The Village College, a revolutionary concept in the U.K, turns 50.

On Saturday, my wife and I attended what was described as an afternoon ceremony, as part of the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Cottenham Village College, that serves our village, among others. I spell Village College with a capital V and a Capital C because the concept of the village college, which is designed to serve the whole community and not just the school children, came to birth in Cambridgeshire.

In a county which was then much smaller than it is now, and in its rural parts very much less affluent, the village college idea was brought to birth by a visionary chief education officer, Henry Morris, who took up the post in 1922, and brought the first Village College into existence in 1930.

Henry Morris was by all accounts a difficult man. This certainly emerges from a biography, and account of the whole process of bringing the Village College concept into existence, written by David Rooney (who was himself Warden of one of the other Village Colleges.*) Morris comes across as not at all easy to work with, and as I read the book I felt that he could well have found even more support for his remarkable ideas if he had been somewhat more tactful.

I suppose the reality is that people with innovatory ideas are quite likely to find many of the people they are dealing with to be backward-looking. The reality, too, is that this must be immensely frustrating, and vision, frustration, and tact do not always sit well together.

The fact remains that the Henry Morris vision was quite remarkable for the era in which he developed it. The fact that is that the Village Colleges caught on, and transformed the education landscape of Cambridgeshire and indeed were taken up by a number of other parts of the United Kingdom.

Our afternoon “ceremony” in Cottenham was a great reminder of the Morris vision. It was in fact a relaxed and most agreeable occasion – more a friendly party than a ceremony. The whole event was pleasantly informal, and brought together a large gathering of people many of whom knew many of the others present. Two of our children, for example, had attended the college, and we had an agreeable afternoon meeting others, whom we had known for years. We also met people whom we had known for years as adult users of the College facilities, users, that is, of the community part of the organisation.

In the evening there was another gathering a Reunion Evening Event which we did not attend. Our daughter and a number of her contemporaries did, however, and her report of the occasion is that it was also a great success. (That was encouraging to hear, not least because I was a member of the organising committee for the whole anniversary celebration.)

One remarkable feature of the afternoon gathering was that the current Principal, Mr. Steve Ellison, and all his three predecessors known initially as Wardens attended. The first holder of the post, who of course had the task of getting the College going and setting its ethos, Mr. Philip Bradley celebrated his ninety-first birthday on the following day which was a good reminder of continuity!

The College has changed greatly since our children were there. It has far more students. When it opened, there were 150. Now there are 850 reflecting an increase in the population of the area. The premises, too, have been greatly enlarged. It has recently started a sixth form. (In its early years it taught children until the age of sixteen, after which they moved to a variety of sixth forms in and around Cambridge.)

It would, of course, be surprising, and depressing, if the College had remained exactly as it was when it came into existence in 1963. The village college concept was visionary, as I have indicated, and visions which ossify are inevitably failures.

Cottenham is very obviously not ossified, and certainly not a failure. As was clearly apparent to all attending the celebratory gathering, it is a living and positive reminder of what Henry Morris’s concept was about. It was also an important reminder of one of the main Henry Morris concepts. That is to say, we were certainly celebrating fifty years of a local school, but we were also being reminded of the important role which these Village Colleges play in serving the whole community.

* Henry Morris. The Cambridgeshire Village Colleges and Community Education.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, U.K. Email him at: bill.kirkman@gmail.com