75 years  

The Colonial Dept 1927-1953

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Eric Cunningham : student  in 1951/2 

Eric compares his experience with that of Institute students without specific careers to go to after their courses:

"It is exactly fifty years ago that I completed my PGCE here. Reflecting on what I might say today, after being invited to make a contribution to the celebrations, I found my memories of the PGCE year (1951-52) remarkably clear. I think it is fair to say that many PGCE students thought that the Colonial Department considered itself to be somewhat superior. This was not how we considered ourselves, though we were certainly different from the main body of PGCE students. One significant difference was that provided we completed the PGCE course satisfactorily we all had jobs to go to – indeed careers to go to, or at least so we thought, for we did not realise the impending rapid rate of change that British Colonial territories would experience. The Colonial Department’s students fell into two main groups: first, those who were Colonial Service Cadet Education Officers, already designated for postings to a particular territory, of whom I was one (I was scheduled to go to the Gold Coast, now Ghana); and second, teachers from overseas territories on scholarships for courses at the Institute, who would be returning to post and advancement in their careers. In all we were an eclectic assembly, but with a common purpose – to complete the PGCE.

We were rather better remunerated than those on the ordinary student grant, so that helped. Also because of the territorial destinations we were going to there was fairly rapid bonding. Indeed, one acknowledgement of that is the life-long friendship Eric Earle and I have enjoyed, since we first met here 50 years ago.

Another difference between the Colonial Department and other Institute PGCE students was a difference in timetabling. The other students had two days each week in school for observation and practice teaching, the autumn term in a primary school and the spring term in a secondary school. Colonial Department students spent only one day a week in  school.  On the other day there was a departmental timetable, which embraced additional subject material, such as Education in Tropical Areas, and Tropical Hygiene (much more specific than Health Education, which all PGCE students took).  There were also tutorials, which were especially useful when they were with tutors who had worked in the area overseas to which Colonial Service Cadets were bound.  I recall in particular the guidance given by John Wilson, fairly recently appointed to the Institute after retiring from the Gold Coast Education Service.

Teaching practice, too, could be different, for there was flexibility in interpreting PGCE requirements. My second teaching practice was in Yorkshire, where I taught English as a foreign language – not to those who lived there, I hasten to add, but to Italians recruited to work in the mines.  This was part of a Government drive to overcome labour shortages following the war. There was the opportunity there to put teaching English as a Foreign Language in practice and I thought how good it was that within the framework of the Department it was possible to look at imaginative ways of making our training related purposefully to the jobs we were going to do. 

The final teaching practice in the summer term was spent making a survey of rural education. Mine was organised by John Wilson, in the Lake District, not only a delightful location to visit in early summer, but also one giving opportunity for diverse extra-curricular activities, the memories of which are still recalled with pleasure.  The survey required us to look beyond the classroom and the school and consider education provision in the broadest sense. After ten days of teaching in the primary school of the village to which each of us was separately allocated, we met together to look at a range of education provision in the post-school sector: community colleges, teacher training colleges, agricultural colleges, women’s institutes, young farmers’ clubs, and the like. John Wilson was right: this conspectus was very helpful preparation for the situation that faced us a few months later in the West African bush when we were required to assist with the enormous expansion of education to which the Gold Coast Government was committed.

The Colonial Department’s PGCE course had fringe benefits, too. As Colonial Service Cadets we were required to learn a vernacular language of the territory to which we were appointed. Courses for this were mounted by the School of Oriental and African Studies, just across the road from Senate House, where the Institute was then located.  The course gave us the experience of meeting and being taught by people from the territory where we would be working, a valuable educational experience.  I learned Twi, which I was subsequently able to take much further, and indeed continue to use when I meet Ghanaians. The especial fringe benefit was access to SOAS refectory, a welcome extension to our student amenities, and an opportunity for us to broaden our gastronomic experience long before curry became a staple of the English restaurant menu.

Another fringe benefit was membership of the Colonial Service Club where we met Colonial Service administrative officers on secondment from their territories for the Second Devonshire course. This was an in-service course designed to broaden understanding of development needs.

The social element was very pleasant, and the intellectual stimulus was often excellent, with lectures from speakers of the calibre of Sir Christopher Cox, Educational Adviser to the Colonial Office, and W. E. Wraith.  Our eyes were opened to the political changes taking place in colonial territories, changes that we would need to understand and empathise with. We had been brought up in schools thinking the British Empire was a kind of static operation. It wasn’t at all. We were reminded of change, of independence coming, of growing independence movements.

I remember the Institute as a ‘buzz’ place. Newly-qualified graduates in a diversity of subjects and from a diversity of universities, all engaged in preparing for a variety of teaching posts, make a vibrant mix. Consequently the unofficial curriculum of the Institute was variously stimulating, entertaining, thought-provoking, and friendship-forming. London, too, at the time our course began was a ‘buzz’ place. The 1951 Festival of Britain had just been celebrated, and there was an atmosphere of excitement and building for the future, with the Skylon, seemingly unsupported, pointing up into the sky to lift our spirits, and the re-development of the South Bank underway.  Fittingly, the newly-opened Festival Hall was the venue for the PGCE Farewell Summer Ball.  There we danced the night away to end the course that had made us qualified teachers.

I found it tremendously stimulating as a young graduate myself to work with a lot of graduates from various disciplines and various universities and a whole range of people from overseas. And that informal dimension of the educational opportunity that the Institute provided over that year and has provided for other people from the way they have spoken is a tremendous benefit to us all."

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Compiled and edited by Clare Bentall and Angela Little. First issued Spring 2005.