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In 1930 the first village college opened, modelled on the ideals of Henry Morris of Cambridgeshire. Maurice Dybeck FRSA argues that we should go back to Morris’ vision, assess what was achieved and salvage some of the things since lost.

2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Sawtry Village College where I was Principal. Here, a small rural secondary modern school of 220 pupils grew to become a thriving 11-18 comprehensive community college of 1,400.

But whatever its current success, the school’s historic role is as one of Henry Morris’s ‘village colleges’. Morris worked in a time of financial depression. His genius was to find ways to make the best use of resources, to suck in support, private or public, and to ‘open the doors’ in people’s vision of what was the wider role of a school in the community.

Like Morris, my starting definition was not community school, but the community’s school, a small but vital distinction. We knew that with the addition of relatively small amounts of extra money and a willingness to open doors to the community, much more could be done. Local people and organisations were hungry to use the place and we encouraged every possible activity as long as it was legal and did not detract from our daytime role with the schoolchildren.

We ran evening classes, a youth club, a nursery school, scouts and cadets. Local organisations formed a community association with 50 member groups, making their own rules for regulating burgeoning demand. They raised money for both community and school and we even built our own swimming pool. We welcomed the children’s health clinic and the county library. The older generation was welcome in the daytime, using that small extra ‘adult’ space included in all village colleges. Classrooms were even used for very popular residential weekends.

Nobody gave us grants; activities grew out of people’s support for what was in effect their community centre. People using the school were not just hiring premises (paying a fair rate for fair usage) but making full use of something that they regarded as theirs.

By 1980, counties all over Britain and some countries abroad had taken up Morris’ ideas for community schools. It was a high point and the fact that comprehensive education was becoming the national norm meant that, in theory at least, any local school could now offer education for all.

So why did this never happen? Part of the reason might be found in Morris’ high-sounding but, in the end, impractical vision of how local and government departments saw their roles. Sharing premises and control inevitably involves loss of some sovereignty, and this is something that, most authorities are only prepared to do in extremis, preferring their own ‘little boxes’ to joining with others in one big box.

And wasn’t Morris being rather high-handed, telling senior colleagues how to do their job? He challenged them to get together and sink their prejudices and develop new institutions. But, as he says in a glorious misquote from Proverbs: “Where there is no vision the Statutory Authority perisheth”.

Today, another challenge to us is the change in our perception of community. People no longer live, work and seek pleasure in one place. For better or worse each person’s community is what he or she chooses it to be. For many, neighbourhood has lost its meaning. The comprehensive vision has turned out to be anything but comprehensive, and community loyalty has been replaced by pick and mix on a national scale.

In my school we developed by looking to another part of Morris’s vision: while he could be a dictator he was also a very successful beggar. If his councillors didn’t come up with funding he would go elsewhere, even to America. In Sawtry we looked to our community, who, having seen the benefits of cooperation, were generous, supporting many needs, ranging froma disabled persons’ toilet (long before these were a statutory requirement), to funding for PCs in what became the county’s first computer room.

The school team knew that the bottom line was, then as now, good school exam results. They did not disappoint. And for the older generation, a local initiative led to the formation of a care and resource organisation, CARESCO, which thrives to this day.

So what, in this, might help us today? Morris would be appalled at the security barriers that engulf our schools. He might have welcomed local involvement in governance but would have been acidic about the oppressive dictats of central government, and their manipulation by money.

If community is to be at the core of our thinking we need to start, once again, with the values found in that community.

We should be ready to trust all comers, and not start by assuming their motives might be harmful. The resentment caused by CRB checks for volunteers is far too high a price to pay for the limited security thus gained.

We need openness. Welcome people and they will be ready to give of their best. Cooperation means pooling what you have with others so that a project, be it a swimming pool, a playgroup or charity run, can succeed. We gain strength if we build upon the giving of many. This strengthens bonds and ensures donor commitment. Every school can enable lifelong learning: even the humblest has resources that can enrich the lives of all.

Finally, value for all. The ideal of the comprehensive school must be extended to its surrounding community so that; a weekend fun event on the school field can be as socially valuable as a school visit to Paris.

The final word goes to Morris: “It is the intrinsic worth of the life that the adult leads, the working philosophy by which he lives, the politics of the community he serves in his maturity, the amount of efficient action he contributes to the community, that should be the main concern of education.”


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