Large windows looking out over rose-bedded gardens, sheltered cloisters, decorative wrought-iron sculptures... the gentle elegance of Sawston village college in Cambridgeshire speaks of another age. This rural secondary school recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, and yet its community education ethos is bang up to date and may have influenced a number of key government initiatives.
Sawston was the first of the village colleges, the brainchild of Cambridgeshire educationist Henry Morris, who - anticipating New Labour by decades - had a vision of schools being at the heart of local lives. "The village college involved school in the work of community, and vice versa,"
says Andrew Baxter, Cambridgeshire's chief education officer, the fifth person to hold the post since Henry Morris retired in 1954.
The schools were set up to educate children and adults side by side, to act as cultural hubs in villages that lacked other facilities, and to bring people together. They remain, says Mr Baxter, proof of the adage that "it takes a village to raise a child". Twelve of Cambridgeshire's 31 secondary schools are village colleges; another 10 are "community colleges" - the same thing in all but name, says Mr Baxter.
Village colleges may date back three-quarters of a century, but there is no disputing that Morris's ideas about the role of schools have currency now.
Lifelong learning, extended hours (dubbed "Kelly hours" by a government keen to put its stamp on an old idea), full-service schools - all policies pulled from the New Labour hat - are well established in village colleges.
"Essentially, extended schools is the same idea," says Mr Baxter. "But it does make new demands on us, using the schools as a base for social care and health services."
Whether government reforms have been influenced by Cambridgeshire schools remains a moot point, although David Normington, permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills, did visit the county in 2004, just a few months before the launch of the extended schools agenda. "I think we've had some influence," says Mr Baxter.
Lifelong learning is part of the fabric at Sawston. In a corridor, a teenage girl hurries to a lesson; in a classroom off the same corridor, a group of 20 adults is absorbed in a watercolour class. Later, a group of pensioners arrives to attend the University of the Third Age, pausing on their way to talk to teenagers perched in the cloisters. Primary school pupils visit regularly.
The school caters for 1,100 children aged 11 to 16 and some 1,500 adult learners, who study everything from assertiveness to willow weaving, and feng shui to stable management (of the horse variety). The presence of visiting adults, many of them elderly, is a positive influence on children's behaviour, says Mr Baxter.
Sawston's warden (as village college heads are known), June Cannie, has spent most of her professional lifetime in village colleges, and believes that all parties benefit from the mix. "For me, it's normal to have adults and children learning side by side," she says. "Morris's belief was that the school should be the focal point for the community. And I think he got it right."
When Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman were murdered by Ian Huntley, the caretaker at Soham village college, in 2002, Ms Cannie responded immediately. "I wrote to parents, saying it was important to bring up children in an atmosphere of trust and openness, and that putting up barriers between them detaches children from the community and gives them a sense of suspicion."
Henry Morris wanted intellectual freedom for the village colleges, whose purpose he said was to "enhance the quality of actual life as it is lived".
What he called the "dismal dispute of vocational and non-vocational" would not arise, as academic subjects would be taught in a practical way - foreshadowing the current interest in kinaesthetic learning, but also a bleak reminder that the "dismal dispute" is still unresolved at national level since the rejection of last year's Tomlinson report.
Competent teachers and beautiful buildings were indispensable elements in the vision, and Morris hoped that village colleges would eventually dot the English landscape as regularly as church steeples. In fact, only 12 were built, but the village college movement inspired community schools across the country. Sawston's school log shows that between 1930 and 1940 it was visited by educationists from 30 countries.
Sawston has reinvented itself for the modern age. Alongside the old buildings stands a new arts centre, opened in 2004 and built to match Henry Morris's aesthetic standards. In accordance with the school's community remit, the centre has a manager, Daniel Schumann - the post is funded jointly by Cambridgeshire County Council, Sawston and nearby Linton village college - whose remit is to make the village "a place where people can have a life, rather than just live". An educational charity for adults with learning difficulties is based on site, as is a sports centre, complete with swimming pool, which is used not only by students and the general public but by cardiac patients as well.
Extended hours, one of the cornerstones of the Government's Every Child Matters strategy, is already on offer here - although for different reasons. Sawston village college is open from 7.30am until 10pm, not to accommodate adults' work schedules, but to reinforce the belief that the school belongs to everyone. "The message to children is that it is their school," says June Cannie. "If they have that sense, they are loyal and committed to school." By contrast, she says, "Kelly hours" are "more utilitarian than philosophical".
A fully staffed homework facility is open until 5pm every day. Children can attend a wide range of after-school clubs: trampolining, netball, rugby, basketball, swimming, dance and, on Saturdays, archery. At the same time, their parents might be swimming, or attending an African dance performance in the arts centre.
An extended school in everything but name, Sawston officially became a full-service institution last week. Ms Cannie already oversees on-site youth workers, the arts manager and the leisure centre staff. She works closely with the local police and, unusually, concerns herself with children's behaviour off as well as on school premises. "I don't just care about you when you're in school. I care about you when you're out of school as well. I think it's right," she says. Plus, she adds playfully, students are more frightened of her than they are of police officers.
The Sawston partnership, led by the school's special needs co-ordinator Nikky Parker, will include the local primary healthcare trust, social services - which will provide a social worker for 20 hours a week, to serve Sawston, Linton and 13 primary schools - plus specialists from early years, Connexions and behaviour support. "We're doers," says Ms Cannie. "I've got children in my school that need help now. I want there to be a situation where even a tiny problem is picked up by a sympathetic ear at an early stage, and sorted." But the new partnership seems unlikely to bring funding with it, bar a "few thousand" from the county for the Senco's leadership role. Ms Cannie says it is more a question of "people working differently, not more expensively", and agencies that already work with the school changing their practice.
The interests of Cambridgeshire's village colleges have not always coincided with those of government. The reorganisation of community education two years ago, for example, has undermined aspects of the colleges' work, through its centralised prescription of which courses are eligible for funding from the Learning and Skills Council. Sawston tried to compensate for the funding shortfall by joining up with Linton village college, 10 miles away, to form a "broadening education partnership".
Between them, the two now offer a huge range of mostly self-financing courses that would otherwise have fallen by the wayside.
The change has left a gap, says Andrew Baxter. "The programmes we offer now more precisely reflect government priorities," he says. "There is still a sense that we have lost something: the informal education opportunities that village colleges were particularly good at, the non-threatening opportunities to start learning something in adult life, especially for people ill-disposed towards formality."
How other government initiatives will play out in Cambridgeshire remains to be seen, although Mr Baxter does not envisage village colleges rushing to become trust schools. Sawston became grant-maintained in the early Nineties and is now a foundation school, but it has retained links with the local education authority. "We have tried to make the formal status of the schools as insignificant as possible," he says, pointing out that, at best, trusts could be seen as another manifestation of "community" and, at worst, could deflect attention from education priorities.
Mr Baxter, who retires next year after 10 years in the job, sees village colleges becoming even more relevant over the next 25 years. In tandem with the growth of the internet and new technology, secondary schools, he says, will become "the places where young people develop their social skills, learn to relate to each other, be team players, citizens". Just like village colleges, in fact.