Oral history trials

By Laura Carter

During the last few weeks of August I carried out three oral history interviews, the first for our project. Oral history has always been an obvious avenue for SESC. However, instead of adopting a one-to-one, life history approach, we decided to explore ways of embedding our conviction that secondary education is a particularly inter-generational life experience into our oral history methodology. We therefore sought out some families who were willing to participate in a few trial oral history interviews.

I managed to assemble three such groups: one father (b. 1936), mother (b. 1953) and son (b. 1980); one grandmother/mother (b. 1937), mother (b. 1965), and daughter (b. 1999); and one father (b. 1971) and son (b. 2000). These volunteers were extremely generous with their time and memories, and interviewing them each in turn enabled me to work out what worked well and what worked not so well, as we develop these types of interviews for our research and public engagement work in the future.

The initial plan had been to experiment with different levels of interviewer intervention with each group, moving from a fixed set of questions, to simply introducing very broad themes to the group to discuss. Our hope was that this would elicit a freer, cross-generational discussion that allowed participants to reflect upon how school has changed over time in the context of their families. This idea to listen was in fact first inspired by the BBC’s Listening Project, which often features frank and illuminating exchanges between friends and family on the topic of schooling and education.

I learnt, however, by the second interview, that I needed to follow in the foot-steps of more traditional oral historians, as my interlocutors required firmer guidance to steer the conversation and because it allowed me to follow up on intriguing and unexpected topics. Even with my more active role in the conversations, I was pleased by the obvious value demonstrated in conducting conversations in this way. Increasingly, my participants asked either questions of one another or for points of clarification. This happened especially around issues such as the process of choosing (or not choosing) a secondary school and around subject choice, when parents interjected to reveal forces that children had been unaware were guiding their fates at the time. At certain points in the interviews, individuals spent longer explaining a more complex trajectory (for example, leaving school at fifteen to live overseas before retraining for a career) and we all listened intently to those inevitable idiosyncrasies in each life story that are less ripe for comparison with another generation.

Given the age and geographical range of the people I interviewed, it is unsurprising that we discussed a vast array of different school types and exam systems. Older participants that experienced the tripartite system spoke with a resigned indifference about the eleven-plus (whether or not they passed), commenting that ‘that was just the way it was then’, their memories inter-layered with decades of subsequent political and social views. I was surprised to find how little grandparents and parents made a direct connection between their own experiences and their desires for their children at secondary school, with the exception of those who had gone through a single-sex school system. This is probably, in part, because by now their children’s secondary school years have happened and there is no longer anything up for grabs, and it would have been interesting to hear from some parents with current 9, 10, and 11-year olds. In this instance, parents spoke more often of financial circumstances, their own career choices, and muted political convictions as influencing the choices they made for their children.

It was obvious, nonetheless, that parental memories of secondary education did seep into these everyday family lives in more subtle ways. Time and again participants spoke of in-jokes and maxims shared between the family, whether about dad’s school sports day or grandma’s advice for maths homework. This got me thinking that our experiences at secondary school don’t only shape the directly educational decisions we make about our children. They also function as a shared vocabulary across the generations, however different the school systems that we move through appear to be on the surface.

These recent afternoons with an audio recorder at the end of a long hot summer mean that our team is now developing a much clearer sense of how we can use oral history creatively over the coming years.  I would like to thank everyone involved who gave up their time to talk to me about their memories and experiences of secondary education in Britain. I’ll end this blogpost with a transcription of a letter that one of the participants shared with me. On New Year’s Day 1951, whilst attending a girls’ grammar school in Croydon, she wrote a fastidiously detailed account of her school day to an American cousin, hoping to compare notes on their different schools. For our purposes, it serves as a window into the everyday life of a witty grammar school girl in the early years of British mass secondary education, complete with bells, hats, weather, and a particularly female form of quiet protest.

Let’s pretend it’s Tuesday: A day in the life of a 1950s grammar school girl

Dear Cousin,

 How do you like your new school? My Pen friend in Kentucky sent me a booklet about their school, which is a Junior & Senior High School in one, but otherwise I should imagine like yours. This booklet is for the pupils, not the parents of the school.

The first different thing is where we have prayers everyday they have assembly once a week. Their first school buses arrive 7.10, we do not arrive till 8.45 & prayers is at 9.0. When we arrive at school we go down to the Cloakroom, and take off our hats & coats and wait for the 8.45 bell to go. Then we go up to our form rooms and give in our homework, get our books out for the 1st lesson, & chatter (mostly the last). At a few minutes to 9 the bell goes & we all line up and march into prayers. We sit on the floor cross legged (usually otherwise) till Miss Adams (Head H) comes in. Then we all stand up & sing a hymn. Miss Adams says some prayers & then we sit cross legged (usually otherwise) while Miss Adams gives out the notices, e.g. there will be a meeting of the Science Society in Break in Room 1 today. Then we all march back to our form rooms. Register is taken and the 1st bell goes. 3 minutes later the second bell goes.

 Let’s pretend it’s Tuesday. First we have Latin. I am in A Division (there are A, B, C, & Dom Sci) and we have Latin in Room 15 which is also our form room (the 3 parallel forms split up into the 4 Divs). The Mistress, Miss Spaul comes in and we have a Latin lesson. At 10.0 the bell rings (or buzzes or tries too, ours is weak). Then A Div goes to room 10 for French. After 3 mins the 2nd bell rings & Mrs Donavon comes in. 10.40 is break (For French, Science, & Maths there are A, B, C, & D Divs). I’m in A for everything.

 After French we go back to the form room & put our books away tidyly (usually untidily) and get out our books for after break (or don’t, as the case may be [you’re meant to]). Then we go to the hall & get milk and buy buns (1d each). Then we go out (or get chased out by the prefect) on to the playground (2 netball courts in winter 2 tennis courts in summer) and play. At 11 a bell goes & we all go to our form rooms to get our books. (If it is wet down to the cloakroom to change our shoes). After 3 mins a bell goes & after another 3 mins another bell goes, when Miss Cotton comes in to give a Maths lesson.

At 11.40 another bell goes and we go Room 23 (a lab) for Science. Science is my favourite lesson, then Maths. At 11.40 another bell goes, but as we have a double lesson of Science we go on. At 1 the bell goes for dinner. We go back to our form room, dump our things, wash our hands (sometimes) and go into dinner. We queue up at the hatch get a dinner thrust at you and go and sit down at your form’s table. 1st Dinner is finished (sometimes) by 1.30, when 2nd Dinner starts while we play. At 2.20 we go in for register, then Gym, then English & at 3.50 we go back to our form rooms get our prep & go home.

Love from Cousin.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Dave Postles

    Reactions to 11+: experiences will have differed. My own experience brings a furious response. Kids cried in the playground because they failed. It was divisive. Some kids accused others of effectively taking their place. Only four kids in my year passed the 11+. My brother, who was considered brighter than me by the same teachers who taught me, failed. He was consigned to a SM school and abandoned any aspiration. My parents considered him a disappointment which caused a further rupture between the siblings. I don’t regard the 11+ phlegmatically at all.

    1. Laura Carter

      Hi Dave. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Your experiences do very much reflect much of what we have been finding from those who went through the 11+ system, especially the divisions between siblings which is something we want to explore further. If you’d like to be involved in the future and perhaps participate in the oral history phase of our project, please subscribe to the blog or get in touch on sesc@hist.cam.ac.uk. Thanks again for taking the time to read our blog. Laura

  2. Maureen Royce

    Hi Laura I was interested by your interviewing technique. In some research into working class education experiences in Liverpool, I was led by the participant view of the elements important to them when discussing their education. It did mean that the interviews differed in respect of focus but the self-identification of what was important and memorable seemed to be important in understanding the impact of education in a community of relative deprivation.
    If you are looking to develop work in the area of secondary education in a working class area of Liverpool or in a new town, Corby, Northamptonshire, comprehensive please do get in touch

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