A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 9, Chesterton, Northstowe, and Papworth Hundreds. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989.
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Laurence Milford was licensed to teach young children in 1579. (fn. 1) In 1593 a school was endowed with over £100 by public subscription. (fn. 2) Although the 103 subscribers included several gentlemen and the rector, William Smith, the bulk of the money was given by villagers in sums of £2 or less. The funds were to be managed by the churchwardens and four other inhabitants, and the master was to be appointed by the rector and six leading villagers. The school was intended for the children of the subscribers but the poor were to be taught free. The first master may have been Milford, who signed the articles of agreement regulating the school. (fn. 3) Control was vested in Smith and his successors as rector. (fn. 4) In the 17th century the school contributed to a high level of literacy among the farmers (fn. 5) and perhaps taught several university entrants. (fn. 6) In the early 18th century the endowment was lost for a long period, (fn. 7) but it had been recovered by 1773 (fn. 8) and in 1783 £243 was invested in land. (fn. 9) At the same time the selection of the master and children and power to dismiss them were given to the trustees. (fn. 10) William Saywell, rector 1679-1701, left £10 a year to teach the children the catechism and prayers. (fn. 11) Nonconformists tried to win control of the school in 1742 (fn. 12) but had no permanent success and it was under church control in the 1840s. By 1615 the schoolroom was in a building in the rectory courtyard. (fn. 13) It was often taught by the curate. (fn. 14) In 1745 the trustees of the town house in Church Street made available instead two rooms, which were converted into one in 1817. In 1818 the school, the only one in the parish, had 52 pupils. (fn. 15) The town house was damaged by fire in 1831 (fn. 16) and a separate schoolroom for 60 children was built on the site with the insurance money. (fn. 17) In 1836 the schoolmaster received a salary of £26 from the trustees for teaching poor children and £9 a year from Saywell's charity. Other pupils paid fees. The master's income was little altered before the 1860s. (fn. 18) The school closed in 1876 on the reorganization of the parochial charities. Its endowment was used to assist the education of the poor at the board school and the income from Saywell's charity was allotted to the church Sunday school. The building was demolished in 1878 and almshouses were built on the site. (fn. 19)
A mixed church school was founded in 1833 and had 55 children taught free by the curate. (fn. 20) In 1852 it was reopened as a girls' school for 20 pupils but by 1871 boys had been admitted again. (fn. 21) The schools taught by the curate, presumably including the subscription school, had over 300 children registered in 1868. Average attendance in summer was 184 and in winter 230, two thirds of them boys. (fn. 22) A church Sunday school was probably begun in 1833. The other Sunday school recorded in that year, attended by 117 children, was probably Baptist and the largest unendowed day school, teaching 56 boys, may have been associated with it. Eight other unendowed schools with 135 pupils were recorded in 1833; in 1851, besides other dame schools, three women held a boarding school in Newington House, which had probably become a day school by 1861.
Despite opposition from the other nonconformist , the first Baptist church established a British school in 1856. (fn. 23) The trustees were mostly wealthy farmers, one of whom gave a large site on the northern edge of the village. By 1859 there were over 200 children on the books and c. 140 attended regularly even in summer. In 1860 half the costs were met by grants and half by school pence and donations. The purpose-built schoolroom of 1856 was extended and a headmaster's house was built c. 1865. In 1873 a school board was formed (fn. 24) on the initiative of the British school trustees. All the nonconformist denominations co-operated, though churchmen were at first indifferent. In the 1870s control of the board swung from chapel to church and back. The former British school building, leased to the board, was extended to take a separate infants' school in 1876 and a girls' school opened on the site in 1877, after which the church girls' school was closed. (fn. 25) Total accommodation was then c. 400. Average attendance rose from 222 in 1880 to 328 in 1905, falling to 179 by 1938. (fn. 26) Evening classes in the 1890s had c. 40 pupils. (fn. 27) Between 1892 and 1902 Willingham produced more scholarship children than any Cambridgeshire parish other than Sawston. (fn. 28)
The seniors were transferred to Swavesey village college in 1958 and from there to Cottenham in 1963. (fn. 29) By 1971 the primary school was overcrowded and the parish council was pressing for a replacement. (fn. 30) A new school for c. 270 children opened in Long Lane in 1975 but by 1976 it too was full and temporary classrooms had been put up. (fn. 31) The old British school building was sold by its trustees c. 1978 and the income from the invested proceeds was thereafter spent on a variety of educational purposes. (fn. 32) From 1978 the board school buildings of 1877 were used as industrial premises (fn. 33) and the older British school was converted into a suite of offices. (fn. 34)