‘A Splendid College’: Institutional Histories of Teacher Training Colleges

Nautical Teacher Training Colleges Proceedings at the Distribution of Prizes 1890, 92, 93

The Institute of Education Library has a large collection (approximately 2,500 books) of education institutional histories. These include histories of schools, colleges and universities. For the joint ICHRE (International Centre for Historical Research in Education) and FNLA (Friends of the Newsam Library and Archives) symposium which is on ‘Writing Institutional Histories’ on 12th December, I have chosen to focus on the histories of teacher training colleges as this is the core concern of the Institute of Education.  Many of these histories were written during the 1970s and 1980s following the publication of the James Report in 1972 which recommended closing and/or merging teacher training colleges with higher education institutions. They were written to ensure their historical memories would be kept alive.  However, there are other histories in the collection that are much older – from the late 19th century.  These include histories of teacher training for specialist subjects such as nautical and domestic sciences as well as psychology and physical education.  Related to this institutional histories collection are the training college prospectuses including a large collection from the 1930s.

The staff and student magazine of the Institute of Education

Using student records and student/alumni magazines, some authors  have managed to bring out the ‘voice’ of students and one also can get a sense of the ‘ethos’ of the institution (see Dent, 1977 and Whitehead, 2012 for instance). Additionally, one is able to gauge the themes that were prevalent at a particular time.  For instance, the formalisation of the routes to training and the examination process to qualify for teaching were implemented between 1925 and 1928, and by studying the different histories of teacher training colleges which existed at this time, one can compare how they dealt with these changes and how they impacted both the lecturers and the students. Some authors have also used institution records to build profiles of individual lecturers and/or students to understand what qualifications were required to teach the subjects in the education studies curriculum and how students fared after their training (see Robinson, 2004). Some histories show how the timetable changed over the years and what subjects were dominant during a particular period and the difference between the curriculum for male and female trainee teachers (see More, 1992). Yet others have compared the past to the present in order to understand the historical basis of issues surrounding teacher training today (Beckett, 2007).

Many of them contain images of the external grounds and the building(s) including internal shots of lecture rooms, dining rooms, gyms and libraries and in residential colleges, the student quarters, all of which give a sense of the size and the financial status of the colleges.  Students too are often photographed, usually as a cohort with their tutors.  These images can tell us a lot about ratio of male/female students in any particular year and sometimes their nationalities (some colleges offered places to students from the colonies –  later the Commonwealth).

When using these teacher training college histories as source material for research, it is important to evaluate them by understanding the background of the author and considering the biases s/he may bring, why the history was written, and who published the history.  Writing about university histories, Malcolm Tight (2003, pp. 141-2) states that they share some common characteristics:

They typically focus on the steady, chronological expansion and successes …presenting their history as an inevitable progress towards the glorious present (almost as if other outcomes were not possible). They tend to stress the [institution’s] uniqueness, while ignoring or downplaying the achievements of other similar institutions. The tone of writing is usually one of measured, factual and quietly enthusiastic reportage. While many aspects of [institutional] life may be discussed, the dominant perspective tends to be that of … management…. Such histories also tend to lack a critical perspective, particularly when they come to deal with more recent periods; that is, the period of time in which the sponsors of the history work.

There is much truth in this and many of the older histories are guilty of this bias for they are often authored by ex-students, staff or members of the management or governing body. They attempt to portray the positive aspects of an institution as many are ‘official’ anniversary editions which focus on the successes and suppress any difficulties the institution may have faced – except perhaps the financial ones that are imposed by central or local government. The title of this blog post comes from one of the college histories by Charles More (see reference below). It celebrates first the centenary of the college and then the next fifty years when the college was moving towards a merger. However, despite these shortcomings, there is much to be gained from using these as historical sources themselves – as Dr. Barry Blade has demonstrated in his use of school histories. Additionally, these histories provide information that may not be available to scholars outside the institution especially if the original records no longer exist, only partially exist or if a researcher is unable to travel to the institution to access the archive.

If you want to use the collection, please contact the UCL Institute of Education Library via email at ioe.lib-enquiries@ucl.ac.uk or nazlin.bhimani@ucl.ac.uk.


Beckett, L. (2007). City of Leeds Training College: Continuity and Change 1907-2007. Leeds: Leeds Metropolitan University.

Blades, B. (2015). Roll of Honour: Schooling and the Great War 1914-1919. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military

Dent, H.C. (1977). The Training of Teachers in England and Wales, 1800-1975. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

More, C. (1992) A Splendid College: An Illustrated History of Teacher Training in Cheltenham, 1947-1900. Cheltenham: Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.

More, C. (1992). The Training of Teachers, 1847-1947: A History of the Church Colleges at Cheltenham. London: Hambledon Press.

Robinson, W. (2004). Power to Teach: Learning Through Practice. London: Routledge.

Tight, M. (2003). Researching Higher Education. Maidenhead: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.

Whitehead, K. (2012). Transnational Connections in Early Twentieth-Century Women Teachers’ Work. Paedagogica Historica, 48(3), 381–390. https://doi.org/10.1080/00309230.2012.659262

About Nazlin Bhimani

Research Support and Special Collections Librarian, UCL Institute of Education, London
This entry was posted in Special Collections and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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