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Reform and expansion changed middle-class education in the nineteenth century. As a result, the middle-class school is ideal for ‘Rethinking the Institution in the Long Nineteenth Century,’ the aim of a conference held between 13 and 14 July 2017 at Liverpool John Moore’s University. My own paper was on ‘A venerable institution’: girls, magazines and the institution at Oxford High School, 1879-1902’. However,  the quote about the ‘venerable institution’ in my paper title was not referring to the school, but its school magazine. These magazines, whose production boomed from the mid-nineteenth century, are a superabundant but often overlooked source for the history of education. More recently, studies are beginning to rethink the potential of the school magazine as a source, such as Jane Griffith’s recent PhD on News from School: Language, Time and Place in the Newspapers of 1890s Indian Boarding Schools in Canada

In my paper, I discussed how the nineteenth century saw a process of rethinking the school magazine. This change is visible when we compare Eton’s Microcosm (1788) and the Oxford High School Magazine (1879). The cover of the Oxford High School Magazine shows that by the late nineteenth century, titles, emblems and mottoes were combined to create the instantly recognisable genre of the school magazine. My paper examined how these changes in school publications between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were connected to changes in middle-class education. For example, Oxford High School was governed by the Girls’ Public Day School Trust, one of the newly-established high schools. These schools prided themselves on providing girls with a taste of the more formal and academic institutional life symbolised by the mottoes and emblems on their school covers.

In this process of rethinking the school magazine, I am particularly interested in how pupils are presented as active participants. For example, every issue of the Oxford High School Magazine began with an editorial signed by the magazine’s Editing Committee of a teacher, old girls, and current pupils. I am interested in how content like these editorials can challenge ideas about pupils’ agency in schools: pages which look ‘institutional’, such as accounts and reports, are often wrongly assumed to be produced by teachers or the school authorities because they look ‘adult’. My paper discussed the different ways that school magazines deliberately drew attention to pupils not just as institutional members, but as institution builders. This is particularly pertinent in relation to girls’ education, where pupils such as these went on to work in women’s colleges, schools, settlements, district visiting, and other institutional roles opening for middle-class women of their generation.

The conference aim resonated with me for a second reason. Doing my PhD has led to an entire rethink of how I approach the school magazine. At first, when I encountered school magazines in the archive, I would comb through to extract the small number of poems, stories and essays in each issue, in order to think about the ideological messages pupils communicated in this literary content. I flicked through the innumerable pages of school news, editorials, society reports, and sports results as quickly as I could, and paid little attention to paratext such as cover pages. The sheer volume of pages on school life can be overwhelming, but the problem with my research process was that I was ignoring the types of content which formed the bulk of each school magazine. As my project developed, I began to rethink how I read the school magazine, becoming fascinated by the pages I used to flick past. It is important to consider how printed lists of Editing Committee members or magazine cover pages could be key in enacting the ideologies, beliefs and everyday practices of an institution, and what pupils’ participation in magazine production can reveal about their status and agency within their institution. The large number of school magazines in national archives, school archives, and record offices, across England, Britain, and the world, form a rich but largely untapped body of sources which histories of education are only beginning to investigate.


Catherine Sloan is completing a PhD on The School Magazine in England, 1850-1902, examining the lively publication cultures at five English secondary schools. She is also the social media officer for the Children’s History Society (@histchild