Frances Mary Sim – First Headmistress of the Kindergarten and founder of the Bedford Teacher Training College
by Linda Ayres
Frances Mary Sim had been an early pioneer in Kindergarten methods and became first Head Mistress of the Kindergarten and founder of the Teacher Training College in Bedford. Among the students trained from 1898 at the Training College was Mrs Margaret Wintringham, nee Longbottom who became the second woman, and the first British woman, to take her seat in the House of Commons in 1921. Many teachers were sent overseas, often as missionaries, helping to spread the Kindergarten principle in Africa and Asia.
At some stage in the 1850s, Frances left her home in Edinburgh to train at the Home and Colonial College, where she was later recognised as an excellent advocate of the educational principles of Friedrich Froebel, who led the way in early childhood education. Froebel created a new kind of school for three and four year old children in 1837, which he called child’s garden or kindergarten. Prior to this children under the age of seven did not receive educational training because they were not recognized of being capable of learning sound and intellectual learning.
Friedrich Froebel stated, “Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is free expression of what is in a child’s soul.” He was convinced that the teaching of young children should be through play.
The Froebel principle offered a very different education of young children. He considered that a child ought to learn at his or her own pace, never rushed during their childhood development. This was in stark contrast to the severe methods used by the elementary schools. Teachers were harsh towards children who had learning difficulties or learned more slowly and would look upon these children as being badly behaved. Their punishment would be to stand in the corner or on a stool for an hour or more or made to wear a dunce’s hat. Moreover, children who were left-handed were forced to use their right hand.
As a trainee teacher, Frances was so inspired by Froebelian principles that she went to Germany and on her return to England began kindergartens in private schools in Greenwich and Lewisham. In 1875, she was appointed Kindergarten Mistress at Southampton Girls’ College.
Mr. Joshua Hawkins, who was part owner of the Bedfordshire Times, and Mr. J. S. Phillpotts, Head Master of Bedford Grammar School, and Rev. R. B. Poole Head Master of Bedford Modern School wanted to establish an infant’s school. At the time there were four schools run by the Harpur Trust two boys schools (Grammar and Modern), with two companion girls’ schools but all schools only took children from the age of seven years.
In 1881, Mr. Hawkins, Mr. Phillpotts, and Rev. Poole had set up the Kindergarten Company and had been busy preparing the establishment of the new Kindergarten and appointed Frances Sim. They acquired premises, first at 34 Bromham Road in January 1882, but relocated to 14 The Crescent in April 1882. Soon after, transition classes were added in which children were regularly prepared for admission into various schools.
Frances persuaded the Kindergarten Company to set up a Training College for students, which became a fundamental part of the establishment. Students began training at the age of 17 without qualifications, and received education themselves, their length of time training was five years, and students who had made the grade gained the Bedford Froebel Certificate.
In July 1891 at the annual festival of the Kindergarten, which took place in the Corn Exchange, Mr. Phillpotts in his speech, said that Bedford College was the largest in England. The Mayor (Mr. Joshua Hawkins) complimented Frances and the staff of the Kindergarten, and referred particularly to the success of the Training College department. He mentioned the fact that children passing from the Kindergarten generally obtained very high positions in Schools.
Frances had suffered illness for some time. A few weeks before she died her friend took her into her home, at The Nook in Cowper Road, and engaged nurses to care for her. Sadly, Frances died at 8.30pm, Sunday 3rd September 1895. The funeral took place the following Wednesday, just after midday. The Rev. Alban Wright, a good friend to the Kindergarten and its late principal, took the first part of the service in the Chapel. In attendance were her adopted daughter Joan, and many of Frances’s friends and colleagues. The Rev. A. Hawkins Jones officiated at the grave, amid bright sunshine, near shady trees, and covered with flowers.
A year after Frances died, an extension to the Kindergarten opened at 81 Goldington Avenue, known as Froebel House. Bedford became the leading Teacher Training College in upholding the Froebel principles in the 19th century, and the model was central through the 20th century. In 1950, the Local Authority took over the college, and the changeover was made from Froebel training to the two-year course for teachers in primary schools. The college closed down in the Crescent in 1968.
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