King Alfred School in the 1960s – with thanks to John Strickland and King Alfred School
The present King Alfred School (then named The King Alfred County Secondary School) evolved from Burnham County Secondary School which occupied a variety of sites in Burnham-on-Sea until November 1957. It was then moved to its present position in Burnham Road, Highbridge where it was ideally situated to serve the communities of the two towns and surrounding area. Pupils came from a large catchment area including Pawlett, East and West Huntspill, Brent Knoll, Berrow, Brean and, of course, Burnham and Highbridge. The Head teacher of the school at the time, and until 1975 when he retired, was Mr Norman Edge.
The official opening in June 1958 was by notable Burnham resident and former Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth, Admiral Sir Mark Pizey. At the opening of the school that was to provide the secondary education for 380 children with 12 staff, it was pointed out that the school stood on a site once owned by King Alfred. It had cost £98,000 and occupied an area of 16 acres. At the time it was considered to be an ultra modern design and travellers in Somerset may have observed that the West Somerset School in Minehead and Broadoak School in Weston-super-Mare (now a Sixth Form Centre) were based on the same design, although with extensions they now look very different.
In the 47 years since the school was opened it has changed beyond recognition. For example, there were two laboratories in the original building, there are now nine. The school’s gymnasium was added along with some additional teaching rooms and woodwork and metalwork workshops in 1962. Now, in addition to this, there is a purpose built Sports Hall, fitness suite and squash courts
And the original two changing rooms will increase in number to Seven when the next extension to the buildings is completed in 2005. These are but two examples of how King Alfred’s has changed over the years.
Growth was relatively slow in the 1960s but the coming of the M5 led to a population boom in the Burnham and Highbridge area and more classrooms were added in a new building in 1972. This block was largely open plan, reflecting the style of the time (decided on by architects but not necessarily with the approval of teachers). The classrooms were built around two quadrangles providing a great deal of natural light, and two specialist music rooms were included. Between the two ends of the block there was a kitchen to replace one in the original block. Pupils were served meals from both sides of it and ate them in open plan areas created when the partitions between classrooms were removed at the end of morning school. Again, an architect’s idea, which lacked practicality. Pupils who brought sandwiches for their lunch ate them in the new block too. Originally school meals had been served to children who ate them seated at octagonal tables in the school hall with sandwich eaters eating in the Sandwich Hall. This small hall immediately behind the main hall still retains the name ‘Sandwich Hall’ although the origin of the name remains a mystery to most who use the hall today. At the time language laboratories with banks of tape recorders where pupils were linked by headphones and microphones to their teacher were very much at the cutting edge of foreign language education and one such room in the block was fitted out with this facility.
Experience with the first building on the King Alfred School site suggested to the planners that it would be sensible to make any further developments single storey. Looking at the main entrance to the original building leaves one in no doubt of the reason why. The ‘tower’ to the left of the entrance and the small hall – the Sandwich Hall – on the right, were obviously too heavy for the underlying clay and windows were continually cracking and having to be replaced with plastic. In addition, the lintel above the three doors is decidedly bowed!
1976 saw another major increase in facilities when another teaching block was added. This contained a very large and pleasant library (replacing the one in the original building which became another science laboratory), a superbly appointed lecture theatre, a custom designed drama studio and a Sixth Form area, in addition to ten additional classrooms. At the same time an Art Block was built with 3 studios and facilities for pottery. Adjacent to this a Sports Centre with two squash courts (later extended to three to accommodate the rising interest in squash) and small fitness room was built. The Sports Centre, opened by Somerset wicket keeper, Derek Taylor, in 1977, encompassed a small swimming pool that had been provided by the school’s PTA and which previously had been surrounded by a rather insecure fence. This pool had been used in PE lessons and because of its size the water level must have risen by several inches when a whole class used it. Past pupils tell of lessons where the whole class were instructed to walk in a clockwise direction in the water and then told to ‘about turn’. Apparently, this was impossible to do because of the whirlpool effect that they had previously set up. Even with such a small pool the school had swimming galas although the more able swimmers did little but turns, as the length of the pool was rather restrictive. Nevertheless, many pupils will have learnt to swim in this pool and it was a sad day when it was filled in to provide an outdoor badminton court and barbecue area for the Sports Centre.
King Alfred Sports Centre was built with money from Somerset County Council and Sedgemoor District Council and then, as now, was managed by a joint management committee representing the school and the community. It was remarkably successful right from the start under the management of Allan Pendleton, winning national awards for Sports Centre Management. It has developed over the years with the bar area (open in the evenings) being increased in size and one of the squash courts having a change in use as the squash ‘fad’ diminished. This now is the ‘Spiral Fitness Suite’ on two levels separated by a spiral staircase and is a popular facility for community use.
Additionally, at the same time, an administrative block was built. This provided the staff with a new common room and work area, a reception area and several offices to house the Head teacher, his deputies and the school secretaries and medical room. This released more rooms for classrooms and offices in the original block,
Tinkering with the buildings occurred in the years leading up to the turn of the century with Somerset’s only state school Astroturf pitch being added in the late 1980s following the sale of a small part of the school’s playing field now occupied by the Highbridge Medical Centre in Pepperall Road. This facility, opened by the then Minister for Sport, Colin Moynihan, was much envied by other schools and used a great deal by sports clubs in the local area. Brean Hockey Club regularly played national league games on the all-weather surface.
Facilities for the sixth form had been incorporated into the 1976 building but they were never able to cope with the increasing number of students who were staying on to study for their ‘A’ levels. The one remaining open plan area in the 1972 building was later used as a Sixth Form common room but again increasing numbers led to overcrowding and in 2001 a new Sixth Form Centre was opened by local MP Mr David Heathcoat-Amory. This incorporated a larger common room, an ICT room exclusively dedicated to 6th form use, offices and three additional classrooms.
At the present time plans are well advanced for yet another building. In 2003 the school gained Sports College Status. This followed a commitment of £50,000 raised by local people, parents and businesses that enabled the release of a larger sum of money by the Department for Education and Skills. Some of this money is being spent on a one million pound project to provide modern changing facilities, a multi-purpose hall for dance, also to be used as a much needed dining facility, new kitchens and yet more classrooms, one a sports science laboratory.
All schools evolve and the more successful ones grow. King Alfred’s has been no exception. Numbers have increased from the original 400 to 1450 in 2004. Numbers increased at the end of the 1960s as more and more pupils were staying on beyond the statuary school leaving age of 15. 1972 saw King Alfred County Secondary School become a comprehensive school taking all primary school pupils from its catchment area with the more able pupils no longer attending Sexey’s Grammar School at Blackford, Dr Morgan’s Grammar School or Bridgwater High School. Numbers continued to grow in the 1970s to a maximum of 1500 as the local population increased. There was a slight fall in the 1980s when schools were encouraged to market themselves and many of the catholic children in the area were tempted to travel to the county’s only ecumenical school in Taunton. This trend did not continue into the 1990s and now very few pupils in the area attend schools other than King Alfred’s apart from those whose parents choose the private sector for their children’s education.
Hand in hand with the growth in numbers of pupils has, of course, gone an increase in staff numbers. From 12 in 1957 there were over 80 teachers and about 15 learning support assistants, who help less able pupils both in and out of the classroom, in 2004. One of the welcome additions in more recent years has been the inclusion of disabled pupils and it has been a real pleasure to see these children playing with their able bodied peers in the playground. This benefited disabled and able-bodied alike and brought a new richness to the school.
The range of subjects taught in 1957 was rather limited in comparison with that in 2004. In 2004 the school had, for example, eight dedicated computer rooms and in total approximately one computer for every 7 pupils. Pupils are offered a range of modern foreign languages, have to learn biology, chemistry and physics up to GCSE standard, can do dance and drama and the old subjects of woodwork, metalwork, cookery and needlework became design technology, food technology, textiles and graphic communication. All subjects in 2004 are taught to both girls and boys, a change from the days when boys wielded the hammers, chisels and files and the girls the wooden spoon, rolling pin and needle. PE changed from the days of limited opportunity when the best were creamed off for the first fifteen and the rest were left to kick a ball about aimlessly. 2004 pupils got the opportunity to try a wide variety of sports and were encouraged to make full use of the school’s extensive sports facilities out of school time. Methods of teaching have inevitably changed over the last 50 years. Pupils were taught more formally in rows of individual desks. In 2004 they are encouraged to take more responsibility for their own learning and it is not uncommon to see pupils working together on projects in the library or in groups in the laboratory.
Pupils at King Alfred’s were always encouraged to study and care for their environment. From the early days there was a farm unit and pupils were keen to look after the animals kept on the site. Mr Frost, a farmer from Brent Knoll allowed the school to raise some of his calves and trips to his farm, where he explained the ins and outs of dairy farming, were a highlight of science lessons. Many other animals were kept on the unit. Pigs were bred and a calf was born watched by excited pupils, spell bound as a rope was attached to the forelegs to pull the newborn animal into the world. Chicken roamed about and goats kept the hedges down. Pupils were shown techniques of hand milking. Persuading a nanny goat to stand on a bench to be milked in full view of a rural science class was one of the skills developed by the teachers! Latterly, even rabbits were bred for meat, much to the disgust of many of the girls in particular, who considered rabbits only for cuddling. They obviously had a word in their floppy ears as they seemed reluctant to breed – not what was expected of rabbits!
Sadly health and safety regulations and the advent of the National Curriculum heralded the demise of the farm unit although an emphasis on environmental education remained in science lessons and Environmental Science is one of the subjects studied at ‘A’ level.
School visits have always played a very important part in the life of the school. From the 1960s the school has had a minibus for school teams to attend fixtures and for small groups of pupils to visit places of interest. In the 1970s there were two minibuses and in the following decade an explosion in the school’s transport fleet meant that in addition to minibuses the school owned its own small fleet of coaches. Nowadays, there is just the one minibus and coaches are hired. Foreign exchange visits have always been popular and the only real way to get the true taste for another country and its culture. In France visits to Morlaix near Roscoff in Brittany and more recently to Louvigny du Dessert and in Germany to Homburg, close to Burnham and Highbridge’s twin town of Fritzlar, have encouraged language study and started many lasting friendships. In more recent years King Alfred’s has been involved with schools in the Czech Republic, Spain, Germany and Finland and pupils have both attended and hosted international conferences. Pupils from King Alfred’s have visited Natare School in Uganda and a reciprocal visit by six Ugandan students took place in 1999. Pupils have always extended their education beyond the classroom. In the 1960s and 1970s much of their chemistry course was rooted in the local area. Oil shale collected from Kilve provided the raw material for lessons in the lab and led on to further work on the oil industry; lead ore from Priddy, iron ore from other areas on the Mendips and copper ore from Doddington, near Nether Stowey, led to work on the extraction, properties and uses of metals. Other materials collected from the local environment provided the springboard for other lessons. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme has seen pupils travelling to the Lake District, Snowdonia, Derbyshire, Dartmoor and Exmoor to take part in expeditions. In the 1970s the Ten Tors walk on Dartmoor provided the challenge for pupils. On one occasion three King Alfred pupils were badly burned in a tent fire as they unwisely changed a camping gas cylinder in their tent in the vicinity of a lighted candle. They made their escape through the flaming tent sides and were transported to the Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth where, thanks to the skill of their doctors they made an amazing recovery, returning to school only a few weeks later, although still minus some hair, but fortunately without any scars.
The organisation of the school has changed over the years. When the school moved to its present site it was organised on a house system. The four houses, Brent, Mendip, Steart and Quantock each had their own House Heads who, in many ways, acted as Head teachers. There were, for example, four house PTAs which organised their own events, they had their own assemblies and were autonomous in many respects. Classes were organised on a half year basis so 1BQ1, 1BQ2, 1BQ3, 1BQ4,1MS1,1MS2,1MS3 and 1MS4 were the eight classes in the first year in 1972 (B=Brent, Q=Quantock etc). The blocks in the school were labelled A, C, D, E, F, G but without a B Block as B was used for Brent House. Generations of pupils have wondered why there is no B Block and many first year pupils have been sent on false errands in their first week to find rooms in B Block by mischievous older children. There now will be a B Block as the new building will carry this initial. This is to avoid a notorious H Block with connotations with Northern Ireland prisons and Prisoner Cell Block H, the television programme!
There have been many characters that have graced the school over the last 50 years. Mr Lloyd-Henry, Mr Strickland and Mr Phippin were Year Heads who moved with the school in 1956 and gave over 30 years service each. Each had a different style and all were equally respected for their care and fairness. Mr Henry is remembered by many for the slipper he kept ready to administer discipline in the old fashioned way. Mr Strickland was a well-loved member of the local community. He forged many links with local industry and, as Careers Teacher, was responsible for putting many pupils on the first rung of their career ladder. Sadly, he died in 2002. The three teachers provided the stability needed as young teachers came and went as they gained promotion, many of them advancing to become Heads of their own schools. Every member of staff in a school is essential if it is to run smoothly and caretakers are no exception. Indeed, new entrants to the profession are advised to make friends with the caretaker a priority. Mr Danny Keeping was the sort of caretaker that all Head teachers would love to have caring for their school. He joined the staff in the 1950s when it used the Technical School buildings in Burnham. He retired in 1976; sadly to die without having long to enjoy his much deserved retirement. He was a fatherly figure to generations of pupils and was much missed. Following Mr Edge, Brian Smith took the helm for six years. It was his first Headship, having been Deputy Head of Hartcliffe School in Bristol. He changed the house to a year system and to the present day the school is organised in years, with each year having its own Year Head. He moved to his second Headship in Bedford before taking early retirement and dying at the age of 69 in Cheshire in 2004. He was succeeded by John Ellener. After his resignation, Dr Keith Diffey moved to King Alfred School from a school in Plymouth where he was Vice-Principal. He ensured that the finances of the school were run efficiently and masterminded the school’s successful bid for Sports College Status.
Many past pupils will remember their teachers with a great deal of affection. Mrs Bacon, Mr Lloyd, Miss Hartley, Mr Endall, Miss Turner, Mr Lewis (whose claim to fame was the try he scored for the South West against the New Zealand ‘All Blacks’), Mr Yeomanson, Mr Barwell; their names will all evoke memories of happy days. Lots of staff has been at King Alfred’s for over 25 years. Mrs Palmer who looked after the Special Needs Department and went on to become a Deputy Headteacher at the school; Mr Whittell, who was Head of Geography and later became responsible for the increasing number of examinations taken by pupils; Mr Smith, who led many expeditions and became a Year Head, Mr Higman, an English teacher who took over from Mr Strickland as Head of Steart House; Mr Maddy, History teacher; Mr Deahl, who joined the school in 1972 as Head of Chemistry and then became Head of Science, then a Head of Year and latterly took on the Community Liaison role and is still at King Alfred’s 32 years later; Mr Peek who would acknowledge his mild eccentricities as a Year Head; all these people have shaped the school into what it has become in the 21st century. Many will remember Miss Morrish, a physics teacher who taught with a rod of iron but underneath had a heart of gold, never failing to send a congratulatory card to her successful ‘A’ level students and a card expressing her commiserations to those who were less successful. She was keen to introduce pupils to the art of fencing and many pupils became proficient in this sport. Additionally, she was a keen horsewoman and the annual gymkhana was eagerly anticipated, although not by the staff that volunteered to help only to be dragged into a staff race aboard horses intent only on giving watching parents some entertainment by being either stubborn or galloping off in the wrong direction.
Ancillary staff has also shown considerable loyalty. Mike Hawkings was a pupil at the school and then became a physics technician, a position he held until his retirement in 2003, after 36 years. Mrs Thatcher looked after animals, plants and biology teachers as biology technician for more than 20 years and Mrs Downer attended to all the school’s printing requirements for more than 30 years. Mr Nicholls, in Technology worked for a similar length of time as technician in the department formerly known as Woodwork and Metalwork. Headteacher’s secretaries, now quite properly called P.A.s have also stood the test of time. Mrs Kitchen succeeded Miss Williamson and between them they have served all four Headteachers that King Alfred’s has had over the last 47years
Over the years ex-King Alfred pupils have enjoyed a great deal of success in their chosen fields. Several are practising doctors, Melica Endall working as a GP in Staffordshire and Richard Hughes in the A and E Department of a Manchester Hospital are just two examples. Ian Wright is a veterinary surgeon in Hull and countless others work in the health service as pharmacists, physiotherapists and nurses.
Gabriel Clarke who is remembered for his performance in ‘The Causasian Chalk Circle’ in the school hall in the 1970s went on to regularly be seen on ITV Sport where he presents soccer programmes and interviews players and managers. Michael Knott was the youngest naval officer to command a warship and Jeremy Plant became a high-ranking naval officer. Other services have benefited from King Alfred’s ex boys and girls and some have piloted helicopters and jet fighters in the RAF and distinguished themselves on the battlefields of the Falklands and Kosovo. Susannah Hickling became a freelance writer whose articles regularly appear in the Times, and Louise Jury became a features writer for the Independent newspaper following her English degree from Oxford. Many ex-pupils have gone on to Oxford University, although fewer to Cambridge, probably because of the geographical proximity of the former. Many past pupils entered the teaching profession and lots returned to their home area to teach, some of them at King Alfred’s. Academically, many students have done well with most English and Welsh universities conferring degrees on the young people from Burnham and Highbridge. However, academic success has never been the be all and end all of what King Alfred’s has been about. Producing good citizens prepared for the world of work and able to fulfil their potential has always been a major aim of the school and one that it has prided itself in achieving.
King Alfred’s has often been represented in the media. On two occasions the school has taken part in the ‘Young Scientists of the Year Competition’ on BBC television with filming on location around the school and in the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham. ‘Top of the Form’ provided a radio challenge and the school hall was full to capacity in 1977 to hear the programme recorded with a radio link to a school in Bath. Sadly King Alfred’s was pipped at the post and did not progress to the next round. In 1979 the school was involved in a series of programmes about comprehensive schools made by HTV West and transmitted nationally, called ‘A Fair Chance’. There were six programmes in the series and King Alfred’s’ as a rural school, was compared with Filton High School from Bristol as a city comprehensive. Filming was great fun with cameras, microphones and clapperboards in ‘normal’ lessons. Gillian Reynolds, the writer and broadcaster visited the school to conduct interviews and these were used for voice over commentaries to accompany the pictures.
King Alfred School is a living community, constantly changing and responding to the local and wider community. No doubt it will change to reflect future technological advances and developments in teaching styles and strategies. What is certain, however is that it will continue to insist on high standards and to serve local children well into the future.
(Article written by Tony Deahl)