Volunteering at the Institute of Education

Guest post by Noreen Nicholson on volunteering on two IOE Library & Archive projects – ‘School Histories’ and ‘A New Perspective on Education in the 20th Century: Cataloguing the Papers of the National Union of Women Teachers’

An article in the Summer 2010 issue of Alumni Life announced a forthcoming project on school histories and asked for volunteers to help with various tasks. I thought it looked interesting, applied, and was soon spending a few hours twice a week reading books about a great variety of schools with a view to categorising them for cataloguing: e.g. type (independent, grammar, comprehensive), level of education provided, ages catered for, single sex or mixed, and so on. This was not always easy as many schools, especially the oldest, had gone through several stages of development since their foundation which might lie centuries back in medieval times.  Volunteers were also asked to identify items of interest – “juicy bits” – and photographs suitable for inclusion in a study pack for schools wanting to involve pupils in tracing their history. A few of the books were immensely long and written in a turgid style, and I found myself wondering who – unless having some personal connection with the particular institution – would want to read them.  Others were well written and illustrated and it was tempting to spend too long on each rather than simply to skip through extracting relevant information.

The cataloguing exercise completed, I spent some time compiling a glossary for the study pack and helping with the summary of the history of education it was to include.  My only regret was that the team of volunteers was never brought together, as I think it would have been helpful to exchange views and experiences.  But, as different people were free on different days, this was not feasible.

The project enabled me to renew and expand the knowledge of the history of education gained on the MA course I had taken at the Institute some 30 years previously, and from further research on teacher training colleges in the nineteenth century. I enjoyed the whole experience immensely and knew that I would miss both the work and the feeling of being involved with something so worthwhile.

Before my withdrawal symptoms became too marked it was suggested that I might become involved with the work being undertaken on the archives of the National Union of Women Teachers.  The vast amount of material deposited at the Institute in the 1960s, following the closure of the Union, had never before been fully and systematically catalogued.  The prospect of continuing to work at the Institute was appealing, and so I have over the last year been gathering material about the Union and about some individual members using various sources – minute books, correspondence, the NUWT periodical Woman Teacher, the Dictionary of National Biography and other reference books.

©Institute of Education Archive

With this project I moved into the, to me, relatively unfamiliar territory of education in the earlier part of the twentieth century and of the feminist organisations which were established in those years – some concerned mainly with securing the franchise for all women, others with gaining parity in pay and working conditions with their male colleagues. Perhaps inevitably I have become quite attached to several of the NUWT pioneers and would love to know more about them, their education, lives at and outside of work, also about the schools in which they taught, and their pupils. One whose career I have looked into in some depth is Theodora Bonwick, at first because of her links with parts of London which I know well, later because I was struck by her forceful personality and her progressive views:  she introduced a system of independent learning for older girls into her school near Kings Cross, and campaigned for the inclusion of sex education  in the school curriculum.

Very grainy photograph of Theodora Bonwick from a newspaper obituary notice

Occasionally a photograph has been available and this makes the teachers more real, though in group photographs the prevalence of cloche hats and long, shapeless coats and skirts makes it difficult to distinguish individuals.

Over the years I have been involved in several types of voluntary work: as school governor, literacy tutor, charity trustee and in the Witness Support service, all of them interesting and rewarding. The last two years at the Institute have provided a very different experience, more akin to academic research. While new technology has made it easier to track down sources and trace connections, it cannot as yet completely replace ferreting about among old records. Among the various aspects of the NUWT’s story which I enjoyed following up, through letters and minutes of committee meetings, was how and when the Union’s archive came to be housed at the Institute of Education

I am most grateful to Kathryn Hannan for giving me this opportunity and for bearing with my sometimes eccentric ways of working.  Older people such as myself are often counselled “use it or lose it” – I hope to continue “using it” for a long time yet.

I would just like to add how grateful I and the rest of the archive staff are to Noreen for all her research on the NUWT.  It is adding so much value to the catalogue and other resources on the collection, such as the NUWT LibGuide. We have many plans for development of the NUWT Collection as the focus of teaching resources and as part of this planned project we would like to involve more volunteers on a variety of tasks/learning skills – I hope they get as much out of it as Noreen has!

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