Viewing Impington – Henry Morris and the idea of the village college

Picture: Impington Village College by Justin Cormack. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons and reproduced under a Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Viewing Impington – Henry Morris and the idea of the village college. Henry Morris’ championship of the village college has been a significant feature of, and inspiration for, discussions about the worth of community schooling. On this page we explore Henry Morris’s vision of the village college (for more see Henry Morris) though the design and experience of Impington Village College.

Contents: introduction · viewing Impington village college · key design elements · local groups · the success of the village colleges · further reading and references · acknowledgements · how to cite this piece

Morris took great care with the architecture and design of the village colleges. As Tony Jeffs has argued, he saw the buildings, landscape and public works of art we encounter in our daily round as powerful educators (1999: 59).

The design, decoration and equipment of our places of education cannot be regarded as anything less than of first-rate importance – as equally important, indeed, as the teacher. There is no order of precedence – competent teachers and beautiful buildings are of equal importance and equally indispensable … We shall not bring about any improvement in standards of taste by lectures and preachings; habitation is the golden method. Buildings that are well-designed and equipped and beautifully decorated will exercise their potent, but unspoken, influence on those who use them from day to day. This is true education. The school, the technical college, the community centre, which is not a work of architectural art is to that extent an educational failure. (quoted in Jeffs 1999: 58)

Impington Village College is a remarkable achievement and influenced the design of school buildings in subsequent generations. Designed by Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry it was later described by Pesvener as one of the best buildings of its date in England, ‘if not the best’ (quoted by Jeffs 1999: 48).

Viewing Impington Village College

To begin I want to take a quick tour around Impington Village College. At first glance what we see is an secondary school – but in looking at these pictures more closely – and considering when this college opened (1939) – we can begin see something of the significance of the design. Let us look at the basic design.

In this design we can see a number of key elements:

  • the fine central hall
  • workshop space
  • airy, inviting classrooms
  • a large suite of ‘community’ rooms including social areas
  • a library
  • a broad long corridor or promenade
  • changing rooms and playing fields
  • land for a school garden

The first village college (at Sawston) was the first state school to have a separate hall; a well furnished adult wing, a library for school and community use, a medical services room, playing fields with changing facilities for students and other community members, plus a wardens house (Jeffs 199: 48-9). However, it was in Impington Village College that these elements came together in a stunning design (the only example of Gropius’s work in Britain).

Henry Morris on the village college

The village college as thus outlined would not create something superfluous; it would not be a spectacular experiment and a costly luxury. It would take all the various vital but isolated activities in village life – the School, the Village Hall and Reading Room, the Evening Classes, the Agricultural Education Courses, the Women’s Institute, the British Legion, Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, the recreation ground, the branch of the County Rural Library, the Athletic and Recreation Clubs – and, bringing them together into relation, create a new institution for the English countryside. It would create out of discrete elements an organic whole; the vitality of the constituent elements would be preserved, and not destroyed, but the unity they would form would be a new thing. For, as in the case of all organic unities, the whole is greater than the mere sum of the parts. It would be a true social synthesis – it would take existing and live elements and bring them into a new and unique relationship.The village college would change the whole face of the problem of rural education. As the community centre of the neighbourhood it would provide for the whole man, and abolish the duality of education and ordinary life. It would not only be the training ground for the art of living, but the place in which life is lived, the environment of a genuine corporate life. The dismal dispute of vocational and non-vocational education would not arise in it. It would be a visible demonstration in stone of the continuity and never ceasingness of education. There would be no ‘leaving school’! – the child would enter at three and leave the college only in extreme old age. It would have the virtue of being local so that it would enhance the quality of actual life as it is lived from day to day – the supreme object of education… It would not be divorced from the normal environment of those who would frequent it from day to day, or from that great educational institution, the family… The village college could lie athwart the daily lives of the community it served; and in it the conditions would be realised under which education would not be an escape from reality, but an enrichment and transformation of it. For education is committed to the view that the ideal order and the actual order can ultimately be made one.

Extract from Henry Morris (1925) The Village College. Being a Memorandum on the Provision of Educations and Social Facilities for the Countryside, with Special Reference to Cambridgeshire (Section XIV).

Key design elements

Several things need to be said about this village college design.

First, there is the question of balance. If you look at the relative size of the space set aside for the adults and children – they are almost equal (in fact there is more space for community use). It tried to turn the usually priorities of schooling on its head. Morris wrote:

Adult education is the major part of education. The centre of gravity in the public system of education should reside in that part which provides for youth and maturity.

As Watts has argued, this was the plan’s weakness. Morris’ vision is inviting – but somewhat suspect in the context of schooling. The reality of the education system is that the locus of attention lies with the young – and this can be seen in the constant battle in the village colleges for space. As the village colleges grew there was pressure on community facilities – that they should be used for pupils. While Morris was around there was a powerful figure to oppose this – with him gone there was less resistance.

Second, there is the question of architecture – and the significance of the promenade. A second key principle that informed Morris’s vision of the village college, what he described as the fundamental principle and final object of all future community planning everywhere, whether urban or rural, should be cultural:

The active practice and enjoyment of the arts is as necessary to people as food and air.

This led Morris to place a particular emphasis on the architecture of the village colleges both so that they would be special places to be in; that they would make a significant contribution to the landscape itself; and so that they would lend themselves to both creating community and fostering an appreciation of beauty. He managed to enlist the support and participation of leading architects such as Gropius. He also placed a special emphasis on the cultivation of cultural activities, the encouragement of local artists; the display of artistic work in the village colleges and so on. In fact the colleges were designed specifically to give good spaces for display – hence this promenade. At different times it has housed the work of Barbara Hepworth, of Henry Moore – and a number of prominent artists. He despised reproductions and what he considered lesser examples and forms of art.

Third, there is the question of design – this building has been specifically planned forcommunity. In order to use different facilities such as the library people had to mix. There is also the emphasis on association and social encounters. However, there are limitations here. The classrooms are set apart from the communal facilities – these could exist in isolation. A classic example of this is the way that the community wing has been designed with the windows facing away from the entrance for students. As Morris put it in the Memorandum:

The locality or neighbourhood in which we spend our daily lives and the local community to which we belong form the cell of society. It is of supreme importance that the neighbourhood should be full of life and vitality and have significance and meaning for all those who live in it. But vastly increased transport and opportunities for leisure have weakened the local group and its personal and corporate activities. How is this vitality to be realized – this activity of body and mind, of emotion and feeling, both personally and in groups, that is the precious essence and core of culture at any level? It comes about when teacher and student, student and student, young and old meet face to face in lecture and debate, in song and dance; or in orchestras, choirs and plays. I have seen groups absorbed in workshops, laboratories, studios, libraries. And there are the virtues of eating and drinking together and conversations in the common room, and all that happens in games and on the playing fields and running track. A community that has these things enjoys the deepest satisfaction which nothing can replace.

Fourth, in this plan for a village college we can also see the emphasis on rural regeneration through the provision of :

  • a workshop that could be used for the cultivation of country crafts – note for example, the large amount of space set aside for a forge.
  • local vital services – the public hall, the library, adult education space, social provision (billiards), sports facilities (changing rooms etc.) and a common room for local people.
  • secondary schooling in the locality (rather than further encouraging the drift to the town).

Fifth, are the implications for governance. This plan envisaged the involvement of local community groups in the running of the village college. They were not to have their own village hall or facilities – but were to use those of the College. How were they to feel part of the place. Morris made some effort to widen and democratize the governance of Colleges. At that time some schools didn’t have governors; others had just five or six on a board. Morris wanted to alter this to between 15 and 23 to include representatives of local groups (much like a community association council). However, there were a number of tensions:

  • the finances were still held centrally
  • the warden (head) still held considerable power.
  • there remained strong anti-democratic possibilities – just how much of a direct stake did local people have in the institution.

Local groups

Cleverly Morris picked up on the growth and change of several key institutions and groups in his vision of the village college. For example:

Libraries. While there had been a strong tradition of libraries and reading rooms associated with institutions like the YMCA, churches, working men’s organizations and mechanics institutes it was until the last half of the nineteenth century that public libraries began to develop – especially after the 1850 Public Libraries Act and the 1893 Library Act. Particularly influential here is the activities pf benefactors – John Passmore Edwards (in Cornwall and London) and Andrew Carnegie the Scottish American oil millionaire. The trust he established was particularly active in the area of libraries. One of the key areas of this work was helping to establish library services in rural areas. Interestingly the Trust paid a considerable amount towards the cost of establishing Sawston Village College, the first village college).

Village Halls. There had been a considerable growth in village halls and clubs. Many of these came into existence from the efforts of local people; some were given by local notaries. Some were erected as war memorials. Others were YMCA huts, erected during the war to serve as cultural and recreational centres for the Forces and afterwards handed over to village organizations. Others were miners institutes. In 1918 a Village Clubs Association was formed and with four years had 460 local organizations affiliated (Kelly 297). As Dybeck comments, at the time of his proposals, Village halls were a fast growing phenomenon. At this time many of the denominational schools (3/4 of Cambridge schools were this) tended to feel that village events were unsuitable for their premises.

Voluntary organizations. The Women’s’ Institute movement was going through a period of rapid growth. The first local institute began in 1915 and derived from the experience of special institutes for women in rural areas in Canada (the first there was in 1897). By 1927 there were close on 4,000 institutes with 250,000 members. The Scouts had gone through a similar explosion in numbers from the first Scout Camp in 1907, through the publication of Scouting for Boys in 1908 by 1910 there were already 3898 groups with 107,986 members. By 1920 the figures were 8069 and 232,758 and by 1930 10,296 with 422,662 members. This was the development of a true mass movement.

Arts. The Village Drama Society was founded by Mary Kelly in 1918; the Arts League of Service in 1919; the English Folk Dance Society in 1898; the Rural Music Schools began in 1929.

The success of the village colleges

Contemporary evidence indicates the village colleges were an immediate success:

  • achieving phenomenal rates of adult affiliation to evening and day classes;
  • stanching the out-flow of more able pupils to City schools;
  • encouraging high take-up of welfare services such as libraries, child care and dental check-ups;
  • improving the self-image of the local community.

C.E.M. Joad provides a typically enthusiastic account written:

The College, in fact, is a hive of activity, where you can eat, drink, dance, make merry and fall in love as well as learn, attend lectures, talk, and practise the arts and crafts of cookery, metal work, woodwork, painting, music or whatever else there may be. I could wish that I had the descriptive power to convey the comfort and grace of the environment in which these various activities take place:; but the task demands a richer pen than mine. I can only emphasize the general impression of light and air and space, of graceful and harmonious lines, of rich and tasteful furnishings … The outdoor amenities are not less remarkable. There are a swimming pool, ample playing fields, swings and a sand pit for the small children. There is a terrace where on summer afternoons ancient gents can sit in the sun and ladies gossip over their tea. (Joad 1945: 131-132)

Morris is reputed to have bellowed at a head-teacher ‘the trouble with this place is that it is too like a bloody school’. Villages Colleges opened during the 1930s and 1940s purposely strove to achieve a delicate balance between meeting community needs, in the broadest sense, and their legal responsibility to provide schooling. Morris illustrated it in the memorandum – ‘two wings or three-sided courts, one containing the school portion, the other accommodation for adult activities, and with the village hall between’ (Morris 1925: 5 – see the Reading). All sides were to be equal for no single element must dominate the whole.

Only one of the 15 Village Colleges opened prior to 1970 had in excess of 400 pupils or 15 teachers. Purpose-built, each physically embodied the desire of Morris to keep the two parts in harmony. Impington as the plan shows was designed with this in mind, the space specifically devoted to each function being roughly equal. Such parity is no longer encountered at Impington or any of the others. Small rolls, the absence of competitive examinations, low parental expectations each allowed staff time and energy to spare ‘for the community’. The College log for one even finds the Warden musing that the success of the College was in danger of diverting his attention from the needs of the pupils.

Further reading and references

While we have been well served in the biography department – there is still, as yet, no definitive study of village colleges – although Maurice Dybeck’s comes close in many respects. There are various useful small scale studies.

Bowen, F Watson (1973) ‘ The Cambridgeshire Village College: A cultural centre for village life’ Aspects of Education pp 98-110. Reflections on the work of a College Warden but with an account also of the life of a College.

Dent, H. C. (1946) The Countryman’s College, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Enthusiastic account of Impington Village College written shortly after it opened – illustrated.

Dybeck, M. (1981) The Village College Way. An approach to community education, Sawtry: Sawtry Village College. 270 pages (A4). Dybeck was warden of Sawtry Village College – the first village college. He examines the concept; Morris’ memorandum; Sawston’s early days and developments in the 1930s; the design of village colleges (with a special focus on Impington); finance; community and curriculum; parents; users; and the future. Provides a number of insights into the development and operation of village colleges.

Farnell, D. (1968) Henry Morris: An architect in education. Unpublished Thesis, Cambridge Institute of Education. Written by a teacher at a Village College it looks at the contribution of Morris and provides an insight into College life.

Henry Morris Memorial Trust (1989) Recalling Henry Morris 1889 – 1961, Cambridge: Henry Morris Memorial Trust. 46 pages. Collection of personal memories of the educator contributed by his friends.

Impington Village College (1989) Impington Village College 1939 – 1989, Impington: Impington Village College. 60 pages (A4). Coffee table review of the history of the college that conveys something of the spirit of the vision – especially in the many photographs that have been reproduced.

Jeffs, T. (1999) Henry Morris. Village colleges, community education and the ideal order, Ticknall: Educational Heretics Press. 92 pages. Exploration of Morris’s contribution and legacy that takes the debate beyond Ree’s earlier biography. The book places his achievement within a proper appreciation of the development of community schooling (and the roots that Morris himself denied). Lots of new material, including some reflections on the sad state of village colleges today.

Rée, H. (1985) Educator Extraordinary. The life and achievement of Henry Morris 1889-1961, London: Peter Owen. 163 + xii pages. (Originally published by Longman in 1973). Excellent account of Morris’s life and discussion of his achievements. Rée also looks back at Morris’ achievements in the light of developments in the 1970s. Includes the full text of ‘The Village College’. [Out of print].

Rée, H (1984) The Henry Morris Collection, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 146 +x pages. Morris was hardly a prolific writer – and Harry Rée has done us a good turn by collecting together 16 papers , articles and addresses that fill out his vision of the village college, adult education and community centres.


See the official college page: Impington Village College


To cite this article: Smith, M. K. (1997, 2007). ‘Viewing Impington – the idea of the village college’, the informal education homepage.[ .Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 1997, 2007