A thousand families and seventy-seven secondary schools in Newcastle-upon-Tyne

By Laura Carter

In 1954 Sir James Spence and his research team at the Newcastle Royal Victoria Infirmary published A Thousand Families in Newcastle upon Tyne, the first volume in a series of works tracking the childhood health of a cohort of local children, all born in 1947. The Newcastle Thousand Families 1947 Birth Cohort (hereafter referred to as the 1000F study) began, much like the national 1946 birth cohort study, as a result of pre-war interests in maternity and infant care that were placed in sharper relief by the privations of wartime and the prospect of a National Health Service. Spence had posited in the 1930s that poor nourishment and health at home was to blame for outbreaks of infectious childhood disease in the city, and in May 1947 he began a study regularly visiting a representative sample of 1142 Newcastle families to find out more.[1]

Cover of A Thousand Families in Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1954). Image courtesy of The Newcastle Thousand Families 1947 Birth Cohort based at the Sir James Spence Institute at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, supplied by Allison Lawson

Between 1947 and 1962 the 1000F study continued to track its members through primary and secondary school, and the survey began to rely more heavily on teachers and schools for obtaining their data in the late 1950s. Regular information was collected on social class, housing, height, weight, infections and illness, behaviour and criminality, school performance and cognitive testing, and home and leisure activities. Over this fifteen-year period, participant numbers dropped from the original 1142 to 967 after one year, 847 after five years, and 763 after fifteen years (in 1962).[2]

Encouraged by the success of our work on the original questionnaires of the national birth cohort studies, and thanks to advice from our colleague Sian Pooley at Oxford who has already worked on the 1000F study, we decided to investigate whether or not the data collection on these Newcastle families had left similar records. The current 1000F team, led by Mark Pearce and supported by Allison Lawson, were generous in granting us access to the original files of a sample of sixty individuals. Our Research Associate Laura Carter worked through the files this summer at the RVI in Newcastle.

We found a lot of material that was similar to that of the 1946 (national) birth cohort (aka the NSHD), such as school performance, job aspirations, and attitudes to school leaving. Other material was a bit different. For example, the 1000F study members were asked, at age 12, ‘If you could have three wishes to do with school, what would you wish for?’. This was more specific than the NSHD’s general ‘If you had 3 wishes, what would they be’ (asked at age 15). The Newcastle kids mainly wanted better facilities (‘I wish we could have the girls toilets in school’), less of the lessons they disliked, and more practical work, gym, and swimming (including the grammar and technical school kids). Worryingly, four boys in our sample wished to ‘blow up school’. Below is a ‘Wordle’ representing our sample’s ‘3 wishes’:

Wordle representing responses to the question ‘If you could have three wishes to do with school, what would you wish for?’ by the Newcastle 1000F participants in 1959, created by Laura Carter for SESC

Although we were originally drawn to these sources for access to pupil voices, one of the most compelling aspects of the 1000F files were the parents’ surveys. In 1962, when the Newcastle children were age 15, and when many of them had already left school and started work, health visitors (and sometimes doctors) entered the family home to ask their parents questions about their child’s health and social progress, as well as to probe into parental attitudes on topics like raising the school leaving age to sixteen, and asking ‘At what age does mother consider children are at their most difficult stage?’

In these surveys, we find parents consistently resisting the tightly prescribed medical parameters of the study. Mothers expressed concerns over how minor ailments or lingering childhood illnesses might be affecting their child’s progress, or worse, their happiness. It was also an occasion for parents (and sometimes grandparents) to publicly sing the praises of children who had secured highly-sought after apprenticeships, or a job at a respectable department store like Fenwicks, ‘where they take an interest in their young staff’, as one mother put it.

Parents were often also keen to stress the gap between their generation and that of their offspring, and some documents were just as useful as sources on growing up in 1930s Newcastle. One mother was reported to have said ‘little about herself but did say if her husband had had the opportunities her sons failed to take he would be in a much better position’. Many of these families were still living in extreme poverty in Newcastle in the 1950s, as the city struggled to re-house its inner-city residents. When they found themselves in a regular dialogue with agents of the welfare state in their home, they reminded the experts that the physical, mental and social progress of their families was measured not in tables, scales and heart-rates, but in regrets and hopes passed from one generation to the next.

The same mother went on to explain that ‘…her husband was quite bright & some of the men now his bosses were not nearly as bright as he at school.’ Such comments reflect how, as we have found in many of our sources, the subjective value of education (or lack of) shifts across the life course. It is often when people are striving to ‘get on’ at work or become parents themselves that a recalibration of education’s worth takes place.

‘Summer pastimes: marbles on the green’, image reproduced from F. J. W. Miller, S. D. M. Court, E. G. Knox, and S. Brandon, The school years in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1952-62 ( 1974), p. 174

As well as providing these intimate family portraits, the 1000F study is of interest to us because it permits a focused look at secondary schooling in one urban area during a process of suburbanisation. As in many other postwar British cities, the population of inner-city Newcastle was changing in the 1950s, as families were either re-housed or sought their own, better housing on estates beyond and around the city limits. The total population of the city declined by 8% between 1951 and 1961. This meant high incidences of school changes for the cohort members, although this happened mostly during their primary school years: more than one third of the study children changed schools between 1952 and 1958.[3]

By the time the kids sat their ‘11-plus’ exams and reached secondary school in 1958, the population was far more spread out than had originally been planned. Moreover, school building struggled to keep up with these families on the move, resulting in many of the children in the study attending secondary modern schools that were essentially an extension of their junior schools, sometimes housed on the same site. These kinds of inequalities varied between regions and LEAs, new purpose-built secondary moderns (and eventually, comprehensives) were always far superior to makeshift alternatives. All told, 77 different secondary schools were recorded in the 1000F study records. We have created an interactive map showing their locations and distributions here.

Screenshot with detail from ‘Newcastle 1000 Families’ Scribble Map created by Laura Carter for SESC

Newcastle is also interesting for its bipartite, grammar technical schools. Some technical schools in the city, such as John Marley Technical, a boys’ school, offered both ‘12-plus’ and ‘13-plus’ entry options. The school them streamed its pupils based on their attainment, aptitude for languages vs. science, and age of entry. Pendower Technical High School for Girls on Fox & Hounds Lane, a sought-after option for many daughters, also offered courses in commercial skills such as shorthand, which secondary modern leavers could take up part time, after starting work.

Newcastle secondary schools in the 1960s, particularly the secondary moderns, also benefited from the initiative of the Northern Counties Technical Examinations Council which started offering a secondary-level examination in 1959, the ‘Northern Counties School Certificate Examination’. An alternative to the ‘O’ Level still valued by employers and parents, this school-leaving certificate promised access to higher-skilled jobs in the city. There was also a sprinkling of diverse options for independent education on offer in the city, ranging from Church High School (an elite day school for girls, competition for the city’s girls’ Direct Grant Grammar, Central Newcastle High School) to Gregg’s High School, a small and short-lived private school in Jesmond founded to teach the Gregg’s shorthand system. 

As these examples suggest, looking closely at one city reveals the local peculiarities weaved into the tripartite system of education. It’s essential for our project that we get to grips with these differences up and down the country. But we’re doing so in a way that puts patchworks of schools and policies in the context of family, parent, and pupil experiences. The 1000F study is the ideal material for this type of endeavour. It allows us to overlay a top-down picture of education in the city with those qualitative, parental conversations happening inside homes. As we move into this second, regional, phase of our research project, we are finding that geography was a defining feature of the experience of secondary education in Britain after 1944.

We are grateful to Mark Pearce, Allison Lawson, and The Newcastle Thousand Families 1947 Birth Cohort based at the Sir James Spence Institute at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle, for supporting this research

[1] F. J. W. Miller, S. D. M. Court, E. G. Knox, and S. Brandon, The school years in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1952-62: being a further contribution to the study of a thousand families (London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 1-3.

[2] Miller, The school years, pp. 10-4. M. S. Pearce, N. C. Unwin, L. Parker, and A. W. Craft, ‘Cohort Profile: The Newcastle Thousand Families 1947 Birth Cohort’, International Journal of Epidemiology (2008), give the 1962 (age 15) figure as 750.

[3] Miller, The school years, pp. 6-7.

Workshop review: Social media as an historical source

By Laura Carter

In June 2019 we ran a workshop, in collaboration with Cambridge Digital Humanities’ (CDH) Learning Programme, about how historians might think about using social media as an historical source. In this post, SESC Research Associate Laura Carter reflects on the value and outcomes of the day.

The reason behind running this workshop was that, for several years, I had been thinking about the potential value of ‘school reunion’ groups on Facebook as a source for learning about aspects of everyday life at secondary school in Britain during previous decades. Whenever I was searching for information about a particular school online, perhaps a secondary modern school that had long since merged, closed, or ‘gone comprehensive’, unfailingly the first Google hit I would come across was a Facebook group. These groups were incredibly rich and often irresistible. They featured discussions (and photos) of teachers, (good and bad), letters sent home, school trips, first jobs, and first kisses. Most of the topics of conversation were things that we simply do not find in the same, vernacular mode in the ‘official’ sources such as Local Authority archives, HMI reports, or even sociological surveys.

As we considered if and how it would be possible to incorporate an online, ethnographic study of these groups into our larger research project, we also thought it would be beneficial to collaborate with CDH on an event to ask how other historians were approaching social media. We planned and ran an interactive workshop, free for anyone to attend, on 17 June 2019 at CRASSH in Cambridge.

The day began with a session ‘workshopping’ everyone’s project ideas. We organised attendees into four thematic groups, based around abstracts they had shared beforehand about their research. The groups were as follows:

  1. Using social media to recruit for oral histories and make contact with historical actors
  2. The uses of history and heritage on social media platforms
  3. Community Facebook groups as archives and sites of identity-making
  4. Attitudes to and memories of race and racism on social media

When we fed back, we found that the inter-connected practical and ethical challenges associated with this kind of work often prohibited us from carrying out projects on a larger, more systematic scale. We are all looking at and using social media all the time, but we aren’t always sure how to cite posts and threads in our published work, for example, or how to protect ourselves as researchers given that a platform like Facebook requires you to use your personal account to interact with individuals or in groups. There were varying views on this point: some of those present were actively inserting their own identities and views into their research process, in a reflexive way, whilst others sought to minimise their digital footprint as far as possible. These issues are not that far from challenges faced in traditional ethnographic sociology, and it was agreed that we could learn from revisiting those methodologies when planning online research, as well as engaging with new work on ‘netnography’ and other forms of digital ethnography that have not much penetrated the discipline of history so far.

Participants also raised questions about the demographics of social media users (and the difference between Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, for example), and the implications of this for whose voices are heard. Some of those using social media to enlist participants for oral history studies felt that digital spaces were often just exacerbating the ‘classic’ problems of oral history recruitment, such as class and ethnic bias. There was also a very productive discussion around thinking of social media, particularly community Facebook groups, as archives. Colleagues present from the British Library’s Digital Research and UK Web Archiving teams reminded us of the legal and professional parameters of being an archive. But others were also keen to stress the democratic nature of staking out a space online for memories and materials associated with a particular activist movement that might otherwise be forgotten in the official, archival record.

After sessions from myself outlining SESC’s research plan for engaging with ‘school reunion’ Facebook groups, and from Anne Alexander (CDH) on understanding the information architecture and user behaviour of social media, our final session was an interactive, mock ethics panel. This gave us a chance to pick up on questions about ethics that ran as a consistent thread throughout the day.

For the mock ethics panel, Anne created a fictional research project proposal called ‘The transmedial archive: exploring the public and private lives of Sir Winston Roberts (1957-2021)’. This project revolved around the archiving and digitisation of a figure whose life and work spanned analogue and digital sources (including a vast personal social media archive), and topics as diverse as psychiatry, drug misuse, and Far-Right politics. Our (pretend but esteemed) panel of ethical experts had an open discussion about the proposal, which all participants had time to read, and then grilled Anne (who was playing the PI) in the style of an ethics review panel. The fictional project was designed to have some obvious red flags built in, which our panel and audience quickly picked up on. The key points that emerged were the implications of GDPR, gaining consent from Twitter users once an archive has been downloaded, and how to preserve old media forms such as CD-ROMs and floppy disks.

When thinking about and planning this event, I was unsure if I had fully understood all of the complex issues surrounding social media research in history, enough to commence my proposed research on Facebook as part of SESC. But the experience of getting a range of historians together in one room, who had all been coming at this from different angles and thinking about it haphazardly on their own, definitely boosted my confidence that I was on the right track. Most participants I spoke to said that the first, workshopping session was the most useful part of the day because it helped connect up our isolated thinking.

There are already some answers to a lot of the questions we have about social media as an historical source, especially regarding ethics and methodology, in existing literature within political science, information studies, and sociology. However, we don’t have many blueprints within our discipline for doing this type of work systematically, and in a way that answers the kinds of questions we have always traditionally asked of our sources. And we don’t have an ethical framework that matches the high standards that we have long assumed traditional archives already have covered, when they present us with documentary sources to pour over in the reading room. This ethical framework has to be the first step if we are to enter the digital space confidently as historians, which we surely have to do as the internet becomes the historical terrain of the future.

Thank you to everyone involved in organising and who participated in our workshop on 17 June 2019. I will keep interested readers updated on my progress with SESC’s social media research over the coming year on this blog, including sharing our own ethical framework in due course. Below you will find a reading list created for the workshop, which contains useful introductory literature and software for historians considering using social media as a source.

Reading list: 





COSMOS Open Data Analytics Software, free software for analysing Twitter

SESC Public Engagement Coordinator

We are hiring a Public Engagement Coordinator to join our team from 1 September 2019. The role will be part-time, fixed-term, for 24 months.

The postholder will organize a series of workshops at schools around the UK aimed at widening communication with the general public, schools and teachers and developing resources for the social history of secondary schools. On the research side, the postholder will support the team’s Research Associates (Chris and Laura) with the oral history and online ethnographic research aspects of the project. In addition, the postholder will be responsible for developing and maintaining the project’s website and social media presence and joining the rest of the team in organizing the project’s final conference in 2021.

For more details and to apply, follow the link below:


Social media as an historical source: methods, challenges, ethics, 17 June 2019

We’re looking forward to running a workshop in collaboration with Cambridge Digital Humanities’ Learning Programme in Cambridge on 17 June, exploring the possibilities and challenges of using vernacular material posted on social media websites, such as Facebook, as an historical source for the period since 1945.

The workshop is open to researchers at all levels, especially Masters and PhD, including those outside of Cambridge. It will include the chance to share and discuss your work-in-progress ideas, a presentation from our project on using social media as a source for social experiences of schooling, and a mock ethics panel.

The event is free of charge to attend and lunch will be provided.

Book here.

For more information, contact Dr Laura Carter, lc449@cam.ac.uk

British Adolescent Pupils Write About Age, 1962-64

By Laura Tisdall

Dr Laura Tisdall has just completed the first year of a three-year Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in History at Queen Mary, University of London. She specialises in the histories of childhood, adolescence and education in modern Britain.


In 1963, a fifteen-year-old school girl recalled, in an essay titled ‘Myself at 10’, how it felt to be five years younger:

I was not helped… by many adults who treated me as a child… children can understand far more, and far more complicated things, than is generally realised, and do not appreciate people who say “Oh, you wouldn’t understand dear, now shut up,” and go on nattering to Aunt Flo… Many of the people who used this tone fancied themselves as managers of children, and were determined that we would remain children, to their stereotype, until they decided we had suddenly grown up. [1]

 This essay was part of the English Writing and Composition Project run by the Institute of Education; in the strand in which this pupil was participating, groups of pupils from particular schools were asked to write essays at six-month intervals over the course of two years, so the researchers could trace the development of writing ability between the ages of fourteen to sixteen. The essay titles appear to have been fairly arbitrary, perhaps selected on the basis of what the researchers thought would ‘interest’ teenagers. (This was not necessarily a successful strategy: one respondent wrote, in frustration with the latest assignment, that it was ‘the worst, most uninspiring collection of titles I have ever seen’. [2] ) 

Looking at how children and teenagers wrote about age when they were still under eighteen, rather than focusing on adult memories of childhood and adolescence, is crucial for historians who want to analyse these age-categories. Unlike other identity categories such as gender and race, age is unique in being an experience that everybody shares, and yet also an experience that everyone loses. While all adults were once children, they are no longer children, and so can no longer speak from this subordinate social position; as Carolyn Steedman has written, ‘the child grows up and goes away’. [3]

These essays, one of the source sets I’m using for my Leverhulme-funded project ‘Adolescents’ concepts of age and ageing in Britain, c.1950 to the present day’, allow us to see how children and teenagers interacted with new psychological and psycho-analytical ideas about age in post-war Britain. Obviously, they do not grant us unmediated access to what these writers ‘really’ thought about age; they were written in a classroom, under the supervision of a teacher, for a distant research project that their writers knew little about. However, they do indicate what teenagers thought they ought to write about growing up, and that they understood what they were doing when they challenged this received wisdom.

My previous research has shown that developmental psychological ideas about age profoundly affected both primary and secondary modern school teachers’ concepts of childhood in England and Wales from the 1950s onwards. [4] Adolescents were refigured as cognitively incapable of logical thinking, positioned as innately impulsive and reckless because of their inability to plan long-term. Their limited empathy also suggested that they were likely to be selfish and self-centred. These characteristics were linked to a maturational concept of developmental stages that was communicated to teachers through popularised versions of the work of Jean Piaget, suggesting that adolescents could not overcome these defects by conscious effort, but became more capable simply by getting older.

Teenage pupils, while often concurring with this characterisation of adolescence through the use of psychological language, were less likely to assume that it applied to all individuals who shared a chronological age, or that adolescents were unable to behave differently while they remained in their teenage years. A significant number of respondents to the Institute of Education study emphasised that the negative connotations of adolescence did not apply to them because they were ‘not like other teenagers’, a strategy which entailed stigmatising their peers. One respondent, writing on the anti-nuclear Aldermaston marches, argued that:

It is a well known fact that certain teenagers join every political society in their city, and then use them as “glorified Youth Clubs” without knowing anything of their views. This makes a mockery of it all. Much as I regret to say it the main disturbing influence of demonstrations of this kind in England is the teenagers. [5]

Left: Young people on one of CND’s ‘Ban the Bomb marches’ to Aldermaston, March 1963. ©Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Conversely, other teenage writers used the threat of nuclear war to emphasise the failure of their parents’ generation, implying that adults had abdicated their natural authority through the development of the H-bomb. Writing in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, one respondent, in an essay on ‘What are some of the commonest causes of disagreement between young people of your age and their parents?’, wrote:

Some young people dislike the older generation because of the threat of Atomic war they feel, and rightly so in my opinion, that it was the old scientist of years ago that gave us this threat because of their childish instinct to create things that cause mass destruction. [6]

The employment of the language of age here positioned adults as ‘childish’, flipping the usual power dynamics. However, this writer also used another rhetorical strategy found in a number of other essays, arguing that the supposed ‘irresponsibility’ of teenagers, exemplified by their lack of financial planning, was actually a rational response to the situation in which they found themselves:

Mabye [sic] they feel we should save the money, for we will need it on a “rainy day” but what they don’t realise is that there might never come a “rainy day” with the threat of Atomic war. [7]

Post-war psychological ideas about the innate irresponsibility and selfishness of adolescence were not only well-known to these teenage writers, but were weaponised by them: either to emphasise that they were not really ‘adolescent’ because they were serious and responsible; to suggest that adult treatment of young people actually forced them to ‘remain children’; or, perhaps most creatively, to contend that adolescents didn’t plan for the future because the older generation had ensured they weren’t going to have one.

[1] English Composition and Writing Project, Institute of Education, WRI 1/1/1, essay 139.

[2] English Composition and Writing Project, Institute of Education, WRI 1/1/8, essay 286.

[3] Carolyn Steedman, Childhood, Culture and Class in Britain: Margaret McMillan, 1860-1931 (London: Virago, 1990), 79.

[4] Laura Tisdall, A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019)

[5] English Composition and Writing Project, Institute of Education, WRI 1/1/1, essay 3.

[6] English Composition and Writing Project, Institute of Education, WR1 1/1/2, essay 257.

[7] Ibid.

Education: Parents and Children, 1920-1964

By Bernard Barker

Bernard Barker is a former comprehensive school headteacher and emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Leicester. He was the first comprehensive school student to become headteacher of a comprehensive school. Bernard’s most recent books include The Pendulum Swings: Transforming School Reform (Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books, 2010) and, with Kate Hoskins, (2014) Education and Social Mobility: Dreams of Success (London: Institute of EducationPress, 2014). His educational autobiography covering the years 1946 – 1968, Busking Latin: from South London Comprehensive to Cambridge University, A Memoir, is due from The Stamford Press in October 2019. Contact Bernard to pre-order your copy. In this piece, he reflects on the intergenerational family conversations and relationships that shaped his educational pathway.


I hear my parents’ voices as I remember and write. In early summer 1957, I hurry home from school with the news I’ve passed the eleven plus (11+) examination. My parents are more relieved than pleased. Dad’s face is impassive, almost stern. Mother wants to know what happens next.

‘You’ll have to see Mr Offord, Bessie,’ answers Dad.

Mr Offord is headmaster of Kidbrooke Park Primary and expert on the 11+ and getting into local grammar schools.

‘I’m not happy with this interview business,’ she says, ‘From what I’ve heard they can be very picky.’

‘I’m not keen on grammar schools,’ says Dad with a frown.

This is a startling remark for a ten-year-old son to hear. I’ve taken the exam, I’ve walked the plank, I’ve squeezed through the closing door and now he doesn’t want me to go. Or does he? I say nothing.

In 1957 I do not know about my father’s own youth or understand his doubts. Dad attended Drayton Park, a London elementary school ten-minutes walk from his home at 9 Hartnoll Street, in Holloway N7. No one he knew ever won a scholarship to grammar school. Although Mr Palmer, the headmaster, wrote that young Chris Barker was ‘a splendid worker’ and ‘very intelligent’, the boy left in 1927, aged 14, and received no more formal education. In his mind, grammar schools are an alien life form, inextricably tied up with middle class airs and graces. But he is also imbued with socialist and trade union values and believes passionately in the power of education to change lives and bring about a more equal society. Dad is happy with his life in the Post Office, but knows things might have been different with qualifications.

‘I’m thinking about these all-in comprehensive schools,’ he says. ‘There’s no picking and choosing, everyone goes.’

Above: Author’s father at Drayton Park School (second from left after teacher, back row), c. 1926. © 2019 Bernard Barker

Dad has followed the progress of nearby Kidbrooke School opened in 1954; Eltham Green, opened in 1956; and Crown Woods, too far from our house. The London County Council’s (LCC) modern palaces glitter with promise.

‘Nye Bevan says the common people are too obedient. He wants boys and girls like you, Bernard, to be more arrogant. You’ll be the masters now!’

Seven years later, I walk briskly home from school with ‘A’ level results in my jacket pocket and a smug expression on my face. Mother is in the dining room at the easel, studying her canvas. A matador waves a red cloak as he manoeuvres to thrust his sword between the bull’s shoulder blades. The scene is fashioned from geometric blocks of vivid red, black, gold and blue. Mother takes her palate knife and works a patch of dark red paint into a wound. Her intense expression becomes a lively smile as she greets me.

‘How did you get on?’ she says eagerly. But Mother knows my self-satisfied look so sets down the knife and grins.

‘B grades in English and History, with an E in Geography.’

‘What does that mean?’ she asks.

‘I’ll be able to get into the university of my choice,’ I reply, slightly irritated by the need to explain about sixth forms and universities. My parents are bright and knowledgeable but neither has travelled this path.

‘You’ll be able to sit the Cambridge entrance exam?’

‘Yes, but your chances are better with higher grades,’ I admit. There is also the little matter of Latin. ‘If I fail my “O” level re-sit, we can say goodbye to Cambridge,’ I add.

We look at the bullfight together. I tell her it’s good.

‘Mother, why did you leave school when you did?’

This is a difficult subject. She won an LCC scholarship to The County Secondary School Peckham and is a great advocate of education for her boys, but chose, nevertheless, to walk away from sixth form and university, even after passing the School Certificate in 1930, with credits in Geography, Arithmetic and Drawing.

‘The headmistress virtually begged me to stop on. Where does it lead? I asked. Teaching, she said. I didn’t want to be a teacher. Or a nurse, or a secretary! I wanted to join the Post Office like your Uncle Wilfred. He was earning money and had a lovely social life. I’d grown out of school.’

‘Do you regret it?’ I ask.

‘No, I enjoyed the Post Office counter, you meet human beings with amazing quirks every day, never a dull moment.’

‘But you wanted to be on equal terms with men, didn’t that make education important?’

‘I’m still fighting to hold my own,’ she interrupts.

‘You loved Bernard Shaw,’ I say, almost in reproach.

This irritates and angers her, a sore nerve.

‘I’ve lived in a houseful of men,’ she cries, ‘Your Dad, Wilfred, you and your brother, and I’ve never been a mouse. I’m not downtrodden or squashed. I fight my corner. And don’t imagine you’ll get away with anything silly, however big and important you become. I’ll be here and I’ll argue and put you in your place.’

I decide to let her get on with the bullfight and make for the door.

‘And don’t think it’ll make a difference if you get into Cambridge,’ is her parting remark.

Above: Eltham Green School, oil painting by David Williams. © 2019 Bernard Barker

Forty-two years later, I am in London for the last evening at 27 Woolacombe Road, the semi in Blackheath bought by mother’s family in 1938 and finally sold in 2006. The house is dark and cheerless. After weeks of clearing books, pictures, kitchen equipment and garden tools, only worn, faded furniture remains. Mother died in 2004 and Dad will not return from his nursing home. He talks but the words don’t make sense. But in this house my parents linger in the air. There are noises in the kitchen and I expect a steaming cup of instant coffee to appear soon. Upstairs, Mother’s scent drifts from an open jar of Marks & Spencer’s Royal Jelly on the bedside table. In the empty bathroom, I chant the six times table and imagine her quick hands rubbing my knees with a flannel. The sewing cabinet stands in a corner of the back room, with scissors, needles and thread ready to mend torn clothes. I sit at the dining table, gathering strength to leave but haunted by the sound of typewriter keys clattering in the bedroom above.

The telephone rings. Sue, my father’s carer, speaks softly.

‘How are you?’

‘Nearly done.’

‘How do you feel?’

‘Last one out, put off the lights.’

She pauses.

‘What time should I come?’

Sue has agreed to open-up for the house clearance firm in the morning.

‘They promised to come first thing, around nine,’ I reply.

This was the evening when the domestic scenery of my childhood and youth was finally torn away, the painful moment when the physical connection with my parents and their way of life was lost forever. But I wasn’t finished with education, even then.

Left: The author at Eltham Green School, c. 1958. © 2019 Bernard Barker



All text and images copyright 2019 Bernard Barker.  All rights reserved. Please seek the author’s permission via email before quoting from this piece

Education, class, gender, and social mobility in post-war Britain’s coalfield communities. Or, why working-class girls mostly got working-class jobs (but not always)

By Natalie Thomlinson

Natalie Thomlinson is Lecturer of Modern British Cultural History at the University of Reading. Natalie is currently Co-Principal Investigator on an AHRC-funded project, Women in the Miners’ Strike, 1984-5. You can read more about the project and its findings here.

The research for this post comes from a large AHRC-funded project I am undertaking alongside Florence Sutcliffe Braithwaite and Victoria Dawson at UCL, entitled Women in the Miners’ Strike: 1984 -5: Charting changing gender roles in working-class communities in post-war Britain. For this, we have undertaken around 85 life-history interviews with women born between c.1940 and c.1970 from coalfield communities across Britain, asking them not just about the strike but about their life course more broadly. This has given us a more comprehensive picture of the changes in working class women’s lives across the period and a sense of how education has featured in their life trajectories.

Most of our interviewees attended their local secondary modern or comprehensive schools.  Some went to grammar schools. The majority, though certainly not all, went to single-sex schools. But whichever type of school they went to, the women we talked to all had experiences that were profoundly shaped by the intersection of their class and gender, and by broader social expectations of the sort of lives that working-class girls would go on to lead.

Sexism was not often experienced through directly negative encounters with male pupils or staff, but rather through the subtleties of low aspirations for girls. Most women reported that as children and teenagers they had expected – and were expected by those around them – to lead a life similar to that of their mothers, focused on domesticity and childrearing. They did not expect, in other words, to lead lives that were characterised by high levels of participation within the paid labour force; the employment that they had anticipated before marriage was generally the sort of poorly paid, unskilled work available to young women in mining areas. This meant that gaining qualifications at school was perceived to be of minimal relevance to many in our sample.  Indeed, those who finished their secondary education from the 1950s to the early-1970s were often not entered for exams at all, although this started to change over the following decade.  Therefore, many left school at the earliest possible moment, perhaps earning money in a factory, shop, or – at best – a low-grade clerical job, before settling down with a local lad (usually a miner in the case of our sample) a few years later.

Above: Maerdy Women’s Support Group (1984), courtesy and copyright of Martin Shakeshaft

In many ways, our sample’s early educational experiences demonstrate why, to paraphrase Paul Willis, ‘working-class girls got working-class jobs’ upon leaving school, even if quite a number came to experience a limited degree of social mobility later in life. It is also notable that education played a more peripheral role in the narratives of the working-class women we interviewed than those of more middle-class women I have undertaken oral histories with for previous research projects. While, perhaps, the moment of leaving university marked the graduation into adulthood for many middle-class women of the late twentieth century, for the women in our sample, work and marriage – rather than education – were the events that marked the transition to maturity. [1]

While school friendships were often remembered positively, as were some subjects and teachers, on the whole school was something to be endured rather than enjoyed, a staging post on the way to the real business of adult life. Those who did enjoy school tended to be those who had been academically able, such as Linda Chapman. After moving from the North East to Slough in the 1970s, she went to a grammar school, joking ‘I was Sadie Swot!’ Others, however, remembered school as a place where teachers made them feel stupid, insignificant, and poor. Here, we might want to think about the ‘hidden injuries of class’ within a school setting. [2]

Aggie Currie from Doncaster, for example, remembered of her primary and secondary modern school teachers in the 1950s and 60s that:

‘If your uniform came from Marks and Spencer, you were first choice for the teacher. If you were one of them kids whose uniform came from the market or jumble sale, they didn’t want to know. And I was one of them kids.’

Aggie was consistently classed as a trouble maker at school. Listening to her interview, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the miners’ strike allowed her, for the first time, to put this label to good use: she was arrested fourteen times between 1984-5, with this sense of standing up to authority clearly central to her sense of self.

Similarly, Pippa Morgan* passed her eleven-plus in South Wales in the early 1970s, but was so unhappy at her grammar school that after a few months she refused to go. Her unhappiness was such that she was referred to a child psychiatrist, who recommended that she was transferred to the local secondary modern. She remembered that:

‘That was like a class thing. You know the grammar school, people were so, I don’t know, snobby for want of a better word, and they’d pick on everything you’d done […] I remember I had my ears pierced twice and there was big fuss.  Different things, down to clothes, colour of your hair, things like that. And then when I went to this school [the secondary modern], you know, it was…normal.’

She was much happier at her new school – but she also left at 16 with no qualifications to embark on years of poorly paid and low skilled work. Even Linda Chapman, who enjoyed her experiences at the grammar school in Slough, reported feeling a sense of not belonging, surrounded by girls whose parents did professional jobs and lived in ‘posh’ commuter belt villages. She too left at 16 and worked in a bank.  Looking back at her life during the interview, Linda felt that it was not a bad job, but that she could have done better, expressing regret that no-one encouraged her to stay on into the sixth form.

Above: Women Against Pit Closures logo (1984-85)

Such a trajectory was common for many of those who had gone to grammar schools in our sample; they were more likely to attain qualifications, but often did not stay on into the sixth form. Attendance at grammar school was generally seen to be a route to securing white collar employment, rather than as a prelude to university attendance (unsurprising, given the extremely low numbers of working class women attending university before the 1980s). As Jean Shadbolt in Nottinghamshire recalled of her experience in the 1960s:

‘I wanted to do something arty…but…this is the other thing with my parents, neither of them ever said to me “Come on! You can do this!”, you know.  Once I reached fifteen, and could have left school legally, they didn’t really mind whether I went to school or not. Even though I was doing my O Levels, there was never any “are you to revise? What exam have you got?” They didn’t care […] as long as I didn’t go into a factory, that’s all they were bothered about. Once I got an office job, in their eyes, I’d arrived.’

Indeed, the sense of regret some of our women expressed about ‘messing around’ at school, or not making the most of the opportunities they perceived their younger-selves to have had, weighed heavily in a few of the interviews. From some women, I got the melancholy sense that, to them, I – also from a mining community and having attended similar sorts of schools – represented the ‘path not taken’; or at least the apparently greater opportunities available to women of my generation. Eating with one woman, who had reported such educational regrets, after the interview had finished, I was asked what university I had gone to.  When I replied, she exclaimed ‘I never thought someone with your accent would have gone to Oxford!’ She had a regional accent herself, so didn’t mean it snobbishly; rather, the idea of someone from the comprehensive school she had gone to during the 1970s attending an elite university was as unthinkable as going to the moon.

Yet I was also keenly aware that, with parents who worked in education, I had grown up with the cultural capital needed to ‘get on’ in the school system; they taught me the game and how to play it. For our interviewees to blame themselves for not making the most of their schooling raises the question of why, precisely, working-class girls growing up in mining areas would have had much incentive to do so in the first place?  They expected to do jobs that required few or no qualifications before becoming housewives, were rarely encouraged towards academic success by their teachers or schools, and were not entered for the exams that might have opened alternative pathways.

Ironically, of course, many of our interviewees’ teenage expectations about their future participation in the paid labour force proved to be wrong, as women increasingly entered the workplace in huge numbers towards the end of the twentieth century. Some of our interviewees ended up returning to education through the work they did, a not uncommon way for women from working-class backgrounds to gain qualifications in late twentieth-century Britain. Climbing the ladder at the workplace, and perhaps gaining qualifications that furthered their careers along the way, was the most common story of social mobility in our sample.

Linda Chapman, for example, studied for a degree in Business and Human Resources through her role working in the Personnel Department for the mobile phone company Orange (who she described as ‘fantastic’). Most education that genuinely allowed women to gain further career opportunities occurred after a return to college as mature students, not as teenage girls. The heady myth of the grammar-school boy and girl ‘getting on’ and ‘climbing the ladder’ in post-war Britain still holds an astonishing purchase over the popular imagination. Even so, those who had achieved some form of social mobility in our sample had overwhelmingly done so in spite of, and not because of, their early schooling.

* This is a pseudonym

[1] Paul Willis, Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs (London: Saxon House, 1978).

[2] Beverley Skeggs, Formations of Class & Gender: Becoming Respectable (London: SAGE, 1997).

Fred, Phil, and the 11-plus

By Richard Hall

Richard has recently completed his PhD at the University of Cambridge, working with SESC Advisory Board member Dr Lucy Delap. His thesis is entitled The Emotional Lives and Legacies of Fathers and Sons in Britain, 1945-1974.

Above: Fred and Phil Avery, 2016, courtesy of Richard Hall

This is a story of two brothers, tripartite education and British post-war family life. The eldest brother, Fred, was born in 1939, and Phil in 1945. Their father was a builder, their mother a housewife, and they grew up in a small town in the south of England. They led happy childhoods in straitened conditions. Money was tight but they had plenty of friends. School was something they fitted in around the boundless adventures of boyhood play. Nonetheless, as they told me in an oral history interview in 2016, their respective experiences of a certain exam were life-forming.

Unusually for families in the 1950s, they had the full gamut of post-war secondary education provision at their disposal. Grammar, secondary modern and technical schools were all within reach. By the time Phil left primary school in 1956, there was also the option of a new comprehensive. As with all children their age, however, their destiny rested on the notorious 11-plus examination. Passing or failing determined everything: from the friendships they kept or left behind to the cultural and economic shape of the rest of their lives.

Fred’s family and primary school lives enjoyed a harmonious relationship. His father had been a member of the parent-teacher association, and at one stage led a successful campaign to build a new school canteen. When it came to the 11-plus, however, disharmony loomed. As Fred explained, ‘yeah, well the big bone of contention was that I failed, and my dad and the teachers knew that I shouldn’t have failed’. A meeting between Fred’s father and the school was hastily arranged.

Having discussed the matter, it was agreed by all parties that Fred’s best option would be to go to technical school. Even if there had been a question mark over Fred’s exam result, it was reasoned that Fred’s inclinations, like his father’s, were towards the practical and vocational. A good technical school education might lead to a qualification at technical college and suitable career. In fact, this is precisely what happened. Fred was apprenticed by his father as a builder and went on to qualify as a quantity surveyor.

So smooth was Fred’s passage from primary to secondary school, Phil was under the false impression that his brother had in fact passed the 11-plus. Any other outcome was unimaginable, as he reflected: ‘huge exam, that was, because it made or broke your life’. So, as Phil entered the exam hall in his final year of primary school, it was with no little trepidation. Only one outcome would do. He had to pass.

As the allotted time was coming to a close, Phil was in good spirits. The exam had been much easier than expected. He had finished early, checked over his work several times, and was optimistic about his chances. Looking over his work one final time, however, disaster struck. To his horror, he realised that four pages of the exam booklet had been stuck together. In the blink of an eye, quiet satisfaction turned to panic. But there was nothing he could do. The invigilator signalled that time was up.

‘I was so embarrassed. I thought, they’re going to call me a right idiot. I wouldn’t talk to anybody or tell anybody because I couldn’t admit to anybody that I was so stupid, as to not have realised that these pages were stuck together’. Phil had made an innocent mistake. But the shame he felt was overwhelming. Never telling a soul, he stoically accepted his lot, went to one of the county’s newly formed comprehensive schools, and took things from there.

After leaving school, Phil took a rather more circuitous career route than his brother. One day, his father found him ‘messing about’ with cables, torches and batteries, and thought ‘That’s it! Electrician!’, having in mind an uncle who could arrange an apprenticeship at the local electricity board. Phil obliged, but his heart was never in it. Later in life, he finally found his vocation as a driver and carer for children with special needs.

Looking back sixty years later, Phil felt happy with his eventual choice of career, though he remained disposed to counterfactual musings, as he explained: ‘I just wonder sometimes what my life might have been, had those four pages not been stuck together’.

At some level, Fred’s and Phil’s stories add little to historical accounts of post-war education and society. As brothers of a certain age, they were two of many, indeed the majority, of post-war working-class children who failed the 11-plus and forewent opportunities to go to grammar school. Like many of their peers, they also, nonetheless, chose not to follow their father into manual labour. Fred took the familiar intergenerational journey from blue to white-collar work, from builder to quantity surveyor. Phil’s path was more idiosyncratic, resulting in an untypical job as careworker, but it nonetheless exemplified the increased choices available to the post-war generation.

What is fascinating about their stories though, is the delicate interplay between social and emotional lives at a freighted moment in the history of education and society. Tripartism stratified experiences of post-war childhood en masse as never before, but boundaries were not drawn solely along lines of academic selection. Nor can class analyses of post-war education always account for the full richness and heterogeneity of childhood experience. Here were two boys from the same working-class family, who both failed the 11-plus, but whose social and emotional outcomes were quite different.

Oral history provides a window into such lives, in which biography and history interact in particular, often unexpected ways. Recounted in interviews, historic lives are never fixed. Rather, they exist in motion, as memories are refined and reproduced in real time. In the course of Fred and Phil’s interview, the brothers learned something new about each other’s historic experiences of the 11-plus. Thanks to their candour and willingness to share their stories, we have learned something new and valuable about subjective experiences of post-war education too.

A guide to sources on secondary schools found in Local Authority archives

By Laura Carter

Over the past month I have been travelling around England and Wales visiting Local Authority (LA) archives – Glamorgan, Bristol, Tyne and Wear, and North Yorkshire – trying to get a sense of the types of material on secondary education that these repositories hold, how accessible they are, and how we might use them for our project during 2019. Within the team we have always had a strong sense that we want to use records of individual secondary schools held in LA archives, but we didn’t have much idea of how uniform such collections might be, or what they would yield for our purpose of understanding the experience of secondary education. I had used one, very rich collection of sources relating to a boys’ secondary modern school before (used in this published article), but I knew such finds were far from the norm.

Above: Interior of Tyne and Wear Archives, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

This blog post is a rough guide to what I found during my travels, which may be useful to other historians working education and social change in post-1945 Britain seeking to make the most of these under-used, but often complex, sources for social history.

Planning a trip and source accessibility

In planning each archive visit I spent a long time researching their online catalogues to get a clear sense of the structure of the education collections (for example, how administrative records, such as Education Committee minutes, and school records, such as log books, are organised distinctly). I also spoke to each of the archivists on the phone about the accessibility of material listed as closed under Data Protection legislation in their catalogues. This latter point is quite important: you will most likely find that a lot of post-1945 school material is by default closed under the ‘100-year rule.’ This does not always mean you cannot see it, but it might mean needing to explain your research more carefully in advance of a visit, and signing a Data Protection form confirming you will adhere to keeping all sensitive personal information confidential in your note-taking and outputs.

The introduction of GDPR in May 2018 has naturally triggered reviews and procedure updates in a lot of archives, and some repositories are more cautious than before. But the UK’s implementation of GDPR has adopted all research exemptions and is actually quite favourable towards the retention and use of historical data for research through its concept of ‘archiving in the public interest’, as long as the data in question is stored and shared according to its guidelines (for more on this, see The National Archive’s GDPR FAQs). So GDPR should not, in theory, present a barrier to research on school records. But you may find you have more administrative hoops to jump through, so leave plenty of time to do so as hard-pressed LA archives find the time and resources to update their policies and handle your request. We found it useful to prepare an ‘Ethics and data security statement’ and an ‘Archives protocol’ for our project, which we can share with archivists and administrators whenever queries about access arise.

What types of sources relating to UK secondary schools can you expect to find in LA archives?

All state-maintained UK schools have had a statutory requirement to keep official records throughout the twentieth century. These include but are not limited to: admission registers, attendance registers, punishment books, meeting minutes, and log books.

Log books: Log books are by far the most common and most likely source to survive, because they were the only record that schools had to preserve for ‘the whole life of the school’. Their value for research on school cultures and the history of childhood in Britain since 1945 has been demonstrated recently by a PhD thesis by Andrew Burchell on school discipline and Laura Tisdall’s forthcoming book on progressive education. Board of Education Administrative Memorandum No. 48, ‘School Records’, stated that school log books should be completed ‘under the supervision of the Head Master or Head Mistress or Superintendent Teacher’. They were instructed to record ‘Events specially worthy of record for future reference or for other reasons, such as alterations to premises, introduction of new books and apparatus or of new courses of instruction, visits of Managers or Governors, the absence or illness of a teacher.’ This guidance was updated by Ministry of Education Administrative Memorandum No. 531 in May 1956, ‘The School Annals’, compelling schools to record ‘matters of significance in the life of the school’ and noting that ‘Entries should be statements of fact only and should contain no expressions of opinion.’

Left: Ministry of Education Administrative Memorandum No. 531, ‘The School Annals’, May 1956.

As these stipulations indicate, log books are written from the ‘expert’ perspective of the Headteacher and are mostly descriptive. The majority of the ones I looked at were for secondary modern schools, as these are usually the only sources relating to this school type that are extant. They varied in detail and liveliness. Most were simply administrative records with one-line descriptions of staff absences, visits from external people, details of school openings and closures etc. I learnt that schools in the 1950s and 1960s were closed for General Election days, were burgled far more than I imagined, and that dental inspections were carried out pretty frequently! A couple were more colourful and had extra papers stuck in, and entries gave a little more flavour of the day-to-day life of the school. The 1970s comprehensive school log books I looked at were more fruitful than the 1960s secondary modern ones, perhaps because they were often penned by an enthusiastic new Head, keen to demonstrate the success of this new school type to external readers.

Punishment books: These sources are much less common than the log books; they were a statutory requirement but schools were not required to keep them for longer than three years after completion, so it seems likely that most were destroyed. I only managed to look at one from the post-1945 period, although I found many from the interwar years in catalogue searches. Each double page contained the following columns: date, name of scholar, offence, nature and extent of punishment, by whom inflicted, initials of Head Teacher. These sources are quite illuminating on issues of pupil-staff interactions and on gender. But, like the log books, are not much use in isolation from the wider context of the school in question.

Above: School ‘Punishment book’ title page, 1930s.

Leavers records: Leavers records are less common than log books but more common than punishment books. They vary in format. I looked at a few different types: a leavers book, a set of pupil record cards, and a set of pupil testimonials. The leavers book recorded for each pupil: Term/form, Name/gender, Date of birth, Regularity, Punctuality, Diligence, Conduct, Special aptitudes, General remarks. The pupil testimonials, from a comprehensive school, were actual certificates containing half a page of prose describing the pupil. They also recorded when they entered and left the school, what exam courses they followed, and a couple of paragraphs on their nature, behaviour, extra-curricular activities, and contributions to the school. Like most of the more niche sources I found, these kinds of records seem to appear randomly, when a particular school has deposited a more diverse and a coherent collection beyond the standard, statutory log books.

Internal school documents: Internal school documents produced from ‘above’ (e.g. sixth form guides, speech day programmes, timetables, and annual reports) cropped up in a variety of places. Sometimes they were free-standing items but more often they were pasted or tucked into log books and minute books. Sixth form guides are particularly useful as they show how staying on was marketed to pupils and parents by schools (e.g. one FAQ asked: ‘What if I don’t pass my exams – won’t it all be a waste of time returning to school?’), and can be read in conjunction with Governors’ minutes where available. Other documents are simply useful for fleshing out what log books tell you about the school’s corporate life with more detail, or providing basic information about the organisation and outward priorities of the school.

‘Bottom up’ school documents such as school magazines, school diaries, school work, and scrapbooks, are rarer than the top-down documents but, predictably, much more interesting. Scrapbooks and programmes are useful for fleshing out log book descriptions of school activities, especially when they contain photographs and pupil-perspective accounts. School magazines from comprehensive, secondary modern, and grammar schools appear in the archives unevenly, but they often contain revealing snippets of writing by pupils that provide valuable, subjective accounts of everyday life in the school.

Governors’ and PTA minutes: Governors’ minute books survive irregularly, and seem to be slightly more available for grammar schools. They provide a more detailed formal account of the business of schools than log books. A large part of their business is financial and relates to repairs, maintenance, and staffing. You will learn more than you ever wanted to know about the inadequate toilet and changing room facilities of UK secondary schools. They become more interesting around flashpoints, such as comprehensive reorganisation. PTA minute books are rarer than Governors’ minute books and slightly more interesting. Most entries relate to fundraising and the organising and running of PTA social events. However, when topics such as careers advice and exams arise, they provide valuable insight into parental concerns, especially if they are able to be used in conjunction with other sources.

An educational NACBS

By Laura Carter, Peter Mandler, and Chris Jeppesen

Last month the SESC team attended the North American Conference on British Studies (NACBS) in Providence, Rhode Island. As is always the case with NACBS, it was a large and busy event, featuring work from scholars of the British world spanning centuries, methodologies, and geographies. We noticed that there was a real upsurge in panels and papers featuring education across the board on previous years. Stephen Jackson remarked that there were more papers on the history of education at the 2018 meeting than he could remember from any NACBS, surely a positive sign from the perspective of our project.

Likewise, Laura Tisdall, who provided the comment for the panel which featured our Laura’s paper, offered up some thoughts on why the history of education has been a sort of ‘unhistory’ in the field of British studies. Her reasons included the predominance of teacher training in the literature and the separation of more dynamic fields such as the history of childhood, which surely ought to be education’s natural ally. For Laura, reintegrating the history of education into ‘mainstream’ British history is as much about writing it out of certain narratives, as it is about writing it back in to others. With these thoughts in mind, we thought we’d use our November blog post to reflect collectively upon the research into education that we heard in Providence over the weekend.

Laura: On the Friday afternoon I attended the panel ‘Education & Empire: Networks in the 19th and 20 Centuries’, which featured Alexandra Lindgren-Gibson, Hilary Falb Kalisman, and Darrell Newton, with Gavin Schaffer as chair and commentator. As is often the case when dealing with events and experiences across a wide geographical area, these papers took education in its broadest sense. Alexandra Lindgren-Gibson explored the spaces where enlisted men learnt about India in the late nineteenth century, such as reading rooms and libraries. Hilary Falb Kalisman suggested that the American University of Beirut aided in the production of a cohort of politicised, ‘transnational teachers’ in the British Middle East. And Darrell Newton mapped the experiences of people of colour on and around the postwar BBC, and how their identities were projected to a largely white domestic public.

Apart from the stated theme of networks, what stood out most to me was the consensus that colonial education, when more or less controlled by imperial powers, was about policing and limiting educational opportunities. In opposition to this, it was suggested, the educational momentum building at ‘home’ in Britain across the mid-twentieth century was in service to the contrary goal of widening them. If education is a point of mediation between state, or empire, and citizen, then it seems that a major agenda of this new research is to probe the grey area in between, where citizens invoke the unintended consequences of receiving an education and use it to question the order of things.

As Gavin Schaffer pointed out in his comment, education quickly becomes the enemy within; a pre-requisite for anti-colonial nationalisms. I thought about this in relation to our ongoing research. In Britain mass secondary education undoubtedly gave young people some of the tools to challenge the old orders of class and gender deference, but not always with direct political outcomes. What we are increasingly finding is a complex jumble of intended and unintended consequences, where economic intentions drive social outcomes, and vice versa, especially around the time of transition from school to work.

Left: The Saturday lunchtime keynote given by Nadja Durbach of the University of Utah on ‘The Science of Selection: School Meals in Interwar Britain’.

Peter:  Like both Lauras (Carter and Tisdall), I was struck by the surge in interest in education which raises questions both about absences (what took us so long?) and presences (how to explain the new levels of engagement?).  Much of both must have to do with the long reign of class as the master category in modern British social history, which tended to treat education as epiphenomenal – work more important than school – or worse, as counter-indicated – schooling only shores up class, the default position in post-1968 social studies.  ‘Education’ was therefore only fit for specialized and rather inward-looking studies in education departments and faculties.  Now a lot of cutting-edge social history thinks about class decomposition in the postwar period and the role that education might or might not have played in cutting under or across older class identities.

This came out beautifully in the Friday morning session considering women’s subjectivities with papers by Natalie Thomlinson, Jonathan Moss and Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite.  More surprising – though comprehensible in the North American context – is the interest shown at NACBS in education in colonial and post-colonial contexts, where education is now taken more seriously as a key tool of the colonial and post-colonial state.  I missed the panel on Friday afternoon discussed by Laura but went to its companion on Sunday morning, where a highlight for me was Stephen Jackson’s account of the crabwise displacement of ‘Britishness’ by multiculturalism in Canadian schools in the ‘60s and ‘70s – which makes for peculiarly thought-provoking comparisons with both American and British multicultural education.

Chris: I was equally struck by the prominence of education within this year’s NACBS programme. I last attended the conference in 2016 when, apart from a few isolated papers (one by Emily Rutherford who appeared on the panel with Laura this year), the programme gave no indication that education might represent a field worthy of attention by historians of twentieth century Britain. This year’s NACBS, in contrast, provided plenty of evidence that a deep shift in attitude is taking place. In addition to the three panels mentioned by Laura and Peter that had ‘education’ in the title, there were also numerous papers embedded in panels that, on first glance, appeared unconnected.

Presenting as part of a wonderfully engaging session entitled ‘Audience, Television, and Identity in Post-war Britain’, Chelsea-Anne Saxby gave a fantastic paper, which showcased her ongoing PhD research by considering debates around the use of sex education films in schools during the 1970s. Nicole Jackson also foregrounded the importance of education in a powerful reflection on the category of Blackness in histories of multiracial Britain. Presented as part of a panel entitled ‘Unsettling Race Relations’, she explained the centrality of education to Afro-Caribbean community activists determined to challenge systemic racial discrimination and demand equal rights of citizenship in the late-1960s and 70s.

Other papers engaged with education less directly but, nevertheless, signalled to its underlying importance in understanding broader cultural change. A particular highlight of the conference for me was the panel on ‘Transformations of Masculinity in late-Twentieth Century Britain’, which included Helen Parr’s brilliant account of the British Army’s Parachute Regiment in the build-up to, and aftermath of, the Falklands War. This mapped the pathways through which young men, often from disadvantaged backgrounds and having found limited success at school, were recruited into the regiment and remade into ‘Paras’. Amy Edwards’ paper on the same panel, which looked at prevailing codes of manliness in the City of London during the 1980s, raised similarly interesting questions about how changing institutional networks contributed to, and in turn were transformed by, the emergence of new career opportunities in the expanding financial sector for men from more diverse social backgrounds than a previous generation.

Listening to these various papers brought to mind a lecture I attended the week before NACBS, in which Tara Westover discussed her recent memoir Educated. This charts her experience of coming late to formal education from a deeply conservative background in rural Idaho and recounts in elegant tones the ‘a process of gaining a self’ that access to education made possible. Her characterization chimes with our determination to start to historicize the mechanisms and processes that opened this experience up to an ever-growing number of individuals in late-20th century Britain.

In this sense, the challenge we now face is not so much to persuade fellow historians of modern Britain that education should be understood as central to wider processes of social and cultural change – as the various papers mentioned above illustrate, this is increasingly well-established on both sides of the Atlantic – but to connect our research more directly with the amazing work being done by colleagues examining shifting understandings of class, race, and gender in a range of other contexts across post-1945 Britain and empire. In unpicking the ways in which education contributed to these changes it becomes increasingly clear the divisions that have for so long separated the History of Education from wider British Social and Cultural history are unsustainable. Hearing at NACBS how these are being broken down in other innovative ways made me excited about what our project can contribute moving forward but also to wonder whether next time we might find ourselves on a panel without ‘education’ in its title.