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Education: When teaching was a religious vocation

06 February 2015

Margaret Holness looks at the history of Chester University

Early days: the college orchestra during the Edwardian era

Early days: the college orchestra during the Edwardian era

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 conduct."

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 government money.

But as the Dean of Education, Anna Sutton, says: "What we are really celebrating this year is 175 years of uninterrupted teacher training."

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 remained outstanding.

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."

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