Chalking-up histories of school, childhood, disability and London.

Viva forever *

Yesterday I passed my viva. Two of my favourite historians on the planet took time to read my work and then spent almost two hours encouraging me to see it as far more “unique” and “important” than I ever dared to admit. Like the vast majority of PhD candidates I have some minor corrections which they’re giving me three months to submit.

My tutor asked if I felt proud of myself. I said it was double-edged. This has been a long road and hard won. As amendments go they’re very flattering. I need to be louder about the work’s importance. In academic writing this means drawing the reader’s attention to other historians who’ve written more broadly on childhood and disability. By situating my work among these authors I will make clear what I made clear in the viva, that my thesis acts as a bridge between current approaches to the history of childhood and institutions.

Following the 1870 Education Act, which gave children a right to a school place (and in London compelled families to access this right), teachers, doctors and policy-makers began to encounter children on a mass-scale. With up to 90 children in a classroom, it became viscerally apparent that not all students learnt at the same rate and in the same way. If universal education was to work, it needed to respond to this diversity. Consequently the differences between children, such as their ability to read or their poor eye-sight began to be idiosyncratically classified and systematically treated as ‘need’. The result was a diversification in schools. Prior to 1870 schooling had tended to respond to specific financial, religious, gender or sensory (Blind or Deaf) requirements of the child. But in order to deal with the massive and diverse child population teachers were now encountering, the School Board for London, developed specific pedagogies and classrooms for children that teachers had identified as ‘forward’, ‘backward’ ‘physically defective’, ‘mentally defective’ or ‘Deaf and Dumb’. These developments replicated the increasingly multi-dimensional vision of the child, by fragmenting it. Ironically this fragmentation has been replicated, rather than acknowledged, by historians ever since. As a result our idea of working-class children in the Victorian and Edwardian period has tended to either cast them as ‘ordinary’, ‘special’, ‘street arab’ ‘juvenile delinquent’ or ‘forward’, when the reality was, just as now, that children could fall into all these classifications all at once. This is because unlike historical narrative, people and their lives are convoluted and pluralistic.

So I need to draw this out in the thesis with specific references to specific historians and their specific arguments. To write (not talk about, I’m fine at talking!) about other historians, however, is my idea of hell. I don’t look forward to highlighting what’s missing in the historiography and disagreeing with historians, because beyond simple fact checking, life tends to be made up of many truths that are as contradictory as they are legitimate.

As my supervisor described me yesterday, I’m an “archival historian”, I let the sources lead me and when I found that the sources didn’t lead me to the same conclusion as other historians, I thought it must just be because I’ve imposed my own life experience on the evidence, just like we all do. The story I had found in the archives echoed too much of my own experience of school and academia. I had been considered bright at school, but struggled with language. I was an exceptional student with a long-term health condition, I was a giggly person yet had experienced depression. I had loved my viva, yet loathed much of my academic writing. It must just be me.

And to an extent it was just me, it was my experience that forced me to look at childhood differently to anyone else. Indeed 2 bouts of depression, shingles and a long-term condition that has to be managed sometimes on an hourly basis gave me a perspective on what constitutes strength, ordinariness and health. So actually what I’m most proud of is getting this far, not just in spite of my diabetes and everything in between, but BECAUSE of them….See double-edged!

*They call it this for a reason!

Bijan Ebrahimi

There are people who can write this better than I can, who can tease out the constricting strands of racism, disability, poverty and paedophile witch-hunts that are tied to the tragic murder of Bijan Ebrahimi. But I want to say out loud, to Mr Ebrahimi, even if it is never heard:

I’m so sorry. We failed you. As a society we have a responsibility towards one another, but we did not embrace that responsibility with the compassion and knowledge that can combat hate. Instead we hid behind excuses and meekly argued that ‘the actions of the people who led to this tragedy are utterly abhorrent and out of character with the rest of the city.’ We did not admit that while the actions disgusted us, we were, as a nation, woefully apathetic to what caused them and for that it is totally in character.

We have failed to consider that sadly your death is all too consistent with a country in which the history of racism is all too often discussed in schools though the confines of other nations, through their holocausts, their apartheids, their hate. While disability is barely touched upon in the curriculum, preventing children from understanding the contribution and experiences of disabled people in Britain and the tragedy that follows when we do not listen to their stories. I’m sorry that we treat our shared history as somebody else’s, I’m sorry that we do not take responsibility for the present by looking to the past that led us here.

But schools can only do so much. We all have a responsibility as individuals. We need a cultural shift, one which means we are as repulsed by non-action as much as action. We all need to be more angry and more vocal about the fact that 90% of those with learning difficulties in the UK say they have been bullied or harassed in the previous year, that a disabled person is 4 times more likely to be attacked than a non-disabled person, that only 0.8% of incapacity benefit and DVLA are claimed fraudulently. Impairments and health conditions are not necessarily disabling, but political suspicion, institutional apathy and individual ignorance of how disability is experienced, leaves people disabled.    

History Hidden in Plain Sight

Under the School Board for London, students considered to have a hearing or speech impairment were taught in separate Deaf and Dumb Centres. With the Centres located in the playground of elementary schools, these children only encountered their hearing and speaking peers at playtime. This enforced segregation and integration could make children more vulnerable to bullying. In 1886, for example, Mrs Dancy, a teacher at Surrey Lane school in Battersea recalled how, ‘one boy always wanted me to go home with him, because the other boys fought him.’ Dancy believed all students were ‘quite equal in play.’ She argued, however, that during recess, students attending the Deaf and Dumb Centre were keen to ‘play alone’ away from their hearing and speaking peers, because they were ‘very sensitive’ children. This was despite Dancy admitting that students from the main school,  ‘were not kind to them’ and would, ‘deride them sometimes as being deaf.’


'Surrey Lane Housewifery – Cleaning outside of House' (23.3.1906) LMA 22.113. On the right-side the Deaf and Dumb entrance is just out of shot, but its sign can clearly be read

When researching 19th Century schooling, bullying is a history hidden in plain sight. It may be recalled and discussed by adults, but mediated through the language and memories of adults the emotional truth can be difficult to uncover. In the 21st Century, if we are not careful to consciously expose this history it can remain just as hidden, and if it remains hidden, it remains acceptable.   

In the autumn of 1994, at the peak of Lion King fever, I was bought a Disney pencil tin to start my final year of junior school with. By the summer term, aged eleven and a half, I was six months too old for it and had scratched as many bands as I could name into it. Among the carvings of “Blur” “Pulp” and “Green Day”, however, one stood out: ‘TT’ or ‘Take That’. As a dutiful younger sister I had soaked up all my teenage brother’s likes and dislikes and Take That were very much disliked. The graffiti had been made by someone else, someone who felt the need to tell me how very much they disliked me.  Such emotional scraps, their meaning imperceptible and insignificant to my teachers, were graffitied across my childhood. From early Junior school, when I was told the teddy I’d bought in for sports day had cursed the class, to my leavers’ disco, when rumours were spread that I was flirting with boys too much, I was routinely made to feel that there was no place for me above my station. From time to time adults attempted to resolve the bullying: meetings were held, phone calls were made, but I was too scared to have any of these formal scenarios involve the actual perpetrator. In the end the issue resolved itself: by going to separate schools I would never have to deal with my bully again.


'I Want to Grow a Monster of my Own' (4.10.1995). The Take That monster I created in the safety of my year 7 English class. 


But of course it is never that simple. From time to time memories and paraphernalia from those years and that school are recalled to me as nostalgia infused pencil cases, where all the fun is remembered like ‘it was yesterday.’    In Theatres of Memory, Raphael Samuel argues that memory, ‘is dynamic – what it contrives symptomatically to forget is as important as what it remembers.’ For many years I belittled the bad moments in my childhood, because I could recall just as many good moments. I saw the tough bits as ‘character building.’ As a young adult I thought, like Mrs Dancy 120 years before me, that I was being ‘very sensitive.’ The way that those memories made me feel were indicative of my own weakness, not of their toughness. I shut out the tough memories and replaced them with self-deprecating, ‘average, middle-class, Guardian-reading, childhood’ memories.   It would take until my mid-twenties to realise that the recollections of a difficult childhood were just as legitimate and real as the many recollections I had of an easy one.

For Raphael Samuel recalling our past engages us in an, ‘intellectual labour, very much akin to that of the historian: a matter of quotation, imitation, borrowing and assimilation.’ Social media can be this intellectual labour incarnate. The networks of childhood, for example, can replicate themselves on Facebook, twisted benign versions of others, yourself and your youth recast in borrowed photos, tagged quotes and communal anecdotes; assimilated recollections. The History of pre-20th Century schooling is currently over represented with formal records of school logbooks and parliamentary papers. By contrast future historians of childhood, will have social media to provide them with a wealth of informal sources. Yet they will have to be careful not to confuse a diversity of mediums with a diversity of voices. They will have to see the significance in the insignificant and to tread carefully among the collective memories, to find those that have yet to be collected.

‘Mrs Dancy examined’ (24th March 1886), pp. 295-299, Egerton Commission