Secondary Education in Northern Ireland: A Preliminary Report

By Peter Mandler

The SESC project is moving into a new phase of research.  We started with representative samples of the British population from the birth-cohort studies of 1946, 1958 and 1970, to track the full diversity of experiences of secondary education across the country.  But now we’re bearing down on some local case studies to check out how rural-urban, four-nations and other regional and local differences affect those experiences in distinctive ways.  Among our chosen case studies was at least one from Northern Ireland, particularly important because Northern Ireland was not included in our birth-cohort studies (although it was added for the Millennium Cohort in 2000).  I volunteered to have a stab at the Northern Ireland case study, out of interest, and because I do feel a personal connection with the subject through my wife who was educated in Belfast schools between 1962 and 1974.

I was just about to embark on a serious piece of library and archive research, in Cambridge and in Belfast, when as luck would have it the virus struck.  So I’ve had to content myself with what I can find online, and this has had the benefit of deepening my early understanding of the wider contexts within which the archival research I’ll be doing in school and local government records is set.  It has also alerted me to some distinctive features of the secondary literature on education in Northern Ireland, amongst social scientists, historians and educationists.  My preliminary impressions here are all, needless to say, subject to revision when normality at last returns;  in the short term, I hope I might attract some genuine experts who can comment helpfully on what I say here.  (An excellent overview of the structures of secondary education in Northern Ireland can be found in the briefing paper on this site:

At first blush there is lots about the progress of secondary education in Northern Ireland that looks familiar to the student of England, Wales and Scotland.  Universal secondary education was first implemented after the war in all four nations.  In Northern Ireland, like Wales and England (less like Scotland), most children went through some kind of a selection process at 11+ and were allocated either to a grammar school or a ‘secondary intermediate’ school.  The system was effectively bipartite, not tripartite;  there were few technical schools, which were expensive to equip and seemed to offer no obvious educational or occupational advantages.  For the great majority of parents who had had no previous experience with secondary education themselves, there was at first a kind of passive acceptance of the structures that were built for them and their children, little participation in schools, and little political debate over them at elite levels.

Above: Diagram showing the different secondary schools available in Northern Ireland following the Education Act (Northern Ireland) 1947

But in other respects Northern Ireland looks very different, of course, from the rest of the UK.  Most remarkably, it had two bipartite systems, one for Protestants – the ‘controlled’ sector – and one for Catholics – the ‘voluntary’ sector (ultimately, the ‘maintained’ sector as gradually state funding was made more equally available across both).  What political debate there was focused on that process of bringing Catholic schools more fully into the state system.  But Northern Ireland looked different in other ways as well.  Education after the war was rising in public esteem elsewhere in the UK but remained further down the agenda in Northern Ireland.  The school-leaving age, raised to 15 in the rest of the UK in 1947, remained at 14 here until 1957.  Not all state secondary education was free – 20% of places in grammar schools remained open to fee-payers, an escape valve for the middle classes whose children failed the 11+.  More grammar schools were single-sex, and in fact girls and boys were selected separately at 11+ to ensure that available places in single-sex schools were all filled;  this may have put an unnatural cap on the proportion of girls selected.  Parental involvement remained low at a time when it was growing in the rest of the UK.  By the 1970s, when two-thirds of schools in the rest of the UK had PTAs, Protestant grammar schools had reached that level but Protestant secondaries lagged behind, Catholic grammars even further behind, and Catholic secondaries very much further – fewer than a fifth had PTAs.  Under the ‘four and two’ system, churches had compulsory representation on school governing bodies that might have had the effect of diverting parental involvement. And parental demand for comprehensive schooling, which had already proved irresistible elsewhere in the UK in the late 1950s, hardly registered in Northern Ireland.

Above: Belfast Boys Model School on its Ballysillan Road site, 1957

And then there were the Troubles.  An interesting counterfactual could be constructed about Northern Ireland just before the Troubles.  Perhaps it was heading in the direction that the rest of the UK was heading in the 1960s, just lagging a bit behind.  In a sparkling article in Irish Studies Review 2012, Gareth Mulvenna makes just that argument.  Belfast witnessed a brief 1960s dawn of experiments in alternative curricula and comprehensive education.  There was a growing awareness that ‘trade union protected’ jobs, for Protestants at least, would not last forever and that new occupational horizons needed to be explored.  Catholics, it seemed, had done better under universal secondary education than Protestants and appeared better equipped for a new post-industrial labour market.  In Mulvenna’s depiction, Protestant communities were starting to acquire a ‘civic momentum’ that was lifting large portions of the working class elsewhere in the UK out of manual into more skilled and better-paid service-sector jobs.

But then the Troubles did intervene.  Experiments with new curricula and more comprehensive intakes fell away.  Both communities fell back on their traditional institutions, including their schools.  Male teenagers in particular lost upwardly mobile role-models;  paramilitaries were a particularly poor substitute.  A counter-school culture mushroomed.  Now of course that counter-school culture could be found elsewhere too at exactly the same moment;  the idea originated with Paul Willis’s study of an English school.  The Troubles drew on some of the same counter-cultural energy as fuelled British youth rebellions.  The words of one Belfast boy in 1976, quoted by Robert Crone and John Malone, could be attributed to many teenagers across the developed world at that same moment:  ‘Every day we wander to a piece of waste ground cluttered with rusting car parts.  We wreck and destroy with hate.  I hate this place and secretly I have planned to pull it down, brick by brick, and set myself free.’  Similarly Northern Ireland, like other heavily industrialized regions in the UK, was hit hard by deindustrialization and unemployment in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  The question we have to ask is:  how much harder and how much longer was Northern Ireland hit, because of the Troubles?

Just as before the Troubles, Northern Ireland has followed a similar path to the rest of the UK in many respects over the last generation.  Staying on rates improved substantially thanks to GCSE, access to higher education grew.  The persistence of the bipartite system probably had relatively little effect on overall attainment levels, but it did mean a much more varied school experience, with more low-attaining schools and more high-attaining ones, more very low-attaining students, more very high-attaining ones.  Attention has recently been drawn to the very poor performance of boys at Protestant secondaries, disproportionate amongst the lowest-achieving, even controlling for family background.  Catholic students on free school meals are twice as likely to go on to higher education as Protestants.  This effect on Protestant boys from working-class backgrounds, it has been hypothesized, may indeed be an enduring by-product of the coincidence of deindustrialization and the Troubles, when Protestant boys could no longer rely on ‘trade union protected’ jobs and failed to make a transition to a ‘knowledge economy’ and a ‘learning society’.

Actually very little of the literature on education in Northern Ireland addresses these issues:  far more of it asks what education has done to create community division through social reproduction and what it could do to redress community division through education in mutual understanding.  The latter focus reflects the many, many political initiatives undertaken in the last 40 years to use education to foster cross-community contact, teach tolerance and respect for diversity, and even to integrate education across the two communities. Few of these initiatives have been shown to have much if any effect.  Parental support for integrated schooling, for example, has once again tended to be thwarted by organized church and political-party representation.  The former focus does, however, have something to be said for it.  From our point of view, it poses a question we are very interested in – how does schooling help shape identities?  There’s evidence that 6 year olds in the province already have pretty clear ideas of their own ethnic identities, preferences and prejudices.  But something special is happening in the teenage years that it’s our job to identify.  It may even be, as some have suggested, that those very efforts to foster ‘mutual understanding’ in secondary education are having the effect of further crystallizing identities, as the two communities are established as the fixed poles in all efforts to bridge them.  Some of the same concerns about ‘multicultural’ education in ethnically-diverse parts of England that have arisen in the new millennium are therefore also manifesting themselves in Northern Ireland. 

Above: Belfast mural, showing a Protestant schoolboy and a Catholic schoolgirl shaking hands

When we get back to the archives, we hope to be able to show at the grass-roots level how identity-formation in secondary education might have worked before, during and after the Troubles.  We’d be very glad in the meantime to hear from anyone who has their own experiences to share of secondary education in Northern Ireland, or knows of further resources we might draw on.

English and Welsh secondary school magazines, 1950s-1970s

By Laura Carter

Chris Jeppesen, Peter Mandler and I have spent most of this academic year doing research in Local Authority archives for the six regional case study areas that SESC is focusing on: North East England, North London & Hertfordshire, South West England, Scotland (Glasgow & Fife), South Wales, and Belfast. In 2018 I wrote a guide to the sources on secondary schools found in these archives, which you can read here.

I’ve been reading through log books, punishment books, PTA minutes, newspaper clippings, newsletters, and school magazines, in order to construct portraits of different secondary schools across the UK. We hope by the end of this process we’ll have around sixty individual school portraits to sit alongside our other longitudinal and oral history research, giving us a fuller picture of how schools, and the pupils who attended them, experienced social change over the postwar decades.

In this post I wanted to reflect on some sources that I’ve been finding particularly interesting in my latest archival research in South Wales and the South West (Bristol, Somerset, and Cardiff): school magazines from the 1950s to the 1970s. As far as I can tell, school magazines form an important part of understanding young people’s experiences and voices in nineteenth-century school and periodical culture in England, as well as being a source used by scholars working on democratic culture in schools in the USA and Germany, but so far not for post-1945 Britain [1]. This is kind of curious, for three reasons. Firstly, they fit into a growing body of literature on postwar British print culture and publishing as forums for diverse forms of grassroots activism. Secondly, they provide access to ‘ordinary’ pupils’ voices (although within obvious limits, see below). And thirdly, they are rich and plentiful in the archives!

Above: Collage of school magazine covers, 1950s-1980s.

Of course, school magazines carry the burden of many cultural sources, in that they deal in representations and are not direct mirrors onto experience. However, this can be partially overcome when they are placed in dialogue with other sources from the school, community, and indeed generation in question. They are also valuable when read as discursive spaces in themselves, because their depictions of class, gender, and race tell us a lot about how institutions dealt with social change. Another objection might be that school mags are documents produced to project a certain image of the school to parents, alumni, and the wider community, telling us more about how managers and teachers sought to self-fashion the institution than about everyday life in the school. Whilst this is to some extent true for magazines produced in the grammar schools of the 1940s-1960s, which function mostly as school newsletters and the organs of Headteachers, the genre changed quite drastically from the late 1960s.

Above: ‘Fine phrases from Fairfield folk’, buttons to cut out from Fairfield School Magazine, 1975: Bristol Archives, Bristol, 21131/SC/FAI/PM/4/4.

As a result of new reprographic technologies and the sheer demographics of comprehensivisation school magazines had begun to move into the hands of pupils by the early 1970s. In comps the pupil body was more diverse, yes, but these schools in the 1970s also tended to employ a minority of younger teachers who were trained and at least semi-engaged in aspects of ‘child-centred’ teaching and learning. This led to a growth in self-oriented tasks in comprehensives such as creative writing, previously associated with English primary education.

Above: ‘The school year of 2000’, Wyvern School Magazine, 1975: Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton, A/DFT M/3988.

In this context, school magazines became manifestoes of pupil power and self-expression, still mediated by teachers, but clearly now vessels for a more informal and internal conversation between pupils, teachers, and parents. We hear far less ‘News of Old Pupils’ and far more of the counter school culture. Cardiff’s Llanedeyrn High School’s 1983 magazine opened with a Pink Floyd-ite editorial note declaring ‘We Don’t Need No Education…’, and that this was ‘nothing to do with the teacher-organised mag…’. Teachers were most often the target in these new school magazines. On the other side of Cardiff, at Fitzalan High School, pupils had teacher teasing down to an art by the 1970s. In this pseudo-anthropological account, a fourth-year Fitzalan pupil described the schools’ teachers as if they were tribes of ‘natives’ in a foreign land:

Above: ‘Diary of an Explorer’, Fitzalan High School Magazine, 1977: Glamorgan Archives, Cardiff, ESEC75/4.

In 1969, a year before it was reorganised and amalgamated with the girls’ school, the grammar Cardiff High School for Boys had already declared its resistance to this trend in school magazines:

‘It is unfashionable these days for a Magazine to be a Record and reflection of the School that produces it. The School Magazine, say the New Men, should be the organ of Creativity, where the children can see the results of their inspiration in print; a forum for ideas and exciting discussion; the meeting-place of word and picture; a clear pointer to the intellectual state of the body it represents… It’s a wonderful world. But in these days of so much change for the sake of change, “Tua’r Goleuni” [2] continues unashamedly to be a Magazine in the old-fashioned sense’ [3].

This Cardiff contrast might slightly overstate the cultural shift bought about by comprehensivisation. I’ve read ‘50s and ‘60s grammar school magazines that also contain poetry and sometimes refer to teachers by their nicknames and secondary modern school magazines (of which fewer survive) that contain snippets of imaginative writing. But on the whole this breaking down of barriers between pupils and teachers in the 1970s found its fullest expression in co-educational comprehensive schools, a marked social shift seen clearly through the record of school mags. They contain a huge amount of visual and creative material including poetry, artwork, and advertising.

In the context of SESC’s wider agenda, I’d highlight the value of school magazines for understanding the following themes, some of which we’ve struggled to access in other source types:

Gender relations and identities in the secondary school

School magazines are peppered with references to flirtatious or romantic relations between the sexes (pupils and teachers), on school trips, in school sports, and in everyday school life. I lost count of the number of references to the hemlines of girls’ skirts, which obviously rose far quicker than the school leaving age. These instances, especially in the 1970s, are overwhelmingly conveyed via jokes, innuendo, and irony. Parents don’t escape being made fun of either, through tongue-in-check articles such as ‘A father complains about education’ and poems such as ‘A mother is…’ and a ‘A father is…’. Indeed, most school magazines from the 1970s are imbued throughout with a comic discourse, which must be read carefully given how quickly our ‘sense’ of humour changes with the cultural moment. Alongside this, pupils also write sincere poetry and prose pieces on themes such as heartbreak, loneliness, and body image, which are directly linked to the gendered expectations being reproduced in the playground and classroom. The poem below is one example. ‘The Life and Death of Size Sixteen’ was written by Amanda, a Cardiff sixth former, in 1983 and recounts a young girl’s struggle with body image and food, ending in her suicide:

Above: ‘The Life and Death of Size Sixteen’, Llanedeyrn High School Magazine, 1983: Glamorgan Archives, Cardiff, D1099/5/1.

Meanwhile all-boys and all-girls school magazines often remind us of the myriad ways in which gender mixing still occurred, through shared local facilities and school outings. Boys’ school magazines especially contain plentiful adverts from banks, insurance companies, and the military, in which male school leavers are constructed as the regional, technocratic elite destined to convert their ‘O’ Levels into high-status management careers:

Above: adverts printed in boys’ grammar school magazines, 1950s-1970s.

Pupil perspectives on comprehensivisation and co-education

Above: cartoon of schoolgirls, Bridgwater Girls Grammar School Magazine, 1973: Somerset Heritage Centre, Taunton, C/E/4/362/19.

As Harry Gibbins’s oral history research on secondary school amalgamation found, going co-ed was a messy process in which girls often lost out. Looking at school magazines from schools around the period of comprehensive amalgamation, especially in the years leading up to change, can also reveal pupil expectations of the change without that retrospective lens. Headteacher editorials in the magazines of grammar schools about to be closed or merged were often tinged with remorse, but pupils were sometimes given the space in magazines to anticipate their new schools on their own terms. In line with contemporary research on co-education, pupils in the 1960s and 1970s were broadly positive about the prospect of gender mixing, and girls especially looked forward to the better resources and facilities than an education alongside boys could bring. The final magazine of Bridgwater Girls Grammar School in 1973 featured the article ‘Thoughts of a Schoolgirl in seeing the new school in Park Road’, which balanced the pain of a longer commute with the prospect of ‘proper gymnasiums’ and a new needlework room.

‘Immigrant’ voices and experiences

Recent research on the experiences of pupils of colour in British secondary education has focused on supplementary schools, churches, and black and Asian community life. It’s particularly difficult to hear from these pupils within the mainstream school system, and they are often cast as passive recipients of the widespread discrimination that existed. The school magazines that I’ve looked at from urban areas contain quite a few pieces of writing from pupils who self-identify as ethnic, national, or religious minorities. These texts need to be read as part of the problematic project of ‘multicultural’ education in schools during the 1970s and 1980s. Nonetheless, we can also try and read them against the grain to hear what these pupils are saying about their experiences. The most common format I’ve found are prose pieces by pupils reflecting on the difference between their schools overseas and their schools in Britain. For example, Sheob, a pupil at Fitzalan High School wrote an article called ‘My Village’ in the 1980s, in which he compared everyday life in Saraya, India to Cardiff:

Above: ‘My village’, Fitzalan Mosaic Magazine, 1980s: Glamorgan Archives, Cardiff, ESEC75/5.

In a different mode, Mary, a second-year pupil at Fairfield School in Bristol wrote a piece for the school magazine in 1975 asking her fellow pupils to give ‘a little bit of thought’ to the plight of Vietnamese orphans in Britain. She went on to reflect on her own experience of migration from Hong Kong to Britain, explaining ‘I find myself a bit of an exhibit, but I have never wished anything to have been different and am proud to be what I am’ [4].

Where copyright is held, the sources in this blog post have been reproduced with permission from the repositories named in the references. With thanks to Somerset Archives and Local Studies and Bristol Archives for giving us permission to reproduce this material from their collections. Where copyright has not been identified, we are happy to acknowledge any copyright holders who come forward or to remove material at their request. Please contact

[1] Sonja Levsen, ‘Authority and Democracy in Postwar France and West Germany, 1945-1968’, The Journal of Modern History (2017); Catherine Sloan, ‘”Periodicals of an objectionable character”: Peers and Periodicals at Croydon Friends’ School, 1826–1875’, Victorian Periodicals Review (2017); Kathryn Gleadle, ‘Magazine Culture, Girlhood Communities, and Educational Reform in Late Victorian Britain’, The English Historical Review (2019). Many thanks to Catherine Sloan for suggestions on this literature and to Sonja Levsen for discussing the genre with me via email.

[2] ‘Tua’r Goleuni’, in Welsh, translates as ‘Towards the Light’ in English.

[3] ‘Cardiff High School for Boys Magazine’, 1968: Glamorgan Archives, Cardiff, D1418/1/10.

[4] ‘Fairfield School Magazine’, 1975: Bristol Archives, Bristol, 21131/SC/FAI/PM/4/4.

Anti-racist education as an alternative to ‘diversity and inclusion’ at the University of Cambridge

By Chris Jeppesen, Sharon Walker, and Laura Carter

This blog is reposted from the ‘Cambridge Centre for Teaching & Learning’ . It reports on a November 2019 workshop run by the SESC team and a colleague from the Faculty of Education, Sharon Walker, which drew upon research and resources from our project to address current policy issues in UK higher education

How might an anti-racist agenda look different to the University of Cambridge’s current emphasis on diversity and inclusion? This question stood at the heart of a recent workshop for University teachers and policymakers in Cambridge, which was held at Murray Edwards College at the beginning of November and generously supported by the inaugural University Diversity Fund. Organised by three postgraduate and early career researchers based in the Faculties of Education and History, Anti-racist education: history, theory, practice explored the relationship between the history of anti-racist activism in British secondary schools and the emergence of similar initiatives in contemporary higher education. It was organised in response to recent calls that universities need to do more to address entrenched inequalities and discriminatory practices around race and ethnicity by focussing less on diversity and more on anti-racist pedagogies. Attended by thirty participants from across the University, and representing all career stages, the workshop considered how all of us have a responsibility to create teaching, learning, and research environments that support all students and colleagues.

Breakout groups discussing primary source material on anti-racist education

The workshop began with an interactive session using primary sources led by Laura Carter and Chris Jeppesen (Faculty of History), which introduced participants to the history of anti-racist activism in London secondary schools during the 1970s and 80s. This session drew on research from the project that Laura and Chris currently work on, ‘Secondary education and social change in the UK since 1945’. Participants studied a range of sources produced by campaigners, pupils, and also critics of anti-racist pedagogy to see how debates unfolded in these decades.

The anti-racist movement grew rapidly in the 1970s as the British school system became more diverse and was strongly linked to the anti-sexist framework emerging from feminist education and sociology. While central and local government responses to the rising number of ‘immigrant pupils’ (the official categorisation for all pupils of colour until the mid-1970s) focussed first on ‘assimilation’ and then integration through ‘multi-cultural education’, anti-racist campaigners criticised the inadequacy of these approaches to address the deep structural inequalities disproportionately affecting working-class pupils of colour. They argued that a ‘multicultural’ approach – which positioned racism as the product of individual intolerance but that could be educated away – only exacerbated the problems it claimed to address. The ‘multicultural’ project in British schools failed to deal with institutional racism, lacked any awareness of the structural relationship between interlocking forms of racial, gendered, and classed discrimination, and offered no response to rising levels of racialized violence that followed the growth of National Front activity around schools. In its place, activists demanded a more assertive rejection of, and challenge to, racism in all its forms: to be anti-racist became a statement of active opposition as opposed to passive acquiescence.

Historian Elly Robson (Jesus College), comments on a poster produced by the Hackney Black Teachers’ Group in 1984

In the second session, Sharon Walker (Faculty of Education) explored the theoretical concepts that underpinned anti-racist activism in the 1980s and which remain central in debates surrounding Higher Education today. Drawing on the rich insights offered by scholars working in the fields of Critical Race Theory, educational sociology, and post-colonial studies, Sharon discussed how a renewed focus on the concepts of encounter, re-framing, and transformation can provide fresh possibilities for the University to reconceptualise its engagement with decolonizing debates moving forward. This requires the University to draw on a wealth of available knowledge to make decolonization a central concern rather than one which takes places on the periphery of University activities and via social media.

During the group discussions in both sessions, participants drew attention to the salient links between the issues raised by earlier anti-racist movements in the UK and current actions on decolonizing the academy: the need to broaden the Eurocentric focus of curricula; to provide greater opportunities to teachers of colour to enter the profession and progress to positions of seniority; and the necessity for a vigorous and coordinated challenge to all forms of racism, everyday and structural. But they also observed the need to guard against the risks that led to the fracturing of the anti-racist movement at the end of the 1980s. On the one hand, these came from a backlash on the political right and a reduction in the funding streams that had supported anti-racist initiatives. Importantly, however, this also reflected frustration among communities of colour that anti-racist initiatives had been co-opted to benefit institutional reputations at the expense of meaningful action on racial discrimination and the overturning of structural inequalities. An anti-racist agenda at the University of Cambridge must put action on structural change ahead of any perceived ‘PR’ benefits, internal or external to the University.  

These themes were developed in the afternoon sessions, which shifted focus onto how current teachers and policymakers might incorporate a more explicitly anti-racist approach into their everyday work. Dr Meleisa Ono-George (University of Warwick) gave a thought-provoking and energizing keynote address, which asked participants to think about not only what we teach, but how we teach. She outlined both the challenges and rewards of embedding an anti-racist philosophy at the heart of institutional ethos and how this is being done at the University of Warwick. Her insights highlight the need for coherence within institutions but also the need for collaboration between institutions in order to learn from each other.

Dr Meleisa Ono-George (University of Warwick) delivering her keynote entitled ‘Active Anti-Racism, Higher Education, and Transformational Change’

The day concluded with a plenary discussion in which participants spoke about their experience teaching in Cambridge and the challenges faced. Many felt that a more proactive and coordinated approach is required, which cuts across disciplinary boundaries and the constituent parts of the university, to build robust support for anti-racist and decolonizing initiatives. It was observed that the historical examples discussed earlier in the day served to warn of the dangers of complacency in the rapidly changing educational landscape, and elicited some exasperation regarding a sense of history repeating itself in the face of a lack of dialogue on these issues between British secondary and higher education over the past forty years. Shifting institutional priorities, changes in funding and admission structures, and lack of representativeness at a postgraduate level could all quickly undermine any sense of progress by further entrenching existing inequalities. Guarding against this requires a concerted and proactive effort at all levels of the University.

The organisers would like to thank again all participants and speakers for making this such an engaging and thought-provoking day and the University Diversity Fund for its support. What quickly became clear during the course of the workshop is that this is a conversation already well-advanced in various parts of the University, whilst other parts of the institution have kept themselves firmly closed off from it. Numerous events over the coming weeks showcase how much appetite there is amongst students and staff for a serious reappraisal of how the University engages with anti-racist approaches to teaching, learning, and organisation. We look forward to being part of this going forward.

All photo credits to Kalifa Damani (

To read more about Dr Meleisa Ono-George’s perspectives from the University of Warwick, see her article ‘Beyond diversity: anti-racist pedagogy in British History departments’, Women’s History Review, (2019), available here

To read more about Professor Fazal Rivzi’s reflections on decolonisation, see Rivzi, F. (forthcoming) Decolonisation (lecture given at the University of Pretoria and Stellenboach University, South Africa).

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,

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).