A college’s hidden history can help shape its future

Your organisation’s rich local heritage is a source of untapped emotional resonance within the community that is more live than you might think, finds Ben Verinder
23rd February 2018, 12:00am
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Ben Verinder


A college’s hidden history can help shape its future


In the maelstrom of merger and the churn of education policy, the focus of colleges is often on the new: new brands, teams, alliances, curricula, facilities, initiatives.

The past is a foreign country, wrote LP Hartley, and they do things differently there. Yet, in concentrating their vision on the future, colleges are underestimating the power of their pasts.

Trust, for instance, is retrospective rather than prospective. We invest our trust in institutions because of what they have done, not what they promise to do. A long track record of helping to educate the people of a particular place is a significant trust asset. In a major 2011 study of public attitudes, one of the few common, positive perceptions of colleges was that they sit in and serve a particular locale. They exist in, and for, a distinct community.

Yet, college histories are often hidden. Chesterfield College, for example, has been serving the people of that town for 177 years. The college began life as the Chesterfield and Brampton Mechanics' Institute in 1841. If you happen to pass by the Derbyshire Record Office and are so inclined, you can read the minutes of every governing body meeting from its founding year to 1880. But you won't find any of this information on the college website.

It is unfair of me to single out this institution. Whether a college publishes its history online is perhaps beside the point. What matters is whether it celebrates that heritage and understands its importance in defining purpose. A grasp of its history can help a college to elevate itself above the fray of politics and policy; it can provide the materials for a vision and mission that are built to last, and give leaders and staff a confidence independent of their ability to respond to the latest diktat.

This view of heritage has at its heart an understanding that college leaders and staff are custodians, not owners, of an institution. Chesterfield's story is similar to Blackburn's (established as the Blackburn Technical College in 1888, specialising in engineering and textiles); York's (the heritage of which can be traced back to the York Mechanics' Institute, founded in 1827 to teach art and science, and 50 years later, a body that boasted a library of more than 10,000 volumes); Dewsbury's (now part of Kirklees College, formally opened as Dewsbury and District Technical School on 12 June 1890), and many others. All of these organisations were established by public subscription. People make places, and in the context of many colleges, this is a literal truth.

A change of name or designation does not strip an institution of its heritage. There's pride to be had in longevity and purpose, even if the sign above the door changes from school to college and back again several times.

Fareham College was formed of a merger between a technical college and a sixth-form college, itself the successor to Price's School, founded in the will of one William Price, who died on 31 May 1725 and whose body lies in the cemetery of St Peter and St Paul, Fareham. That is some pedigree.

Dismantling mythology

History helps to dismantle mythology. Take the persistent trope that FE has a long history of occupying a political hinterland. As evidence to the contrary, I present Stroud College, which dates back to 1853 with the formation of the Stroud Mutual Improvement Society, which offered lectures and classes in a range of subjects in a former pub called the Golden Heart. In 1856, its visiting lecturers included Lord John Russell, a leading Whig and Liberal politician who served as prime minister, foreign secretary, home secretary and leader of the opposition at different points in the early Victorian era.

It's a mistake to think that heritage is anathema to innovation, as the technology start-ups of Oxford and Cambridge would attest. FE is a complex and difficult thing to communicate. But heritage can cut through. It can provide an emotional resonance that bald facts about student recruitment and progress never could.

The literature - and my company's many studies on the subject - tell us that parents and other family members are still significantly influential in student choice of institution, particularly for the under-19s. There is also a correlation between a company's propensity to take on an apprentice and the exposure of its senior team to technical education during their lives (particularly as apprentices or people who have hired them). To put it another way, the experiences of people in a college 30 or 40 years ago are shaping its reputation now, whether colleges like it or not. The past, in John Banville's charming words, beats inside them like a second heart.

Ben Verinder is managing director of education consultancy Chalkstream

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