Skip to main content

Call of the cloisters

Exeter University's school of education was built in 1854. Ted Wragg looks back on a century and a half of history and forward to the celebrations

One of the most famous educational buildings in Britain is 150 years old this year. As I look across the gentle sweep of its familiar stone cloisters, today the centrepiece of Exeter University's school of education and lifelong learning campus, where I have worked for the past 25 years, it seems amazing that it opened in 1854, the year the Crimean War broke out and Charles Dickens's Hard Times was published.

Despite rain on the day, more than 40,000 people were estimated to have lined Exeter's streets to watch the huge opening procession with several military bands; the biggest crowds since the Duke of Wellington's funeral.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter, Bishop Phillpotts, in his address to students, warned: "You are going to an occupation in which you must not expect large rewards, but one which will severely try you." That could have been said in 2004.

The sum of pound;9,470 had been raised to build the Exeter Diocesan Training School for the Education of National Schoolmasters, as it was called. The bishop donated pound;500, the Prince of Wales pound;100 and Eton College gave pound;25. Eleven women, standing at the door after a packed cathedral service, collected pound;176.

The institution was renamed St Luke's Church of England College some years later (there had been a St Luke's inExeter as early as 1839, hence the modern version's claim to be the oldest teacher training college in Britain).

It remained St Luke's until 1978, when the college merged with Exeter University to form one of the largest schools of education in the UK, second in size only to the London Institute of Education. The St Luke's Club, for former students, has the longest continuous existence of any such body; formed in 1878, it is still going strong.

Women - or rather 15-year-old girls - were present at the beginning in Cathedral Close, but female students were moved to Truro in 1849, not to reappear in Exeter until 1963, although some old boys resented the idea.

The application form for that year, designed for men, still requested "chest size".

More than 30,000 trainee and experienced teachers must have passed through the building on full-time courses, and thousands more on shorter programmes. But in the 19th century, there were often only 30 or 40 students a year; today there are about 600 PGCE "annual" students a year.

The BEd qualification has been discontinued, but three-year undergraduate educational studies courses are offered, although these do not carry qualified teacher status.

Most PGCE places are taken up quickly, with the primary, history and geography courses usually filled by Christmas. We make our quotas comfortably in every subject, including maths - though physics and chemistry can be slow - and we run the only primary music specialist course.

This fine building has witnessed 150 remarkable years of educational and social history: the beginnings of compulsory education in the 1870s, two world wars (it was hit by incendiary bombs in 1942 and rebuilt three years later), countless reports, acts of Parliament, government schemes, the post-war emergency training scheme lasting a few months, the four-year degree courses, then the rapid spread of higher degrees and diplomas for experienced teachers.

Exeter has always emphasised its closeness to professional practice and its high standards for trainees. An early principal travelled to Scotland by horse-drawn coach to see David Stow's Glasgow Normal Seminary, providing state-of-the-art training in the 1830s, with an adventure playground, innovative ideas and a strong focus on learning and how to teach.

Today I meet former students all over the world. Many are headteachers, senior officers in education, professors even. Most still have a love of the profession. I rarely go to a conference without someone coming up to tell me they did their teacher training at Exeter. Sometimes I even remember an essay they wrote, or a lesson they taught.

St Luke's College was renowned for its rugby, and the list of internationals is awesome. One player, England's Martin Underwood, came on to the staff. After the merger with the university, he completed his PhD on the teaching of physical education. Martin is an eternal enthusiast who neatly sums up the mixture of academic, personal, social, practical and theoretical qualities that have been at the heart of education in Exeter.

I have worked in the building for only one-sixth of its life, but have taught and done research alongside some of Britain's most distinguished educationists. Richard Pring, John Dancy and Ron King were all here at the time of the university merger. Neville Bennett, Charles Desforges and David Burghes came later.

Today's stars - who include Gert Biesta, Bob Burden, Terence Copley, Patrick Dillon, Brahm Norwich and David Reynolds - have earned us a maximum 24 points in the quality assessment of our masters courses for experienced teachers. The college, now headed by Professor William Richardson, also gained a hatful of grade ones in the inspection of initial training, and a grade 5 in the research assessment exercise.

In 1854, students were woken at 6am and had to read books such as Outlines of Sacred History, Tate's Geometry and Scott's First Book of Science. Today they stay in bed a bit longer and set their own alarm clocks, but they leave with much better qualifications, degrees and higher degrees. Walking across the campus you cannot help but feel proud of Exeter's traditions, and today's student teachers are still, for me, among the best of their generation.

We cannot resist a celebration of this century and a half of child and teacher education, so an elaborate programme has been scheduled. There will be a lecture series, a reunion of former students (September 4-5), re-enactments of the history of education with local pupils and teachers from St Luke's high school (in the 19th century, the college's "practising school"), church events, and exhibitions of books, papers and photographs.

Ted Wragg is emeritus professor at Exeter University and a TES columnist.


Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you