Michael Holtham

Recollections from Michael Holtham, headmaster Maud Heath primary school 1972 to 1993

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Michael Holtham and staff outside Maud Heath primary school in 1976 (from left to right, Mrs. M. Goulding - Midday Supervisory Assistant, Mrs D. Haddrell - Midday Supervisory Assistant and Cleaner, Mrs. K. Denton – Secretary, Miss S. Bridewell (nee Bailey) - Infant Teacher, Mrs. Summers - Dinner Lady, Miss A. Ashworth - Lower Junior Teacher, Mr. M. G. E. Holtham - Headteacher, Mrs. Jenkins - Dinner Lady and Cleaner)

Coming to East Tytherton County Primary School in 1972 from a school of over 500 junior pupils (7 – 11) was like stepping back 28 years to my very first school – a Victorian two teacher building. Here a flat roofed extension provided toilets, wash basins, hanging space for coats and an area for messy activities. Outside was a mobile classroom for the infants to help cater for the extra children coming from Bremhill whose school had been closed recently. With the forthcoming closure of Langley Burrell the school increased to over 80 pupils and was renamed after Maud Heath, a benefactress who in 1474 funded the construction of a causeway from these villages to Chippenham.

In 1973 plans were drawn up to extend the building into a two bay infant department, convert the old stables (where Sunday Moravian Church worshippers had tied up their horses) into an office and kitchen, and provide the luxury of a hall. Now the whole school would be able to meet together for morning worship. As a recently deceased vicar said to me “You take more services a week than I do!” Also, we could have lunch prepared and cooked on site and we could all sit down together.

Almost half of the families were linked to farming so it was not surprising that many children came from isolated hamlets such as Avon, Charlcutt, Spirthill, West Tytherton (Tytherton Lucas). With few friends to play with before and after starting school we adopted a policy of admitting children as young as legally possible to help further their social skills. In similar vein the contributor village schools to Hardenuish, the secondary school, joined together to play football and netball matches against each other so that children would have a wider group of familiar faces if not friendships on transfer. Combined with the later development of day-visits to Hardenhuish, transfer would no longer be such an unsettling experience. For the children from Bremhill, their designated secondary education lay in Calne, either the John Bentley grammar school or Fynamore school: indeed during the first few years of my headship they still had to sit the 11 plus exam to determine their future education. However the change to a comprehensive system and the introduction of school visits meant their transfer was partially eased.

Helping and seeing children gain confidence in themselves and their abilities was my greatest pleasure. In a small school with little clerical time this was relatively easy for children were frequently involved with duplicating and stapling, answering the telephone and even making tea – not that that would be allowed today! This involvement with the running of their school helped, I think, to create a family atmosphere – a feature that led some parents outside the catchment area to send their children to Maud Heath School.

Wiltshire, like many rural counties, received some of the lowest government grants to run their schools and of course there was a dearth of resources , especially books and equipment. To offset this we initiated a “Friends of Maud Heath School” and over time, libraries were filled, equipment purchased and activities such as swimming and camping were subsidized. But of course there was the added benefit of parents and villagers coming together to enjoy the results of much hard work by the committee whose laughter at meetings kept us going. Apart from the annual summer fete, the most momentous event was perhaps the quincentenary of Maud Heath’s gift when the main classroom was changed into a mediaeval banqueting hall with the children’s banners and shields. As far as possible, the committee tried to arrange one social money raising event each term and such was the success of these that more often than not we doubled the amount received from County Hall.

Parental help with activities such as supervising cooking ,swimming and afterschool football were much appreciated. It was often said that small schools led the way in educational development and one such area was the appointment of parent governors and when it was introduced nationally in the 1970’s it seemed rather ridiculous to me with three parents already on the governing body to deselect one only to replace with another! But of course the point was that it had to be the parents who made the choice and not the authority.

Although the Moravian Church relinquished control of the school in the 1920’s we still maintained links through our Christmas Service on the last Sunday before the end of term with all the children acting in a play that culminated in the traditional Moravian Christingle Service - a custom now adopted by many other Christian churches.

I remember a particular time when we were playing cricket after school and a glider came perilous close overhead. Thinking it was going to crash land, we dropped everything ran through the churchyard and into one of Mr. Bailey’s fields to find the pilot had landed safely. After signing his log book we made our way back to school and found my daughter in tears – she had arrived at the school only to find it like the Mary Celeste – bats dropped here, cricket pads there – she thought we had been abducted!

Looking back over my time at Maud Heath and the increasing accountability made of teachers for everything they do in schools, I am sure I had the best of times. The closure of the next-door shop reminded me of the days we went swimming when, with the shopkeeper’s suggestion of small groups, children went on their own and brought their sweets for the homeward journey. The nature walks we took without ticking off a checklist beforehand, the pre-planning of our camping adventures at Wiltshire’s Outdoor Pursuits Centre in the Brecon Beacons was a professional duty rather than an official requirement and the couple of occasions we spent an afternoon sledging with some parents when low indoor temperatures meant a school closure, all make me believe that bureaucracy has deadened the hand of teaching.

Narrative provided by Michael Holtham for use by the Bremhill Parish History Project

22nd May 2021