Rachel Lofthouse & Ali Messer

Lessons from the past: Why Winifred Mercier’s work still resonates

Rachel Lofthouse & Ali Messer Carnegie School of Education, LBU, and University of Roehampton Friday 15 December 2017

As teacher educators we have found ourselves sharing academic, developmental and philosophical interests and recently we have found a further shared dimension: that of the life, work and legacy of Winifred Mercier. We currently work at two UK universities, Leeds Beckett University (which has evolved from Leeds Training College) and Roehampton University (which has its origins in Whitelands College), whose former institutions Winifred Mercier also worked at. As we have read into her life we have also realised that despite having lived between 1878 and 1934 her concerns, practices and advocacy of teacher education have resonance today.

Her place in the history of each place is significant, and also political. Under the 1902 Education Act, the newly formed local authorities were responsible for elementary and secondary schools and the teacher training required to staff them. She began her career as a history teacher, publishing a paper in 1909 based on a year of what we might now call pedagogical practitioner research at Manchester Girls’ High School. She worked at Girton College, Cambridge as a history lecturer before appointment to the then recently established Leeds Training College, in 1913, as vice-principal. The Leeds Board of Education had stipulated that the post-holder for this new role had to be a woman, as a reflection of the fact that this college was to train 300 women as well as 180 men. Despite her relatively elite education and employment history, Winifred arrived at Leeds ‘delighted in the movement, quickened by the Act of 1902, to push class distinctions out of education’ (Grier, 1937: 94). Uppermost in her concerns was the need to develop teaching as an intellectual profession, underpinned by diversity of membership and outlook. She claimed that:


‘A teacher who cannot or who does not wish to go on learning, will become a hindrance to the progress of education and a danger to the intellectual development of hundreds of children.’

(ibid: 191)

Her work in Leeds included extending teacher training by a third year, reforming the curriculum and ensuring that her students gained an understanding (including through first-hand experience) of the economic and social conditions that shaped many children’s lives. She also challenged pedagogic approaches, seeking and enabling better methods of teaching.

Such was Winifred’s determination to shape the academic and vocational experiences of the students at the college that she ran into problems with the male college principal, who appeared to find it difficult to abdicate responsibility. Winfred challenged the fact that men and women were accommodated and taught separately, believing that young people who shared college grounds and social occasions should also be co-educated. As college life was turned upside down by war, there a series of disputes between Winifred and the principal which resulted in her resignation three years after taking up the post. There followed a ‘talk’ by James Graham (the secretary for education at the Leeds board) to the staff concerned by Winifred’s departure – the tone of which was apparently didactic and deprecating – which, rather than restoring order to the staff, instead triggered the resignation of half the women teachers at the college.

For two years Winifred taught at Leeds and then Manchester Universities, before being approached to take up the position of principal at Whitelands College. Once again she was a reformer in terms of teacher education, and as principal was also able to change conditions for staff. She introduced a ‘grace term’ for established tutors for ‘rest and refreshment’, paid salaries as high as could be afforded, and ensured free residences for staff. Grier also noted that,


‘much of her work for the college was concerned with people outside it. She sought continually to give the advantages of Whitelands to other institutions, and to gain for Whitelands the invigoration of contact with them.’

(ibid: 167)

While at Whitelands, Winifred also involved herself with influencing wider educational work and policy – campaigning for longer teacher training for all teachers, for example, and the establishment of nursery schools. Throughout her career she engaged in scholarly debate and curriculum development in both history and religious education, becoming a fellow and council member of the Royal Historical Society, and also a member of the archbishops’ first commission of enquiry into the teaching office of the church.

It seems that there is much we can continue to learn from Winifred Mercier. A century on, we are still concerned with the quality of routes into teaching, ensuring a diverse and sustained profession that is understanding of and responsive to the needs of all children, including those most disadvantaged. The role of the humanities and the development of meaningful curriculum and pedagogy are critical (if underplayed) educational concerns. There is a continued need to challenge the relationships between higher education institutions and society. And in addition, the role and voices of women in educational landscapes and leadership need to be celebrated and heard. We end with the words of Winifred’s colleague Grace Owen, who said that Winifred was,


by the means of her own personality, by the quality of her own courses […] and by her personal interviews with students and staff, an extraordinarily inspiring and beautiful idea of a woman and a teacher, and of teaching the relation of education to life.’

(ibid: 98–99).

For us she is a teacher educator to live up to in the 21st century.


Grier L (1937) The Life of Winifred Mercier, Oxford University Press

Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education and the Winifred Mercier Professor of Education at the Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University, where she has established ‘CollectivEd: the Hub for Mentoring and Coaching’. Prior to joining Leeds Beckett University in 2017 she was a teacher educator and researcher at Newcastle University. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice. Her email address is R.M.Lofthouse@leedsbeckett.ac.uk and she tweets at @DrRLofthouse, and @CollectivED1.

Ali Messer is head of secondary initial teacher education, and history PGCE tutor, at the University of Roehampton. She was previously the head of a comprehensive secondary school humanities faculty, before joining Roehampton after nearly 20 years in the classroom. Ali’s research is focused on history education, the development of new teachers, and how historical teaching and learning might be supported by new technologies. Her publications include a chapter, ‘History wikis’ in Haydn (ed) (2013) Using New Technologies to Enhance Teaching and Learning in History, Abingdon: Routledge; and an article, ‘For us it was very much made our own: how beginning teachers develop collaborative creativity online’, International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research 8(2).

Ali blogs at: https://intheoryandinpractice.wordpress.com/