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In early September I was one of 996 participants who enjoyed the three day annual conference of the British Educational Research Association Conference (BERA) in Brighton. The programme was so large it required serious study in advance but enabled me to consider my own research in relation to that in other educational disciplines. There were 16 history sessions. I am a doctoral student and this was my second BERA conference. I write to highlight the opportunities it gave me as a postgraduate student, ones that I would not have expected. BERA, however, like ICHRE provides many opportunities.
I was co-convenor of a two panel symposium with Professor Linda Chisholm from the University of Johannesburg, South Africa on ‘Transnational perspectives on the history of missionary education’. The first panel dealt with post-colonial changes and continuities, while the second dealt with identity changes in the process of change and continuity beyond the colonial period. Our interest was in transnational linkages in the changes and continuities after the official ending of colonialism. An international collaboration, the symposium resulted from a discussion with Linda at the BERA 2016 History SIG social. Our research in Catholic and Lutheran missionary education crossing Italian-American and German-South African national boundaries respectively seemed a good focus for a panel at BERA 2017.
Talking with Professor Kim Fong Poon-McBrayer, from the Education University of Hong Kong, over drinks at the 2016 conference reception I learnt that in the course of her research on inclusion in Hong Kong she had become curious to follow up data which pointed to the legacy of missionary education in the development of inclusive schools in Hong Kong. We went on to invite Dr Brendan Carmody of UCL Institute of Education who has published in History of Education, on the educational work of Irish missionaries in Zambia and Dr Annalaura Turiano of Aix –Marseilles whose doctoral thesis looks at how Italian Salesians in Egypt altered the nature of their place in Egyptian education over time. Our SIG co-ordinator, Dr Heather Ellis, agreed to be the discussant.
Our symposium abstracts were among 959 submitted. 592 were accepted. We were given helpful feedback including a numerical score for each assessment criteria. I learnt from the process and benefitted from the experience of the other scholars in our group. As a retired teacher I was able to offer my administrative and organisational skills! More of us are now pursuing doctorates so this is something we can contribute to the scholarly community. At the end of our symposium Heather shared her observations including pointing out that missionary education has implications for today. These gave us a good focus for a productive de-brief over lunch the following day where we had a lively discussion around the categories of transnational, diasporic and colonial histories, concluding that these categories are relational.
I also benefitted from the bursaries open to presenters at the conference. I was awarded a BERA student bursary covering the cost of the conference and my travel and accommodation were covered by an ICHRE Richard Aldrich bursary. Two other members of the group were awarded international collaboration bursaries. Our collaboration has also contributed to our writing. I have gained useful insights for my thesis. Kim and Annalaura are following up with articles and Linda’s book, Between Worlds: German Missionaries and the Transition from Mission to Bantu Education is due to be published in November 2017. BERA 2018 will be held at Northumbria University.
Maria Williams, PhD Student, UCL Institute of Education
The answer to the first question can be found in the National Archives at Kew. Sir David Eccles, the Conservative minister of education who set up a ministerial research unit, was happy to support academic research based in the universities, even where this might be critical of official education policy. Many of his officials were much less sanguine, and resisted applications to fund new societies and centres in the 1960s.
This attitude hardened with Mrs Thatcher in charge in the early 1970s. The department shifted from a ‘patronage’ role to one that was ‘policy oriented’. In future, the DES would only support an application if it was directly related to the Department’s own policies, or deemed to be of direct public concern.
Its new planning unit affirmed in a memorandum in October 1973 that ‘What the Department seems to need is the services of what might be called “hack” research workers. Not “hack” in a derogatory sense, but people who get down to a job of fact gathering and careful assessment without having too many preconceived ideas of where the educational system ought to be going.’
Nevertheless, rather than stifling the nascent BERA at birth, the DES’s approach actually forced it to depend on the resources available to university-based educational researchers. This would certainly not be an easy road, especially as there were some in the academy who looked down on educational research and in the schools who regarded it as irrelevant.
But at least it would not be dependent on the vagaries of state funding which might be vulnerable to changes in government policy. Instead, it would be an independent charitable agency standing on its own feet, accountable above all to its own membership for its future direction.
So here, then, is the answer to the second question. In this sense, BERA has a lot to thank Mrs Thatcher for, as she helped to establish an organisation that in 2017 flourishes as a broad church with over 2,000 members, which has carved out a space for researchers often in difficult times, and that stands for high quality educational research in all its many forms across the UK and for members around the world.
John Nisbet, BERA’s first president, at the conference that the DES declined to fund, pointed out that such research had a ‘critical role’, that is, providing ‘constructive criticism’. Another early president, Brian Simon, pointed out exactly forty years ago that the real issue was ‘whether scientists are to be allowed to operate as scientists, educationists as educationists, researchers as researchers; or whether all are to become service personnel, waiting cap in hand for orders in response to which appropriate methods will be sorted out to produce acceptable results or conclusions’.
It is this academic freedom and commitment to truths that may be inconvenient, in an age of fake news and widespread distrust of experts, that BERA continues to represent today.
By Maria Patricia Williams
The 2017 H-WRBI Annual Conference took place at University College Dublin, Ireland and was Ireland and was immensely helpful to me as a researcher in the history of education. Deidre Raftery and her team at UCD provided us with an exciting and varied programme. Conference papers examined the history of women religious, medieval to modern engaging with sources and commenting on methodologies around the use of archival, oral, visual, material and digital sources. The majority of papers were on sources relating to the history of women religious involved in education.
Susan O’Brien gave an excellent keynote entitled, ‘Speaking in the Silence: Researching the Sisters’ Stories, 1850-2000’. She highlighted the lack of historical research on women religious in England during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, unlike the situation in other European countries and in the United States. The recent ‘religious turn’ in feminist history is providing opportunities for exploration of a vast mine of untapped resources in convent archives and challenges the researcher to consider them in their social and cultural contexts. This can provide many opportunities for us, as historians of education.
The presentations were of a very high standard and it was difficult to choose between the two parallel sessions. Several papers explored the use of oral testimonies. Carmen Mangion spoke on convent group identity and the impact of ‘cultural scripts’ on personal accounts.
Flora Derounian considered the identity of women religious as workers in post-World War II Italy, using some subtitled film clips of her interviews to demonstrate her methodology. Films made and commissioned by Irish missionary societies of women 1847-1963 were the focus of Edel Robinson’s presentation during which we viewed previously undocumented films. Several papers focused on financial issues. Catriona Delaney explored the impact of the introduction of state funding in Ireland on the schools of the Presentation Sisters, 1940-58. Sarah Joan Moran showed us the insights provided by the account books of Court Beguinages of the Low Countries for her work on gender, economic and religious history. Historians at UCD were seen to be at the ‘cutting-edge’ as Deidre Raftery demonstrated the use of digital technologies for ‘virtual reunification’ of dispersed archival material. We also benefited from presentations by several archivists who showed how they are making sources in the archives of women religious more accessible for researchers.
The conference used the UCD O’Brien Centre for Science which was modern, spacious and light- filled and the food was very good. This all created an atmosphere conducive to continuing discussions during our breaks. The conference fee was reasonable and bursaries were available. The UCD en-suite rooms with communal kitchens were very comfortable. The campus is a short bus ride from the city of Dublin which enabled some of us to do a little sightseeing before returning home.
For more on the work of the H-WRBI see here.
Maria Patricia Williams is a doctoral student at UCL Institute of Education under the supervision of Professor Gary McCulloch. Prior to commencing her research she worked in London comprehensive schools for thirty years.