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Why might BERA wish to thank Margaret Thatcher?

In 2017 ICHRE’s Director Gary McCulloch took over as President of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and delivered his first Presidential Address. Here he asks ‘What does BERA owe to Margaret Thatcher?’

Gary McCulloch

This sounds like a weird pub quiz question, and may have an even weirder answer. When BERA’s inaugural conference met in Birmingham in April 1974, Thatcher had already lost her post as secretary of state for education and science amid the shambles of the general election, in which Edward Heath’s Conservative government famously asked who runs Britain and then found out that it didn’t.  Yet Thatcher was ultimately responsible for the DES’s dusty answer when the leaders of the new organisation asked for a pump priming grant to hold its first conference and get itself organised.

The DES’s negative response caused much concern, with research leaders comparing the British attitude to educational research unfavourably with other advanced nations.  Most failed applications of this type lead to the end of a project rather than a starting point.

So, why did the DES say no to BERA, and why might we thank Mrs Thatcher for it?

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.

This post was originally published on the BERA Blog, 4 September 2017.

Sources and the History of Women Religious Medieval to Modern: Archival, Oral, Material and Digital

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.

Visiting delegation from China

A senior delegation from Hunan First Normal University, China, visited UCL Institute of Education in September 2016, following up an earlier visit in December 2015.  Led by President Professor Xiaoqi Peng, it met the new IOE director, Professor Becky Francis, and held further discussions with the ICHRE director, Professor Gary McCulloch, before going on to take part in the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association held in Leeds later that week.
Professor McCulloch was first invited to visit HNFNU in April 2015 and was formally designated as a visiting professor.  In 2016, Hunan Province awarded him the title of ‘famous overseas teacher’ and in this capacity he will undertake a visiting tour in spring 2017 to develop the relationship between ICRHE and Hunan further, as well as to promote the profile of historical research in education.