A History of the West of England School


Above: an image of the school at St David's Hill, printed on the report of the AGM held in 1886.

The West of England School was founded on 28th April 1838. A meeting was held in Exeter attended by a group of people who had taken it upon themselves to be responsible for the well-being of the city's blind population. A Mrs Friend, who had already started to instruct six blind children in portions of the gospels, led this group of worthy citizens. She felt that the experiment had been a great success and that with more help other blind people could be given the same opportunity.

The school was called 'The West of England Institute for the Instruction and Employment of the Blind' and was held in rooms in South Street. During the first year the pupils experimented with several reading techniques which resulted in the use of stenographic characters (invented by Mr Lucas of Bristol). This was some sort of 'shorthand' similar to the contractions found in Braille today, which were taught to the older pupils.

Blind people were encouraged to attend the institute by local doctors and clergy. The school flourished and new larger rooms were purchased, thanks to donations given by the public, on which the school depended, much as it still does today!

The move from South Street to Paul Street was accomplished and by 1840 the craft of basket making and stocking-knitting was introduced into the curriculum. A teacher for this purpose was engaged for the pricey sum of twelve shillings a week. Music began to play an important part in the curriculum, as it continues today, and in 1841 a group of fifteen pupils were able to give a music recital whilst the rest of the school produced a display of work.

 
Above: a modern photo of the old school on St David's Hill

By 1842 the school had outgrown the rooms in Paul Street and the committee launched a general appeal. A very generous offer from a Mrs Wilkinson, of a large house outside the city walls on St David's Hill was eagerly accepted and the school moved once again to the building which remained its home until 1965.

We don't know what happened to the school for the next six years as the records were lost, but the school obviously survived and we learn that a raised form of music notation as invented by the schools' music teacher, Mr R.W.Wylie and approved by the committee, who oversaw everything very conscientiously.

The following year half yearly exams in basket making, mat making and music were held in front of the committee and each pupil had a progress book. By 1852 an accumulation of donations and legacies enabled the committee to enlarge the house at a cost of £370.10 shillings. From then until 1859 nine workers cottages, new sheds and a yard to process the willow for basket making, were purchased.

 
Above: a modern photo of the old school on St David's Hill

Ten years later the committee were in a financial position to buy land for a garden and a small playing field. The final expense was to install an organ with 510 pipes which was finished by 1869. We have to wait until 1880 for the next major development, when children under thirteen years were put to full time education for not less than seven hours a day. And to include physical education. To this end a gymnasium was built in the grounds in July 1893. 

By the end of that decade Braille had been introduced and was being taught throughout the school. Suitable pupils could also learn the craft of pianoforte tuning and yet another teacher was employed to cover this aspect of the curriculum. The Deaf and Blind Act of 1893 stimulated the committee to build a schoolroom which accommodated twenty boys and twenty girls, and also that year the organ was rebuilt. The century turned and Queen Victoria died.
The workshops were rebuilt and made much larger in 1907. The school was also bursting at the seams and a new teaching block and dormitories were finished by 1909. It is reported that in 1911 there were seventy children and twelve adults in the institution. Workshops were set up at St David's Hill where the pupils over sixteen could learn a skill. These survived until 1962 when the city council took over the responsibility for the visually handicapped adults working in the shops. At this time the curriculum included music, piano tuning, woodwork, typewriting, machine knitting, basket making, mat making, chair making, boot repairing and ordinary academic subjects.

From that time on there was minimal change except that more and more partially sighted children were accepted. The 1944 Education Act stated that blind and partially sighted children should be educated separately, so the blind went off to the Bristol Blind School and The West of England Institute become The West of England School for the Partially Sighted.

 
Above: a photo of the current school at Countess Wear on the outskirts of Exeter

1965 saw the move to the present purpose-built school at Topsham Road, Countess Wear on the outskirts of Exeter and ever since that time the school has strengthened and widened its impact on the education of both blind and partially sighted children. It became a regional school for all visually handicapped children in 1974.

In January 2013 the school announced and lunched its new look and identity, no longer The West of England School and College for children with little or no sight, but now the  WESC Foundation the Specialist Centre for Visual Impairment. The change of identity comes to reflect the evolution of the school and College over the past decade or so and coincides with the 175th Anniversary of the founding of the school in 1838. The Foundation (school and college) has had to diversify especially over the last ten years to survive as more children with just a visual impairment remain in main stream education. Children with severe complex needs as well as a visual impairment are now the norm. The Foundation also has an outreach program that works with visual impaired children in main stream schools and adults not only covering the Exeter area but Torbay and also works with colleges and universities nationwide.

So what is the future? No doubt more changes and diversification as the years progress.

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