College boys

Henry Morris: village colleges, community education and the ideal order

Tony Jeffs <em>Educational

Harry Ree, the famous professor of education, told an audience of young teachers 28 years ago: "I think we are going to see in your lifetime the end of schools as we know them. Instead, there will be a community centre with the doors open 12 hours a day, seven days a week, where anybody can wander in and out of the library, workshop, sports centre, self-service store and bar." It hasn't happened that way. The current climate of education is dominated by the language of business schools. It shows a mania for testing and for turning teachers into form-fillers. Diversity and experiment are being discarded, and the Chief Inspector of Schools has declared that we need "less learning by doing and more teaching by telling". At such a time, the Educational Heretics series reminds us of a century of attempts to break away from such Victorian orthodoxies.

Henry Morris was the least likely radical educator. The son of a Southport plumber, he found his way to Exeter College, Oxford, and, after service in the first world war, to King's College, Cambridge. He cultivated the mannerisms and accent of his fellow officers, and emerged "with the military bearing of a man who expected to be obeyed". In 1922, he became education officer of Cambridgeshire County Council. While the town was the home of learning and great institutions, the rest of the county was impoverished, sleepy and sparsely populated. Its all-age elementary schools were legacies of the previous century. Any career-minded school administrator would see the job as a staging post to something better. But Morris stayed until his obligatory retirement at the age of 65 in 1954, having made the Cambridgeshire village colleges an aspiration for educationalists across the world.

His report, The Village College, was circulated to every councillor by the end of 1924. It described their schools as "ill-managed, ill-found, ill-taught" and called for the abolition of the barriers that separate education from the rest of the community. "It is only in a world where education is confined to infants and adolescents that the teacher is inclined to become a pundit or tyrant."

Tony Jeffs records how the councillors were dazzled by the "passion, excitement and breadth" of this exhilarating memorandum and how they, in 1925, voted to implement it, with the proviso that it must entail no additional expenditure. Morris worked in a period of just as much financial stringency and philistine bureaucracy as our own, yet he succeeded in transforming the education of sleepy, low-budget Cambridgeshire. Under his tenure, six village colleges opened, followed by four more before his death in 1961. He inspired a generation of postwar education administrators, such as Stewart Mason who brought the community college to Leicestershire.

Morris understood that education could transform rural life. But what really made a transformation was the end of the agricultural depression after the second world war, the new mobility of car- owning families (coupled with the increasing immobility of car-non-users) and the influx of a new generation of silicon commuters.

In 1980, Morris's previous biographer, Ree, toured the Cambridgeshire village colleges and found that the original ideals had disappeared. Today, we see the triumph of the "classroom- ridden, lesson-ridden, textbook-ridden and information-ridden" version of schooling that Morris derided. This timely little book is a reminder that there are other educational concepts to be rediscovered, should the official mood change.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - Caprice