IN FEBRUARY 1840, 175 years ago this month, ten young men began
training as teachers for church schools in temporary buildings at
the embryo Chester Diocesan Training College, the first of its kind
in the Church of England.
When the permanent buildings opened, two years later, it became
the first purpose-built teacher-training college in England.
In 1842, there were 50 trainees, all drawn from the diocese of
Chester, which then included the areas now covered by Manchester
and Blackburn. And, as more and more National Schools opened, the
need for well-trained teachers increased: by the end of the
century, the student body was up to 200.
Candidates did not simply have to show academic promise.
Although the name did not appear in its official title, the
training college was widely regarded as a seminary, and was
referred to as such in sermons that encouraged young men to take up
what was then seen as the Christian vocation of schoolmaster, the
historian of what is now the University of Chester, Professor
Graeme White, says. "Even the secular training colleges that opened
later in the century required their students to model good
Training could last between one and three years, but, on
average, was two years. Fees were about £75 a year, but a coveted
Queen's Scholarship could cover the cost for a promising pupil
teacher. Interestingly, £75 in 1840 is equivalent to just under
£6000 today. Chester's current fees for full-time undergraduates
are £9000, but in most cases are reduced by bursaries.
THE college's seminarian character continued well into the 20th
century, as the college remained firmly a men-only institution. It
was not until 1960, under government pressure to expand, that it
admitted a handful of married women. By the second half of that
decade, men and women were admitted on an equal basis.
Chester survived the 1970s cull of teacher-training
institutions, expanding as a College of Higher Education to offer
BA degrees, mostly in the humanities and social sciences, validated
by Liverpool University.
With a growing academic brief, it became a university college in
2003, and gained full university status in 2005. It is one of the
main educators of nurses, and health and social-science
professions, and has a well-regarded theology department.
It has now branched out in a direction that is unique among the
16-member Cathedral Group of church-based universities.
Last autumn, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne,
officially opened an engineering faculty eight miles away at
Thornton Science Park, a £250-million site given to the university
by Shell. The faculty will offer engineering, chemistry, and
physics degrees, and will undertake advanced research relating to
the environment and climate change, backed by £31 million of
But as the Dean of Education, Anna Sutton, says: "What we are
really celebrating this year is 175 years of uninterrupted teacher
CHESTER is one of the very few education faculties in an
institution that has never been forced into a merger, thus
retaining both its independence and its Anglican character. Over
the years, it has successfully ridden the carousel of educational
fashion, including the policy changes that have marked the
post-2010 political regime. For four years, its OFSTED rating has
That has been achieved over a range of courses at levels
undreamed of 175 years ago. Today, the faculty has close on 1000
undergraduate and postgraduate students involved in initial
training as teachers - some through traditional courses, others
through the Schools Direct programme delivered in partnership with
approved teaching schools.
Many more who take part are on full- and part-time professional
development programmes that include taught doctorate and MA
degrees, and more basic studies for those in other school-based
posts. "Being a teacher is a harder job now than it has ever been,
and so is preparing teachers," Ms Sutton says.
There is more accountability than ever: teachers are accountable
for what they teach, and how they teach. They also have to reach
higher standards before being accepted for training, and before
they qualify. Ms Sutton approves of the higher standards and the
accountability, and the adaptability called for by technological
change in the way children learn.
But, like many other successful educationalists, she is less
sanguine about the frequent changes in what is expected of her
profession: "Among the other qualities we have to encourage in our
trainees is resilience. We have to prepare them to be resilient in
the face of change imposed from outside."
But, at its most basic level, she believes, being a good teacher
requires the same essential quality as it did 175 years ago. "You
haveto be able to make a good relationship with children, to
inspire them to want to learn. There's much you can teach trainees,
but it's that personal spark that makes the difference."
THE original 19th-century training-college buildings are
still at the centre of what is now the University of Chester, but
there are now five additional campuses spread around the county.
The student body numbered ten in 1840, and 50 in 1842, and now
totals 18,000, of whom 6000 are on part-time courses.
The university remains a distinctively Anglican
institution. Professor Tim Wheeler, who has led Chester for the
past 17 years, first as Principal, and since 2005 as
Vice-Chancellor, says: "It is important to us to keep faith with
our Christian heritage and mission."
The Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, is Chancellor;
the Dean, the Very Revd Dr Gordon McPhate, is a member of the
university council; and a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord
Williams, is a visiting professor.
Professor Wheeler, who is a lay canon, emphasises the
foundations laid by the ten previous principals: "What has been
achieved at Chester has built on their work."