What ever happened to the colleges of education, those specialist teacher-training institutions that were effectively abolished across England and Wales in the 1970s and 80s?
In some ways, the demise of teacher-training colleges was unsurprising. Although some 160-strong by the early-1970s, many were small and isolated and some were rather parochial, inward-looking organisations. Many were also uneconomical and the quality of provision was, frankly, variable.
While there had been numerous attempts to improve the content and status of teacher training, by the late-1960s educational expansion and the changing demands of schooling created pressure for change. The mixture of undergraduate, postgraduate and certificated routes meant programmes lacked consistency and coherence – resulting in a Conservative party pledge in the run-up to the 1970 general election to undertake a comprehensive review.
The way in which that change was carried out, however, was highly controversial, and an important if largely overlooked juncture in the history of English education.
Drawing on the recommendations of the James report, the somewhat ironically entitled 1972 white paper Education: A Framework for Expansion suggested five possible futures for colleges of education:
Continuing as independent teacher-training colleges
A broadening of role and remit to become a more general higher education institution
Merger with a university, polytechnic or FE college
Redesignation as a professional development centre for in-service teacher training
This all sounds rational but we must not underestimate the turmoil that ensued.
The white paper announced that the number of teacher-training places would be slashed by a third by 1980, but figures were cut on four further occasions between 1974 and 1977, effectively reducing the total by two-thirds. Consequently, just 20 colleges continued to focus wholly or largely on teacher training. Eventually all were taken over, often by a nearby university, or closed altogether. Meanwhile, 25 colleges of education shut.
The white paper announced that the number of teacher-training places would be slashed by a third by 1980
Most colleges did manage to find an alternative future. Almost 40 were absorbed into new polytechnics and 20 merged with FE colleges, creating “mixed economy” FE/HE institutions. Others re-emerged as new colleges of institutes of higher education (CIHEs) offering a range of social sciences and humanities courses, usually up to first-degree level. Eventually, almost 60 CIHEs were created during the 1970s and 1980s, usually from the merger of two or more colleges of education – effectively forming a “third division” of HE below the universities and polytechnics.
The way in which change was conducted, however, was arguably as significant as any outcome of “reform”. It was not an “architectural” planned and collaborative process. Colleges of education were forced into a Darwinian struggle and colleges were effectively required to fight for their futures, or perish.
It is perhaps no coincidence then that the secretary of state responsible for all this was one Margaret Thatcher. Whilst her infatuation with markets and competition would not come until later in the 1970s, arguably the way colleges of education were treated displayed her nascent instincts. She saw education policy as dominated by cosy, closed relations between civil servants, trade unions and various other socialists, and she had a disdain for bureaucratic procedures. Arguably then, the fate of the colleges of education provided at least some insight into what would be the future of education policy more broadly.
Robin Simmons is professor of education at the University of Huddersfield