Education is something we often take for granted, but a step back into the town of Hitchin in the late 18th and early 19th century would tell an entirely different story. Kate Everett visited Hitchin's British Schools Museum to learn more

WITH a population of just over 3,000, 18th century Hitchin was a small country market town with an economy driven by the corn trade, malting and brewing, and large numbers of poor residents living in poor conditions in the crowded yards. For Hitchin's children life was especially bleak; education was neither affordable nor accessible, and most would have started work at a very young age labouring in factories or farms.At the same time, one man was campaigning for educational reform. Joseph Lancaster's vision was to offer education for all and his initiatives enabled masses of children to be educated at minimal cost. Lancaster devised a way to take 300 or more poor children and teach them all together, seated row after row in one big schoolroom - with just one Master. The Master would teach the more able scholars, who in turn became monitors, passing on what they had learned to the other pupils.Lancaster also perfected a system where one book could serve the whole schoolroom; monitors would take small groups of pupils to draft stations around the walls to stand in semi-circles drawn on the floor. There they would learn from printed pages pasted onto boards hung around the room.Contrary to our modern day perceptions of strict Victorian teaching, Lancaster opposed corporal punishment, yet he achieved remarkable results by using incentives to keep the boys interested and offering rewards for their achievements. It was Lancaster's visit to Hitchin in 1808 that inspired local businessman and philanthropist William Wilshere to set up the first Lancasterian school in Hertfordshire. It opened in 1810 in Queen Street - then known as Dead Street - and Hitchin's poorer children finally had somewhere to learn. In 1837 a large schoolroom designed to Lancaster's very demanding specifications was added. Today, having survived almost unaltered, it is the world's only remaining Lancasterian schoolroom, forming part of the British Schools Museum alongside other historic school buildings. Hundreds of Hertfordshire pupils pass through the doors to join living history tours, get into costume and experience a taste of Victorian school life. The museum is also enjoyed by the public, with lots to interest visitors, including a galleried classroom built in 1853 and classrooms dating from 1857 and 1905.There is much to celebrate in the next two years, as Terry Ransome from the British Schools Museum explains, 'We are very excited about this year's 200th anniversary of Joseph Lancaster coming to Hitchin, and the approaching 200th anniversary of the school's opening.'Between now and 2010 we will move forward with more restoration and improvements, and become a really thriving museum to keep this fascinating part of history alive. Our first step in our two-year bicentenary celebration is to publish more information about the people who taught here.'2008 also marks the 150th anniversary of the building of the house at 42 Queen Street, still known as Mr Fitch's. The perfectly restored house was home to William John Fitch, who was Master from 1854 to 1899. Mr Fitch saw 3,333 pupils pass by his front door on their way to school over a period of 45 years and remained there until his death in 1902. The life and times of Mr Fitch will be celebrated by the launch of a new book Educating Our Own, telling his story along with those of the four Masters who preceded him and the two who followed; between them they served the school from 1810 to 1929.'The British Schools in Hitchin represents 200 years of struggle,' says Terry. 'Not only to reform and educate, but to make ends meet; a struggle that continues even now. Thanks to the endless dedication of our team of more than 150 volunteers, the British Schools Museum can look forward to celebrating and preserving this important part of Hertfordshire's history.' INFORMATION

The British Schools Museum41-42 Queen StreetHitchinHertfordshire01462

Educating Our Own will be published by the Hitchin British Schools Trust and launched at the British Schools Museum on April 5. At the same time, improvements to the museum's buildings and improved accessibility around the site will be revealed. A new exhibition telling the story of Hitchin's Masters will run from March 22.The museum has received funding for recent improvements from Waste Recycling Environmental (WREN), the British and Foreign School Society, and the Friends of the Hitchin British Schools. The book and exhibition have been made possible by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund.