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The history behind closed schools across Kent, from Bunce Court to Folkestone's Pent Valley

School - we've all been there.

Whether you look back with a golden-hued nostalgia or just full-on anguish, we all have some sense of connection to the halls, corridors and classrooms which formed the bulk of our childhoods.

Kent's Lost Schools
Kent's Lost Schools

But the onward march of time has left many of these historic institutions standing only in the memories of its teachers, parents and pupils.

Others have been bulldozed to make way for shiny new buildings and a fresh name.

From budgetary issues to falling grades, each now-lost school has a story to tell.

Bunce Court School, Otterden, near Faversham

The sleepy village of Otterden might seem like an unlikely place to hide Jewish children fleeing from the growing Nazi regime.

Anna Essinger saved many Jewish children
Anna Essinger saved many Jewish children

But head teacher Anna Essinger felt it was the perfect location to establish her independent boarding school free from the sweeping power of German nationalism, and in doing so saved countless young people in the process.

Her mind was made up when the German government ruled no Jewish pupils would be allowed to sit the Arbitur - the high school leaving certificate.

Hidden on the North Downs, the manor house in Otterden, between Lenham and Faversham, became a home to hundreds of children who may have otherwise suffered a cruel fate.

In 2018, a handful of alumni - all in their 90s - gathered at the school grounds for the unveiling of a plaque in her honour.

Celebrated painter Frank Auerbach has said of the school: "It was at Bunce Court I realised elaborate possessions, treats and, to a large extent, status and money, were not essential to a rich life.

Bunce Court pupils on a train to Kent
Bunce Court pupils on a train to Kent

"I cannot imagine a better home."

But the school was closed down by the head teacher in 1948 - Anna's eyesight was failing and she apparently could not bear the thought of someone else running the school as her successor.

Queen's School, Margate

Now a densely-packed residential area, Dalby Square in Cliftonville was once home to a girl's school stretching across several properties.

Starting off with just two pupils in 1899, Mrs Ethel Annie Walton opened Queen's School at 9, 10 and 11 Dalby Square.

Queens School, Margate. Pic courtesy of Kent Archives
Queens School, Margate. Pic courtesy of Kent Archives

Eventually an annexe was also acquired in neighbouring Athelstan Road, with the separate sections of the school all linked together by gardens.

In the tumult and confusion of the First World War, the pupils were evacuated to Newbury in Berkshire.

Gaining more pupils through the years, a wing was then built between 9 and 10 Dalby Square and they even acquired a playing field.

Pupil records appear to end in 1938, when it is thought the school was closed in the advent of the Second World War.

It is likely Mrs Walton foresaw how dangerous the coastal location could be for her pupils as another war began to grip the globe.

Dalby Square looks a little different now. Picture: Google Maps
Dalby Square looks a little different now. Picture: Google Maps

Sure enough, in 1943 bombs dropped by German planes destroyed much of Margate, including two properties in Dalby Square, metres away from the school.

Records suggest that seven soldiers, billeted at 21 Dalby Square, were killed when the building was hit by a 500kg bomb on June 1, 1943.

Pent Valley Technology College

The Cheriton-based secondary school found itself facing closure in 2015 following rising debt, falling attendance and low GCSE exam results.

But its history goes back decades, all the way to 1938.

Pent Valley School, Folkestone
Pent Valley School, Folkestone

Originally called Harcourt Secondary Schools for Girls, the school was not renamed Pent Valley until 1972 when it was merged with Harcourt Primary School and Morehall Secondary School for Boys.

Christine Warren left the school in 1959, before the merger happened.

She admitted to not having particularly fond memories of her time in education. "Miss Ashdown was our headmistress, and you dreaded being called into her office," she said.

"I was never caned, but knew it was a threat to be taken seriously. We also had morning assembly, which you could only be excused from if your parents told the school you were Jewish or some other religion that didn't follow the Church of England.

"I could never persuade my mother to do that, so had to sit through it each day.

Harcourt School. Image courtesy of Vincent Williams' An Illustrated History, Vol.5
Harcourt School. Image courtesy of Vincent Williams' An Illustrated History, Vol.5

"Miss Rosser would play 'Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring' on the piano while we filed in and again when we filed out - a piece I do really like, but four years of it every single day got a bit tiresome."

The original building was designed by the winner of a competition in the Architects Journal and the building cost £46,500 to build - adjusted for inflation the figure now would be a whopping £3.2million.

According to local author and historian Vincent Williams, the announcement to turn Harcourt into the Pent Valley mixed school shocked many people, despite educational system reforms being announced years prior.

In 2015, Kent County Council revealed a plummeting academic performance, with only 15% of pupils managing to achieve five GCSEs graded A* to C.

At the time the government's target was 40%, which had alarm bells ringing and resulted in even lower student admissions as parents looked further afield to better alternatives for their children.

Before closing and being remodelled as the Turner Free School in 2018, Folkestone and Hythe MP Damian Collins even referred to the state of the school as a 'dramatic decline.'

Dorton House, Sevenoaks

The majority of the county's lost schools only survive in the memories of past pupils and depreciating photographs.

But the inner life of one school in Kent was immortalised in 1961 in a short film titled Eyes of a Child.

The government-backed documentary takes the audience inside Dorton House in Seal, near Sevenoaks, which at the time was home to the Royal London Society for the Blind and residential school for blind and partially-sighted children.

Taken from Eyes of a Child (1961). BFI National Archive/The National Archives
Taken from Eyes of a Child (1961). BFI National Archive/The National Archives

During the film the children are shown being taught cooking, chemistry and reading Braille, as well as letting their imaginations run wild in the grounds of the the Grade II-listed Georgian mansion.

The first shot of the film shows a young girl clinging to a tree she has climbed while brandishing a toy gun.

It is thought the film hoped to upend the common misconceptions of a what a blind child could be capable of.

There are also references to the pupils being punished for misbehaving or acting out and they are shown being subjected to a daily 'shoe parade' to check their footwear was suitably clean.

The residential school was established at Dorton House in 1954 and remained there until 2013, when it was closed.

Taken from Eyes of a Child (1961). BFI National Archive/The National Archives
Taken from Eyes of a Child (1961). BFI National Archive/The National Archives

The modern version of the charity - the Royal Society for Blind Children - has since established the RSBC Dorton College of Further Education in London, named after the original school.

The building, which was built around 300 years ago, has since been returned to its original name of Wildernesse House, and has been converted into a luxury retirement development.

To watch Eyes of a Child for free on the BFI Player, click here.

Chaucer Technology School, Canterbury

Suffering the same fate as Pent Valley, Chaucer Technology School in Spring Lane, Canterbury, was closed in 2015 following Kent County Council’s decision to shut the school, saying it was “no longer viable”.

The former Chaucer School in Spring Lane, Canterbury. Picture: Chris Davey
The former Chaucer School in Spring Lane, Canterbury. Picture: Chris Davey

The school struggled for a number of years before being put into special measures by Ofsted, and a year prior to its closure just 27 families opted for Chaucer as their first choice school for the next academic year.

The empty buildings were left for the weeds and ivy, sitting empty and undeveloped for half a decade.

But in 2020 demolition workers reduced the old school to rubble, destroying the classrooms and hallways remembered by pupils since the 1960s.

The original version of the school, Canterbury Technical High School for Boys, was founded before the Second World War.

In 1967 the school moved to the site in Spring Lane, and in 1973 changed to a mixed school and was renamed the Geoffery Chaucer School.

Demolition of the former Chaucer Tech School. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Demolition of the former Chaucer Tech School. Picture: Barry Goodwin

The grounds of the now-demolished school will make way for Barton Manor School, a new non-selective secondary school run by Barton Court Academy Trust.

The new school is due to open in September 2021 - yet another collection of classrooms, hallways and offices which will leave an indelible mark on the memories of the next generation.

News from our universities, local primary and secondary schools including Ofsted inspections and league tables can be found here.

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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