History of Teacher Training

Department of Initial Teacher Training and Education

History of Primary Teacher Training in Bedford

Joshua Hawkins

The training of teachers preparing to work in primary schools has a long history in Bedford, dating from the late Victorian period.

It began almost by accident, following the foundation of a Kindergarten school in the town in 1882. Bedford was attractive to families because good education was available - the Harpur Trust ran two schools for boys and began two girls' schools around this time.

But all four schools only took children from age seven upwards. Joshua Hawkins led a group who wanted there to be an infant school, and the Bedford Kindergarten Company was formed to bring this to fruition.

Miss Sim

Mary Frances Sim was proposed as the first Headmistress of the school. Miss Sim had been an early pioneer in kindergarten methods, training older pupils to become kindergarten teachers; and she persuaded the Bedford Kindergarten Company to extend her remit at the new Kindergarten school in Bedford to include the training of students. And so the Bedford Training College was also born.

The Crescent

The Kindergarten school began in 34 Bromham Road in January 1882, but soon relocated to 14, The Crescent in April 1882.  The Training College began here with five students and expanded quickly, remaining at the site for over seventy years.

The students at Bedford followed the progressive model of Friedrich Froebel, a German educationalist who had developed the philosophy of education known as the Kindergarten system.

The word 'Kindergarten' is German for 'child's garden' and is based on the idea that children were like plants- that their various skills were in different stages of development or growth, and the teacher, like a gardener, should understand their needs (mental, physical, moral and spiritual) to be able to provide what was required to help them grow.

Froebel believed that early development was important for future growth, hence why the model involved very young rather than older children. It was felt important that all children’s skills should be developed, not just some of them (known as the holistic approach).

Children, both boys and girls together, could discover and learn though play and exploration, and by being able to express what they perceived about the world, by acting out, drawing or painting, modelling or building. Froebel developed toys, called his "Gifts and occupations", to help with this.

These were wooden building bricks and 3-D solids, coloured flat blocks and card shapes, and paper strips, all of which could be used creatively in a number of ways.

Carpentry lesson 1901

(The Froebel model offered a radically different approach to the education of young children, compared to the harsh methods employed in the state system of elementary schools at the time.

The income of these schools depended on how many children passed exams in the '3Rs' (reading, writing and arithmetic) at age 7, as well as the children's attendance levels, which became known as "Payment by Results".

This led to a limited curriculum, use of rote learning, and physical punishment for children who committed merely minor offences)

Kindergarten children 1901

In the early days of the Bedford Training College, most students started at about age 16 with no qualifications, and received education themselves, as well as teacher training. The award given at the end of their training was the college's own accreditation, the "Bedford Certificate".

In 1888, a new national examining body, the National Froebel Union (NFU) was formed to create a standard set of qualifications, at Elementary and Higher level, for all Froebel training. Training length varied but some students spent up to five years training before they qualified.

Bedford was the leading teacher training college in promoting the Froebel methods in the 19th century and the ideas were central to primary education throughout the 20th century.

Amy Walmsley

After the death of Miss Sim, Amy Walmsley became headmistress, in 1895. A second Kindergarten school, called "Froebel House", opened on Goldington Avenue in 1896.

Froebel House

With increasing secondary education nationally, average entry age of students rose. Entry qualifications were also improving and by 1910, the college began to ask for a minimum qualification equivalent to the Elementary Certificate.

Throughout the college's early expansion, many of the first students remained and became trainers to new students, others moved on to become pioneers in other areas of the UK or the world.

New Government legislation created pensions for teachers in 1918, but the staff of the college could not benefit as it was a profit making organisation. So the Bedford Educational Association was formed in June 1920 and ownership of the college and schools transferred.

Miss Walmsley continued to run the student accommodation. Also, in 1918, the Government's Board of Education decided not to recognise the NFU qualification as equal with their own Government Teacher's Certificate which was available for training to teach in state elementary schools.

So Joint examining boards and syllabuses were created (later becoming area boards). The course became three years including an “advanced subject” specialism and three weeks' teaching practise in other (non-Froebellan) schools. This was reciprocated when small number of students training to teach in elementary schools came to Bedford to experience Frobellian methods.

The 1918 Education Act enabled Local Education Authorities to support nursery schools, or provide them where they did not exist, because grants became available for this from the Board of Education. However, in 1921, grants were stopped when money ran short. The cause of nursery schools was championed by the first two female MPs. One of them, Margaret Wintringham, the first British-born female MP, had trained at Bedford Training College from 1898. Outside of parliament, the Nursery School Association was formed. All of its founders and leaders had also either trained at Bedford Training College themselves or had been trained by others who had trained there.

Miss Walmsley suffered ill health and retired in 1927, dying in 1928.  Miss Spense, the next head, had been a student from 1899-1901 then a member of staff from 1914 onwards.

Kindergarten children at a handwork lesson 1915

There were fluctuations in numbers of students and pupils, and of finances, from the late 1920s to the late 1940s. The college owed an amount of money in leases to the BEA and also the Bedford Kindergarten Company for the main Crescent building (though the BKC was wound up in 1933). Buildings were also in a poor state of repair. To raise funds, the college needed to find funding from other sources.

Miss Pierotti became head in 1949 and, soon afterwards, the funding came from the Bedfordshire Local Education Authority, but the result was the loss of its independence and the two schools. The Crescent school disbanded and its buildings were retained by the college and used for other purposes. Froebel House school became a separate entity, changed its name to Walmsley House in 1954 and moved premises in 1956 to Kimbolton Road (where the building is now part of St. Andrew’s school).

Miss Pierotti achieved agreement from the LEA to finance a new building, though this was to take several years after her death to come to fruition. She died in 1955.

Miss Kerr (who later became Mrs Taylor) became head in 1956. During her tenure, the plans were made for a new site for the college. By 1956 a site had been chosen on the corner of Goldington Road and the yet to be built Polhill Avenue (the current Bedford site) and the new buildings took shape.

Mr H.H. Humphrey took over as head in 1965 and the college changed its name from Bedford Training College to Bedford College of Education. The new student accommodation at Polhill opened in 1968, when male students also began to be admitted for the first time, and the rest of the site in 1969.


Student and staff numbers expanded by 300% from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s. From 1969, students on three year courses could add a fourth year to gain a B.Ed degree. From 1971 this was validated by Cambridge and from 1973, shortly after the next head, Miss Dempster, took charge, this fourth year could be studied in Bedford rather than at Cambridge.

In the early seventies, there was a forecast that fewer teachers would be required in the later seventies to eighties. Additionally, the Government suggested that teacher training colleges should expand to include students not training for teaching. Many teacher training institutions struggled or folded.

To maintain provision in Bedford, a three-way (tripartite) merger was planned, between Bedford College of Education, Bedford Physical Training College (founded in 1903 in Lansdowne Road, a college which trained Secondary PE teachers) and a further education college, then called Mander College.

The resultant college formed in 1976 was called Bedford College of Higher Education and remained under local authority control.

In the later seventies the B.Ed was re- written a number of times. It could now be offered across the school age range. The three year course led to a pass degree and the four year course led to an Honours degree.

A Government White paper in 1987-8 meant that most polytechnics began to leave local authority control. Bedford could not initially do this, as the proportion of FE teaching was too high. So a university partner was required.

After consideration of a number of partners and years of negotiation, BCHE became part of De Montfort University, whose main base was in Leicester, in August 1994.

The FE provision, Mander College, split from the institution at this point, and became "Bedford College" (who now are now used as one of our partner colleges).

New library at Polhill, now part of the University of Bedfordshire

In December 2005 it was announced that the Bedford sites of DMU would split from De Montfort University and merge with the University of Luton to create a University for Bedfordshire.

The predecessor institution of the University of Luton had been under consideration as a possible partner back in the early 1990s. Finally, in August 2006, the University of Bedfordshire was formed and has rapidly established itself as a major player.

The education provision now offered by the University of Bedfordshire includes undergraduate primary teacher training (B.Ed), postgraduate primary and secondary (PGCE), and other education courses.


The above summary, with associated photographs, is compiled largely from two books by Richard Smart: "Bedford Training College 1882-1982 - A History of a Froebel College and its schools" and "On Others' Shoulders - An illustrated History of the Polhill and Lansdowne Colleges now De Montfort University Bedford", and appears here with permission of the author.

Summarised by Alison Randall
Pictures scanned and assembled by Tracey Stevens, Alison Randall and Nickie Bowles

Our Tweets: @UoB_TE