Guernsey Press

The halcyon days of Herm School

The end of term marks the end of an era for Herm School as it will not be reopening after the summer holidays. Cheryl Latter looks back at the little school’s history

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The current school children following their farewell summer concert in July 2023. Despite the tiny cast, the children excellently performed the story of the women from Romeo and Juliet to a packed house of islanders, guests, and former Herm children and parents. Pictured left to right are Megan Senior, Felicity Hastings, teacher Mary Carey, teaching assistant Debbie Hobbs, Eva Dowding and Grace Senior. (32300032)

A GROUP of children line up on granite steps, happy faces turned towards the camera. Decades later, another group recreates the vintage picture. Much has changed during the years between, but one thing remains the same – pupils of Herm School are members of a very lucky group.

The school has been educating island children for almost 70 years. During those decades it has moved several times, before settling in its current home in the Manor Village in 1970. Although there were schools much earlier than this, including one in the 1930s in what is now White House Hotel room 39 in Foxglove Cottage, by the end of 1954 the present school had become a permanent feature of the island community.

Jo Grimshaw (formerly Wood) provided these excellent early photos of the school, which the pupils in 2015 had a lot of fun recreating. (32300018)

The first school of the era in which the Wood family held the lease, which opened in 1952, was short-lived. A teacher from England had volunteered her services to teach the five young children on the island, one of pre-school age. For the next two years Mrs Stephenson taught them reading, writing and arithmetic in the room that is now Harbour Cottage at the bottom of the hill. She was a strict, traditional teacher with lessons that were firmly regimented, and the children learned quickly under her tutelage, but by the mid-’50s the island population had grown considerably, with eight or nine school-age children needing full-time education.

Jo Grimshaw (formerly Wood) provided these excellent early photos of the school, which the pupils in 2015 had a lot of fun recreating. (32300075)

After appealing to the education authorities in Guernsey, Herm was provided with school supplies and a teacher. A room in the keep known as the Princess’s Bedroom was set up as a schoolroom and a new teacher, Mrs Corboy, was found. Her approach to education was very ahead of her time. Far from sticking to regimented lessons, she encouraged the children to embrace a well-rounded education with lots of creative pursuits and plenty of time spent outdoors, in addition to the usual subjects. Mrs Corboy also implemented the idea of the children performing their Nativity on the altar step of St Tugual’s Chapel, a tradition that continues to this day.

Herm children seem to benefit greatly from an unconventional schooling in which the national curriculum is supplemented by using the unique environment and the set-up of a tiny school to best advantage.

Another early teacher, Mrs Muttock, was the wife of the island farmer and their daughters attended the school. For a time, around 1957, there were so many children on the island that the school was split into age groups, with seven in the junior school and five seniors.

Jo Grimshaw (formerly Wood) provided these excellent early photos of the school, which the pupils in 2015 had a lot of fun recreating. (32300077)

Fast outgrowing the keep bedroom, with its ivy-covered windows and leaky roof, the school was for a time during the late 1960s moved to one of the farm cottages. The current schoolroom in Manor Village was built in 1970, made from one of the old farm buildings. It was originally connected to Cherry Cottage, where the teacher of the time lived, and the schoolroom opened up directly from her house. To this day, the doors (now blocked off) are still visible from either side.

Jo Grimshaw (formerly Wood) provided these excellent early photos of the school, which the pupils in 2015 had a lot of fun recreating. (32300020)

Located in the heart of the village, the school is perfectly positioned for parents to be close by and for children to see their parents at work from the windows or playground. This is the beauty of life on Herm, where family comes first and you are never away from your child for more than a few hours. It also means that the children are able to go home for lunch and the travelling time is mere seconds for most. Siblings learn to work together and parents are heavily involved with their children’s schooling, speaking to the teacher every day and being kept continuously updated.

Scores of island children have passed through the doors of the little school over the past 50 years. The present classroom is split into two sections, for Key Stages 1 and 2, but for the most part the children work together. Historically, the older children take an active role in guiding and helping the younger ones, and the younger children work hard to catch up with their older schoolmates.

The children have always gone to Vauvert Primary School one day a week, which gives them a wider social circle of their own age, and gets them used to a bigger school. Once they reach high school age they go to school in Guernsey full-time, boarding Monday to Friday and returning home at weekends. In this way they make friends of their own age and are able to join more extra-curricular clubs and groups as they get older.

Until 1983, the teacher was an island resident but since then they have lived in Guernsey and commuted to work daily on the Trident, weather permitting. If boats are cancelled in the winter months, work is nowadays sent via email. The Herm school may have been one of only a handful in the world that adapted quickly to Covid restrictions and home-schooling, as they had already been doing it for years.

Jo Grimshaw (formerly Wood) provided these excellent early photos of the school, which the pupils in 2015 had a lot of fun recreating. (32300022)

Mary Carey took over the school in September 2005 and with pupils aged from four to 11, she has perfected the art of teaching the varied age groups all at once. She has already seen several children through the whole of their primary education and off to high school in Guernsey, every one of them taking with them the firm sense of self-worth that their teacher instilled in them. Mary has a spark that is passed to her pupils, nurturing their individual strengths, and teaching them all that they have unique gifts. The one-on-one tutoring they receive is second to none.

Those who have attended Herm School are part of a lucky group who remember their idyllic school days with happiness. The children are fiercely loyal to their teacher and their school, and once they reach 11, it has always been difficult to get them to leave.

Like Mrs Corboy all those years before, Mrs Carey has a creative approach to learning. Lessons are often taken outside the classroom and the whole island is their playground, used for sport, nature lessons and drama. Numbers haven’t varied much since 1955, with often a good mix of boys and girls, although on a couple of occasions a solitary boy has found himself outnumbered.

These past months, however, are the first time the school has had only four pupils, and so sadly, the island has been advised at short notice by Education that Herm School will close for an indefinite period at the end of the summer term. Even the basic difficulties of this – reception children having to commute five days a week, mothers unable to work, and the extra difficulty of attracting young families to the island, not to mention retaining those already there – seem barely to have been considered.

It is, for now, a sudden end to education on Herm, a sad loss to the entire community, and the end of a era. We can only hope that Herm School will one day return, welcoming more bright-eyed island children through its doors to receive an education they will never forget.