‘Excavations’ in the IOE’s School Histories Collection
By Nazlin Bhimani, on 8 November 2017
The Newsam Library at the Institute of Education has a large collection of education institutional histories. These form a discrete collection and provide a rich source of information on individual schools, colleges and universities and their communities across Britain. The books and pamphlets mainly date from the early twentieth century up to the present day. Older materials, dating mainly from the nineteenth century, are held in the History of Education Collection in the closed stacks. This post focuses on the school histories which make up a significant part of the collection.
In anticipation of the half-day symposium on writing institutional histories, jointly organised by ICHRE (International Centre for Historical Research in Education) and FNLA (Friends of the Newsam Library and Archives), we present a guest blog by Dr. Barry Blades on his use of the IOE’s School Histories Collection to write his book, Roll of Honour.
The School Histories Collection consists of hundreds of monographs of individual British schools, covering a range of institutions spanning the educational spectrum. The voluminous histories of elite public schools stand next to brief studies of charity schools for waifs and strays. Publications marking the centenaries of ancient grammar schools are shelved next to accounts of elementary schools which no longer exist or have been absorbed into other institutions. A school’s place in the hierarchy of schooling is generally mirrored by the status of the publishing house which was commissioned to tell its story. Many of these histories – the vast majority relating to English, Welsh and Scottish institutions – were written by alumni: former pupils, teachers (especially retired Deputy Headteachers) and governors determined to place on record the distinctive development and particular achievements of their alma mater.
It is easy for the outsider to criticise the esoteric, celebratory and partisan nature of these histories. The great majority were intended primarily for the school community itself. Few beyond the immediate community would identify the school in question from headline titles such as Where the Fat Black Canons Dined, Further Up Stephen’s Brae, or Hyacinths and Haricot Beans. Subtitles were generally more informative. These histories were aimed predominantly at a readership already familiar with the institution, namely the ‘Old Boys’ or the ‘Old Girls’. An institutional history might cover hundreds of years, but in most there will be at least one section for the alumnus which refers to their particular period of attendance and school life as they experienced it. Headteachers inevitably dominate the story. The tenures of these deified – and very occasionally demonised – individuals commonly provide a chronological structure to a story of growth and development. Teachers, and especially those with nicknames deriving from their idiosyncratic mannerisms or behaviour, are fondly remembered. Heroic deeds on the playing field and battlefield are fixed in print and validate memories of achievement and loss. Narrative triumphs over analysis.
Yet, what may at first appear to be the greatest weaknesses of published school histories is, for the historian investigating the history of education more generally, their greatest strength. The rich detail, the human stories and the relatively obscure anecdotage contained therein tell us so much about the ethos, culture and formative traditions of individual institutions. These ‘secondary’ sources thus become a form of ‘primary’ material when the researcher asks questions relating to continuity and change and similarity and difference in any given period or aspect of schooling. Many of the histories were, of course, constructed using primary sources, their authors making full use of the archive material still retained by many institutions. School logbooks, magazines, headteachers’ annual reports, governors’ minutes, the records of alumni organisations, and ephemera including school photographs and fixture lists are the real archival treasures upon which these broader accounts are based.
Roll of Honour, the first book in the Schooling and the Great War trilogy, includes material from over one hundred such histories and drew ideas and inspiration from many more. Wherever possible I used extracts which were evidently drawn directly from the institutional archives. Other material was subjected to the usual tests of authenticity, accuracy and reliability. School histories vary considerably in their coverage of national events. This was particularly noticeable when searching for references to the Great War of 1914 to 1919. A few histories cover the wartime years in detail. In others, there is little or no reference at all to the impact of the war on the daily life of the school or even to the conflict in general. In many, the wartime experiences of alumni take centre stage. Taken collectively, however, these histories formed a major component of my research; an evidence base which could be cross-referenced and triangulated with material from other archival collections, official publications, newspapers, contemporary autobiographies, printed secondary works and digital resources.
For the researcher who wants to find out more about how different institutions created, developed and maintained their distinct cultures and particular identities, then dig deep into the School Histories Collection. For the researcher who wants to discover how institutional imperatives tempered directives from national and local authorities, or how schools responded to national and local economic and social circumstances, then test your hypotheses in the School Histories Collection. For those of you who are historians of the school curriculum, or teachers and teaching methods, or pupil origins and destinations – or indeed any given period or particular aspect of British schooling – I can assure you that delving into the School Histories Collection will be most rewarding.