or furniture – one senses his frustration might still resonate with head-teachers across the land, were it updated to rueing the absence of up-to-date touch-screen computers and fit-for-purpose buildings, as the computers for schools and school renovation/rebuilding programmes have fallen victim to swingeing capital expenditure budget cuts.

The first entries in the school log give details of the staff and pupils… and the shortage of desks and books

What has not diminished, though – rather the opposite in fact, is the sense of care and respect from staff to pupils, between pupils and in terms of the relationships between the school, its children’s parents and the wider community.
Whilst spanking new buildings might be nice, there is something to be said for continuity. So William Barnes School – with its original buildings and three ‘temporary’ classrooms of different vintages, sits where it has since a century ago, off the road which leads down to the bridge and the mill. Progress is not, however, only or indeed best measured in terms of the newness of the surroundings, but in how the children are nurtured and cared for, brought to education and introduced to learning in a safe and happy environment.
In this regard, William Barnes can be said to be striding forward confidently; the latest OFSTED report is the third in succession to show continuing improvement, and is the best ever report in the school’s history. Two elements of this worth pulling out from the report are the following passages, which relate firstly to the pupils and then the staff and governors: ‘Pupils are exceptionally well mannered and welcoming’ and ‘The headteacher’s commitment to further improve all aspects of the school is shared by all staff and governors.’
Polly Patrick, who will have been Head here for a sixth of the school’s history when she retires at the end of the 2013/2014 school year, is clearly delighted with the latest report and, as well as leading the school, she was one of the driving forces of the centenary celebrations.
She is keen – as with all elements of the way in which the school operates, to deflect the credit to others, not just the teaching staff and teaching assistants and other staff, but her board of governors too. In the context of the centenary celebrations, she is also profoundly grateful to those alumni and alumnae who shared their memories of the earlier years of the school, not only as impossible-to-replicate sources of anecdotal information, but also as their contribution served to reinforce William Barnes’s place at the heart of Sturminster Newton.

The William Barnes connection is not only in the school's name, but also an art and literature project

The head and the heart, as it were, came together in the early stages of planning for the centenary. ‘The first thing we did,’ recalls Mrs Patrick, ‘was to talk about the last 100 years in terms of events – globally, in terms of England and then locally.’ Then different members of staff came up with ways of linking not only the school and the town, but also the eponymous author’s work and the current generation’s education. William Barnes the teacher would no doubt have been delighted to see schoolchildren going down to the River Stour with his poetry and creating their own artwork from it.
Local poets and musicians brought Barnes’s poetry to life for the children cementing the idea that the person for whom their school is named is as much a part of Dorset life as they themselves are.

As well as being an exciting event for the children and the town, the centenary celebrations also formed a useful tool with which to draw children into learning about their own history

Although the temporary exhibition in the main hall, marking and celebrating the school’s centenary, may have gone, the walls of the school are festooned with images and writing from the pupils of the key events. So near an impressive array of high-tech-looking space rockets – marking Neil Armstrong landing on the moon in 1969, stands a wall display of pastoral scenes from the local area, and the history of Sturminster Newton.
Mrs Patrick’s own history started, in teaching terms, in Hounslow, and she was Head at Okeford Fitzpaine Primary then St Mary’s, Bradford Abbas before coming to William Barnes School, but philosophically one senses it was her own very happy attendance at a small village school, where everyone played together, which may have been her original educational inspiration.
Certainly the happiness of the children at William Barnes is almost palpable as dozens of hip-high children funnel their way outside for a group photo with Mrs Patrick. Her fellow wranglers melt away unbidden at the last moment leaving her alone at the centre of fifty children with fifty different photo faces; they are all trying to do the same thing, doing it happily, but each in his or her own way, which is about as obvious a metaphor for the school as a whole as one could wish for.
Mrs Patrick – and her successor – will need to keep this combination of good humour and control as the school and the town face a demographic time-bomb. Their task will be a tricky circle to square; the school is both popular and populous – it is a victim both of its own popularity and inevitably sensitive to the ebbs and flows of the local birth-rate.
In short, with no expansion of the buildings in sight, the school is as full as it can be. Without a deus ex machina there is in coming years an all-too-real prospect of children living in Sturminster Newton having to be bussed to village schools in the locale, rather than walking to school with their parents. Resolving such matters falls outside the purview and the powers of even the most determined head, but for a school that is so clearly at the very heart of its community, it is a vexing problem.

The Dorset teacher, etymologist and poet, William Barnes, is memorialised with a statue in Dorchester as well as a school in Sturminster Newton

William Barnes himself spent the greater part of his working life as a teacher, although these days he is best known as a poet. His would perhaps be the best words with which to end this examination of the school which bears his name.
The original text, written for the Squire of Culver Dell – which can be found at the foot of Barnes’s Dorchester statue, can be subtly altered to suit looking ahead to the end of the academic year and marking the retirement of Mrs Patrick:

But now I hope her kindly feäce
Is gone to vind, a better pleäce
But still wi’ vok a’ left behind
She’ll always be a-kept in mind.

Dorset Directory