West Buckland School rests in the depths of rural Devon, on the edge of Exmoor. It was the brain child of a consumptive cleric, Joseph Brereton, and a local aristocrat forced into retirement by a bad eye, Earl Fortescue. It has been there for nearly 150 years.
The Natural History of a Country School looks at its life and work through the eyes of a wide spectrum of its inmates – a junior pupil, a secretary, a headmaster, a foreign student, a benefactor, and so on. By writing like this about one independent country school, one is writing about all independent country schools.
Add in some essays on subjects like the origin of school exams, school heroes, changing fashions in the curriculum, and the impact of world wars. Decorate with little vignettes, anecdotes, coincidences, and generally useless information. Varnish with history, sympathy, and humour, and you have a mosaic of a vigorous, multi-faceted establishment which is far more than a few teachers and a clutch of pupils.
Over a million parents send their children to independent schools; that is a sizeable slice of the educational life of the nation. It is time some of the schools in it were better understood – whether you send your children to them or not.
A school does not have to be a celebrity in order to be interesting. It does not have to be perfect, or fashionable, or rich. It has simply to be human.
Berwick Coates holds a Cambridge M.A. degree in History, and has taught the subject for over forty years. He is the Archivist at West Buckland School, and published an earlier book about it in 2000. He has also written general history, volumes of memoirs, and historical novels.