On the concentration of further education (16+) institutions in South Cambridge

How did this part of the county end up with such a high concentration of young people travelling such great distances for post-16 courses in and around Cambridge?

Yesterday I bumped into a group of sixth form students raising money for the homelessness charity Jimmy’s in Cambridge.

There were a number of different groups doing various fund-raising activities that day.

That same day I was in the Cambridgeshire Collection where they had put on display a huge photograph from 1950 of the staff and pupils of the college’s predecessor institution – the Cambridgeshire County High School for Boys. Sat in the middle of that huge photograph was the headmaster, Brinley Newton-John. His daughter, Olivia Newton-John, was born in Cambridge and lived just down the road from where a ‘New Addenbrooke’s,’ was built from the 1960s onwards. She was last in the neighbourhood in 2009 for a fundraiser at Addenbrooke’s. She passed away in August 2022 but not before recording a duet with Dolly Parton.

The overhaul of secondary education in Cambridge during the 1970s

This piece of social history is yet to be written up, but it is one that changed the lives of many of us – myself included. It was the time when Cambridgeshire County Council got rid of the grammar school system on the back of the changes made by Harold Wilson’s Labour government of the 1960s, overseen by the then Education Secretary the late Shirley Williams – who stood unsuccessfully for the Liberal-SDP Alliance in Cambridge in 1987.

The result of this was the creation of two new specialist A-level-only sixth form colleges out of the two county high schools – the girls school becoming Long Road Sixth Form College, and the boys school becoming Hills Road Sixth Form College.

Rapid expansion in the 1990s

Browsing through one of the local history books written about the latter institution, I turned to the pages of the 1990s and the run-up to the years that I was there in the latter part of that decade. They revealed the reason for why numbers expanded so rapidly in the 1990s – from just over 800 in the early 1990s to over 1,400 by the Millennium. It was central government policy. The problem was that there was no extra funding for this policy. Instead there were only cuts – a recurring theme of my childhood growing up here. As a result, the only ‘new’ money available came from expanding student numbers. Which is what many institutions ended up doing, irrespective of whether there was enough space for them both on site and in their local community. Such was the rate of expansion that today over half of all of the sixth form college students in Cambridgeshire study in Cambridge, of which a very large proportion go to the two colleges.

Inevitably that has put a huge strain on the transport networks – that’s of no fault of the students. It’s the failures of the adults – the politicians and decision makers creating a system that has so many young people in such a small part of the county, many having to endure very long commutes. Look at Cambridge Railway Station in the morning or afternoon rush hours. And recall in my day there was no Cambridge Leisure Park for lunches. That only came six years later.

The new Cambridge UTC/ Science & Technology Academy, and private schools’ expansion

The founding of the Cambridge Academy for Science and Technology created a much-needed option for industry-specific training and education in response to chronic skills shortages at technical level in and around Cambridge. The only disappointment from my perspective is that there is not equivalent provision for adults – especially people considering a change in career.

This present set up is not consistent with the 15 minute city vision

Mindful of the post-CV19 world we are moving into, there is a huge opportunity with continued housing growth to build new institutions elsewhere in the county to make provision for further education students.

The transport issues into South Cambridge are being discussed as I type, by the Greater Cambridge Partnership here. The road traffic into Cambridge from the South East is huge – a mass transit is long overdue. Interestingly one of the questions is from a former Principal of Hills Road.

The disruption caused to public exams has raised the issue of whether the qualifications, curricula, and examinations are fit for purpose in the face of the global challenges and changing social values in a post-CV19 world. It’s also worth looking at levels of further education funding over the past 20 years – see this report by the House of Commons Library.

There is scope to reduce the numbers at the very large sixth form colleges while increasing provision elsewhere in the county (and in neighbouring counties). Delivering this is easier said than done. With Hills Road’s reputation as a powerhouse getting dozens of students into Oxford and Cambridge every year (with the status of a state-funded rather than a private institution) has made it a particularly attractive option for parents of privately-educated children who for generations have switched their children back into the state sector. When I was a school governor several years ago I was astonished to learn of how getting their children into Hills Road was a specific consideration when planning the future education paths of their young primary school age children.

Is two years long enough in an institution to build a sense of ‘ownership’ and loyalty – to the extend that former students wish to join an alumni association and contribute towards future fundraising or volunteering/careers advice in future years?

The first former students’ association which incorporated the predecessor County High School for Boys has recently been wound up. They’ve since launched a new one – the Hills Road Community Network. Their sister organisations at Long Road has a much more developed set up, incorporating a slick social media operation to keep in touch with those willing to come back and help future students.

Talking to the Hills Road students yesterday, I got the sense that the entire culture of their generation is a much more positive one towards supporting each other and those in need. I’ve stated on numerous occasions how impressed I’ve been time and again by this generation of young adults. They are light years ahead of what my generation was doing a quarter of a century ago.

But then that also bears in mind that my generation was coming to the end of 18 years of Conservative administration that not just politically, but culturally was utterly out of sync with the new generations coming through. Note the lack of diversity in the House of Commons at John Major’s last PMQs. We had another reminder of that generational gap today. Ofsted was asked by the government to carry out a rapid review of sexual abuse in schools and collegesyou can read the damning report here which will require a lot of soul-searching by ministers past and present: why did you allow this to happen? (Recalling that there was no compulsory RSHE/SexEd in further education in the 1990s – a time when Section 28 was still in force).

Could it have been different?

I remember thinking at the time what it would have been like if students had the opportunities to take their exams when they felt prepared and ready, rather than when the institutional timetables prescribed. And what it would have been like if those two intense years had been spread out over three. And if the college site had large open fields like Homerton College. Only with Lockdown have we learnt of the importance of publicly accessible green open spaces – ironically those in Cambridge have become *less accessible* in more recent years. Something which I’m still complaining to councillors to persuade landowners to change.

Inevitably as numbers have expanded, so the facilities and buildings have needed to do the same to accommodate them. Along with the Cambridge Biomedical Campus we’ve seen the intensification of human activity in this part of town – yet we’ve not seen the much needed transport, leisure, environmental, and social infrastructure needed for people living and working here. We are long overdue a large public swimming pool & leisure centre in South Cambridge. The further education students alone would be enough to make such a project financially viable.

So much depends on national politics

The more I’ve dug into it, the more clear it seems that whatever happens, the impetus will come from national rather than local government so long as our national political infrastructure remains ever so centralised around Westminster and Whitehall. Both the Department for Housing, Communities & Local Government, and the Department for Education lack the institutional capacities to make decisions that in the grand scheme of things are either best handled locally with far fewer restrictions on raising local taxation & spending. Ditto at the other end on issues that are best dealt with in international democratic institutions – something a number of EU MEPs who we’ve sadly left behind, are campaigning on, demanding more democratic oversight of EU institutions.

Note how the creation of the two large sixth form colleges was spurred on by a huge change in national government policy. While local people and institutions can lobby for change, I can’t see anything substantial coming without a substantial change in national policy. And the two secretaries of state for the departments mentioned above are not the people to deliver it – their ministerial records more than demonstrating why. (Both should have been sacked long ago – Jenrick over the Westferry Homes, & Williamson over exams – and who should never have been appointed after his sacking as Defence Secretary by former PM Theresa May).

So while reducing congestion might be a laudable thing for local residents to demand of their local city councillors, it’s hard to see the educational establishment delivering on it without an overhaul of both local government and further education.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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