by Heather Ellis and Stephen Parker
The History of Education Society was recently invited to take part in an open consultation process organised by National Archives regarding its operational selection policy (OSP) concerning the records of the Department for Education for the period 1974-1997. What at face value appeared to be a dry exercise, in fact raised some important historical methodological questions, centring upon ‘what should be kept for posterity in order for future historians to engage with and reconstruct the past, in all its multi-faceted complexity?’ The issues we raised in relation to the policy also required us to anticipate how historians of the future may wish to read these papers, predicting questions they might ask and gaps in the archive they would be frustrated by.
Having read the consultation document outlining a number of themes chosen as a basis for selecting particular documents to be preserved from the Department for Education’s (DfE) records, Stephen Parker and I, on behalf of the Society, prepared a detailed response requesting clarification on a number of key points. Amongst the issues were raised were matters around selection, such as who was responsible for selecting the material. Had the DfE itself been directly involved? We also wanted to know what would happen to material which was not selected: would it be digitised or simply destroyed? Likewise, we asked for more information regarding the rationale behind which particular themes and documents would be selected. We asked this, in particular, as we felt there were certain underlying preferences or biases apparent in the topics proposed for selecting material.
We also raised questions about the time span covered by the material, in this case 1974-1997. In particular, there seemed to be a decided emphasis on selecting material post-1979 with the years 1974-1979 receiving only scant attention. We wondered why this might be, given the importance of the shifts occurring in education policy in this period of Labour administration. Similarly, we wondered why there were no important events listed in the ‘timeline’ appendix prior to Thatcher’s Education Act of 1988. In some places, we were also struck by what seemed to be an undertone of criticism of the education policies of the Labour government in the 1970s. Point 5.3.1, for example, referred to school building programmes being ‘particularly badly hit’ by Labour’s ‘cuts in public expenditure’. We noted that there were likewise substantial cuts in education spending under Thatcher but (apart from the reference to the famous limiting of school milk at 5.23.1) these seemed to go largely undocumented. In this the policy interestingly appeared to reflect the politics of the selectors!
We were also concerned, from a methodological and policy perspective, that there was too strong an emphasis placed on the ‘finished products’ of educational reform. We stressed that key documents relating to the creation of particular reports and Acts of Parliament should also be preserved to illuminate process as well as end product. The role of the DfE in driving and promoting visible changes, especially Acts of Parliament, we felt, also received a decided focus, creating a particular impression of the Department as a dynamic and progressive actor in bringing about educational change. We wondered about the need to adequately represent the agency of other actors in educational reform and those policies which did not make it to statute, for example, those desired by lobbyists and opposed by elements inside the DfE. Although there were a few references to initiatives and policy directions which failed or lapsed (e.g. 5.2.1 – proposed organisational changes within LEAs; 5.5.2 – an abandoned voucher system and 5.8.1 – a rejected system of leaving certificates), these did not seem equally represented and were scattered throughout the proposal rather than being treated consistently.
In the selection of themes such as the development of the National Curriculum, there appeared to be a focus on one narrative development – the increasing involvement of business and the private sector in education (and the attendant reduction in the role and powers of LEAs). There are other narratives of educational development from the years of Thatcher and the Conservative government which could be told, but the OSP appeared to us to be asserting one in particular. There seemed to be an assumption in the proposed selection of documents that the Conservative policy of reducing the powers of the LEAs was universally acknowledged as necessary. Thus, it was claimed in point 5.4.1 (without citing any evidence) that by the early 1980s ‘a need to radically overhaul the governance of both primary and secondary schools was recognised.’
As representatives of the Society (and as historians), we felt that the selection of themes had been driven primarily (if not entirely) by the topics of parliamentary legislation rather than events considered important in a broader historical context. Developments such as the race riots of 1981 were occasionally referred to (5.12.7), but there was no systematic attempt to situate legislative events against a broader historical framework, something we would recommend if a revision of the OSP were to be undertaken. The timeline of key events given in the appendix could have provided a good opportunity to do this but instead it comprised a simple list of Acts of Parliament and policy developments.
There are also particular curriculum areas which do not seem covered in the detail which their historical and contemporary importance deserves. Although RE, for example, was mentioned briefly (in the context of the 1944 Act – 5.6.12), there was little, if any, consideration given to the significant role of church and faith schools during this period and the complex relationship which these schools enjoyed with LEAs. Likewise, the controversies around the changes occurring in curriculum RE from 1974 onwards were not explicitly mentioned. Other omissions would seem to include international influences, in particular, the substantial impact of EC/EU legislation and policy matters related to teachers’ professional development, especially major changes to teachers’ contracts and the creation of ‘Baker days’.
Perhaps we’ve missed out other factors and issues you might have mentioned from all this. What was clear to us is archiving history as well as its researching requires methodological astuteness and historical awareness. Likewise, knowing what to keep and what to discard also requires a surprising degree of political sensitivity.