In the 1920s, apart from Cambridge University, the provision of education in Cambridgeshire was among the poorest in the country. This was due in part to relatively high levels of deprivation in the largely rural county, and how spread out the population was at the time.

There were no separate secondary schools in rural areas. Children of all ages were taught together in their village schoolhouse often in one classroom and by one teacher who were doing the best they could.

In 1922, Henry Morris became Secretary of Education for Cambridgeshire. It’s worth explaining that, at that time, the county of Cambridgeshire did not include the areas then known as Huntingdonshire, the Isle of Ely and the Soke of Peterborough that collectively now make up much of the north of Cambridgeshire. When Henry Morris launched his village college concept, his Cambridgeshire was more or less the area now covered by the South Cambridgeshire local government district.

So, Henry Morris was appointed in 1922 and held the post of Secretary of Education until 1954. Morris was a visionary, determined to improve the standard of education, and to keep the rural parts of the county alive.

He made this his life’s work. In 1924 he published his Village College Memorandum that set out how things could be improved by the Village College concept, and not just in Cambridgeshire.

Morris was keen to ensure that everyone, no matter how poor, had access to good education in a setting that was not just fit for purpose – it was also to be inspiring. He wanted to create inspirational purpose-designed spaces that would be available to the whole community during their waking hours. He proposed that inspirational all-in-one multi-purpose education and cultural centres should be built across the county, right at the heart of the communities they were to serve.

The village colleges would be schools and community facilities at the same time. They would become focal points in their villages where people of all ages came to learn, to mix, to be entertained and even get babies weighed. Henry Morris didn’t just create village colleges that were big schools – he created community education. That is what was revolutionary.

Henry Morris’ struggle to establish the village colleges in Cambridgeshire was however hard fought as not everyone agreed with him. But… that story has been well told elsewhere.

What we want to do is consider the effect and impact the village colleges had on people. The school pupils, the teachers and the people who attended community education sessions or used the facilities. We want to find out what difference the village college has made to the people and communities of Cambridgeshire.

Morris believed it was important that the purpose-designed settings were well-lit, warm and cool when they needed to be and were pleasant environments for learning.

He wanted the very best people on the staff. He wanted the colleges themselves to be uplifting environments and arranged for many works of art and craftsmanship to adorn the colleges.

Henry Morris

Early photographs

A worldwide reputation

As the village colleges opened one by one, they attracted the attention of educators from elsewhere in Britain but also from around the world.

Within a year of its opening in November 1963, Cottenham Village College was visited by educators from Ghana, Bahamas, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Egypt, Philippines, Sudan, Switzerland, Mexico, Egypt, USA, Poland, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Norway and Australia.

Miss Biggs was the first senior mistress at Impington Village College when it opened in 1939 and she recalled in a letter written in 1966

“During the first few years we had visitors from all over the world. Children became quite used to having lunch with dignitaries in flowing robes from Africa. All sorts of VIPs came from other parts of the country too.”

Henry Morris’s legacy

Henry Morris’s legacy lives on and he is commemorated across the village college network.  His vision has even inspired a one man show!

A new Cambridgeshire Village College opened at Cambourne in 2013, 83 years after the first one at Sawston, offering further proof of the value of the village college concept in the county where it all began.

Ninety years after the first Cambridgeshire village college opened at Sawston in 1930, most continue to be at the centre of activities in their community. Just as Henry Morris intended.

Henry Morris Articles