Articles

Highfield School

from the air we can see the building of the school. they have large rectangular shaped buildings with white roofs
Aerial view of the Highfield School.

The scrapbook record of a school that once existed

Highfield was a secondary school in Hemel Hempstead, built to support the New Town’s growing population as it expanded in the 1960s. It survived for only 21 years from 1963 to 1984 and its site has now been developed for housing.
Apart from a few papers in the Hertfordshire Archive, Dacorum Heritage is custodian of most of Highfield School’s surviving records. These were donated by John Cotton, headmaster throughout Highfield’s existence. The records consist of a series of books containing memorabilia documenting the story of the school. Within the books’ pages lies a trove of photographs, programmes, newspaper clippings, and school communications.

a group of about 28 students stand in two rows. the row in the back are standing higher on the stage so all their faces can be seen by the audience who are not in the shot. The students are all mostly looking down at a white piece of paper and look like they are in the middle of singing. A Black and White photo
The first school event – Harvest Festival 1963.
A group shot of 27 of children aged 9- 11 years old. the front row are seated on their knees. their hair looks like it's blowing in the wind. they are grouped in a large field. they are squinting from the sun and one child has his hand up to his forehead shielding himself from the sun. A Black and White photo
In August 1964, a group from the first intake spent a week at St Mary’s Bay, Kent.

Highfield opened its doors for the first time on 10 September 1963 to an inaugural intake of 78 first year students. A ‘state of the art’ school building, designed by Fello Atkinson (1919–1982), sadly the building barely outlived its architect. Pictures of the school evoke the New Town dream, pristine grounds, polished wooden floors, and spacious, well-lit laboratories and classrooms. By the time the school closed, around 2,000 pupils had passed through its doors.
John Cotton had impressive leadership credentials. He was an ex-commando officer who had served in the Far East in the Second World War. He was an well-regarded poet and an active member of the Teachers’ Union and Labour Party. He held high ambitions for the pupils, but the school was not immune from the lack of funding and low aspirations that beleaguered the secondary education sector during the sixties and seventies. Nevertheless, Highfield offered a wide range of artistic and sporting activities. There was a Sailing Club which built its own boat, and the sports teams were accomplished, the pinnacle being the pioneering Girls’ Basketball team who were U16s National Schools winners. The team captain, Andrea Warner, went on to play for England.

a group of young women stand in two rows. the front row are sitting on a bench. The two in the centre hold a small silver trophy. each girl is holding a handle on each side. The row at the back, in the centre stands a male basketball coach wearing a dark coloured tie and his arms behind his back. Everyone is smiling and look very happy in the photo. A Black and White photo
The U16s basketball team that went on to be National Champions a year later.
Back Row L to R – C. Whittle, G. Cheshire-Beeson, M A Duffield (Coach). L. Klyen, S. Bateman
Front Row L to R – D. Driscoll, M. Howse, A. Warner, C. Watts, C. Robinson, L. Carten

However, by the late seventies the writing was on the wall for Highfield. Changing demographics and declining enrollment prompted initial discussions with Grove Hill around the merging of sixth forms. This culminated in the more radical proposal to voluntarily amalgamate the schools, giving birth to a new institution, Astley Cooper School, situated at the Grove Hill site.
The fates of Highfield and Grove Hill had been intertwined from the start. During the construction of Grove Hill’s buildings, Highfield had temporarily hosted its pupils. Grove Hill’s long-standing Headmaster Wolfgang Schlessinger went on to lead the newly merged schools. John Cotton took the opportunity to retire to his home in Berkhamsted. His death at the age of 78 in 2003 was commemorated with obituaries in several national newspapers.
The Highfield School books are absorbing even for those with no connection to the school as the stories are universal. The fetes, concerts, school trips and sporting events and the never-ending exam cycle all resonate with our own childhoods. However, unlike the typical school history, it does not provide a completely varnished history and is therefore a most interesting and accurate record. Ultimately, it is the personal stories that shine through. One is left to wonder what happened to the pupils whose faces are captured in these books and that attended this school, of which few traces remain.

 A Black and White photo shows a car in a street. behind the car we can see building work happening as bricks are wooden beams are piled up. in the far backgroun we can see a building but it looks unfinished. There are two young children aged 4- 6 years old one is whispering into the younger ones ear. We also see a adult standing by the car looking at the children from a distance.
An early picture of Highfield School before it was completed. The participants in the photo may be John Cotton’s family.
researched and written by Alex Scott Dacorum Heritage Volunteer February 2024
Share

Latest articles

all articles
crosschevron-right