Top of the class for 150 years

WEST Buckland School is set to celebrate 150 proud years of education in North Devon with the opening of a brand new £2million sports centre today (Wednesday). West Buckland old boy, Olympic gold medal winner and triple jump world record holder Jonathan E

WEST Buckland School is set to celebrate 150 proud years of education in North Devon with the opening of a brand new £2million sports centre today (Wednesday).West Buckland old boy, Olympic gold medal winner and triple jump world record holder Jonathan Edwards will return to his former school to cut the tape and officially open the new complex, which features four badminton courts, a fitness suite, first aid room and spectator seating as well as club rooms, changing rooms and classrooms.The opening of the state-of-the-art facility will mark a stark departure from West Buckland's early sporting days when the school used to upset visiting football teams by playing the game to its own rules - or when youngsters were given swimming lessons in the school pond! The Gazette spent a morning with school archivist Berwick Coates to delve a little deeper into the colourful history that has helped to define the North Devon institution the school has become.A lot has changed since 1858, the year that the school began life as the West Buckland Farm and County School in the parlour of a nearby farmhouse.Founded by visionary West Buckland rector Joseph Lloyd Brereton and Earl Fortescue, the new school offered secondary education to the sons of farmers, local tradesmen and merchants at a time when such schooling for ordinary children did not exist."Brereton envisaged a national system of county schools that was way ahead of its time," Mr Coates told the Gazette."He started the school with three pupils - three boys from Bishops Tawton."The initial idea was that boys would spend half-a-day in school and work the other half on a local farm. Money raised from the sale of produce grown on the farm would help pay for the schooling."That idea didn't quite work out and after three or four years, the school dropped the farm dimension and became the Devon County School."Modern subjects such as maths and science were favoured over the endless Greek and Latin of the privileged private schools and very quickly, pupil numbers began to rise.In October 1860, the foundation stone was laid for a new school at the existing West Buckland site. In October the following year, the school was opened at a cost of £2,000.By the mid 1870s, numbers had swelled to around 150 pupils, boarders paying £25 a term, and day boys, six guineas (£6.30). Despite twice narrowly missing closure in the 1870s and the early 1900s, the school continued to thrive and became the West Buckland School in 1912. Today, the campus has grown from 20 acres to 100 and boasts nearly 700 pupils and 80 members of teaching staff."The school has become one of the highest performing schools in the South West, with A-Level pass rates at almost 100 per cent, 70 per cent of which are grade A and B," said Mr Coates."West Buckland went co-ed in the 1980s with facilities for three to 18-year-old boys and girls. Since the early years of the 20th century, the school has been host to a large number of children from more than 50 foreign countries."Over the years, the school has produced a number of sporting celebrities. As well as Jonathan Edwards, 1990s rugby internationals Steven Ojomoh and Victor Ubogu have also flown the PE department "nest" to achieve success in their sport. They weren't the first though. The first rugby international came as early as 1897 when Harry Packer was called into the Welsh side."In cricket, Harold Gimblett, one of the greatest batsmen ever to play for Somerset and England, was captain of the School XI when he was 15," said Mr Coates.The school also boasts a headmaster who was a former football international and, before the First World War, it also had an Open Golf champion in Harold Hilton."It is said that equestrian Olympic gold medallist Bertie Hill used to ride a horse to school," added Mr Coates.West Buckland has always upheld a strong sporting tradition and, as anyone who has been through the ranks at the school would probably testify, the school's oldest tradition is not one for the faint-hearted.Billed as the oldest, longest, toughest, compulsory cross-country race in the country, the annual spring term Exmoor run dates back to 1859."It has only been cancelled twice since: once in the awful winter of 1947, and again in 2001 because of Foot and Mouth," said Mr Coates."One other school, Sedbergh in Yorkshire, has a longer race - by a mile - but it is not compulsory. "West Buckland's is - and not only do seniors have to run nine miles, they have to walk six miles to get to the start at Five Barrows!"Over the years, the school has seen 15 headmasters come and go: from Joseph Thompson, who stepped into the role as a fresh-faced 21-year-old and stayed for the school's first 30 years, to current head John Vick, who has been at the school since 1997.Of the school's first 150 years, Mr Vick said: "Our history has seen periods of optimism and growth; it has also seen times of uncertainty and contraction."In this year of celebration, however, I can confidently say that West Buckland is in the middle of a period of strong growth and development - of our campus and buildings, our academic standards, the richness of our curriculum, and the breadth of opportunities available to our students of all ages."l SEE next Wednesday's Gazette for pictures of today's opening of the new sports complex by Olympian Jonathan Edwards.

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