How do we record history education?

Ginger biscuits in box © dreamstime - montage BBC History Magazine

There’s much excitement in my school. It used to be split-site, with two buildings separated by a main road and some playing-fields.

Now, following a building project that seems to have taken longer than the construction of Versailles, one of the buildings has been abandoned and a vast new block has arisen adjacent to the surviving one.

We took possession at the start of term. It looks very splendid. And my only response is to hope I don’t have to create another time capsule.

I had to do this ten years ago, when we moved into a new building, and a time capsule was buried under the floor. It was a good idea. To Authority, it seemed an even better one that I, then Head of History, should be put in charge of it.

You know what Authority is like. You can sometimes ignore its ‘suggestions’ and get away with it, but that didn’t serve on this occasion. In any case, I thought the proposal an interesting one. In practice, however, it proved amazingly difficult to select items to give the future some idea of education in the 1990s.

I asked the pupils for their ideas. Some contributions were obvious; some peculiar. We have a history of the school: we included a copy. We had an awful lot of photographs: we put them in. A school blazer was inserted by main force. We added an exercise book, donated by a rather too-willing pupil. In went a copy of the National Curriculum.

Someone suggested a ginger biscuit, product and symbol of the canteen, and about the only item guaranteed to survive decades of inhumation virtually unchanged. After that no one could think of anything very much, beyond a few newspapers and coins. Indeed, I can’t now remember what else was included, but I strongly suspect that archaeologists of the future are going to feel themselves short-changed.

I wonder what we’d put in nowadays. It would be possible to include a great many more documents and photographs, simply by putting them on CD. We could add films of the school in action.

But even with a time capsule there would probably be issues of data protection. And technology changes so fast that we’d probably have to include a machine to play the discs, thereby using up all the space we’d saved.

In any case, the real issue is a philosophical one. I suspect that no amount of artefacts can hope to convey the experience of education. Despite all the efforts of government to suggest that teaching and learning are rational endeavours, with predictable outcomes that can be governed by managing data and crunching numbers, they remain decidedly mysterious processes.

What is it about particular subjects that grips some pupils but leaves others yawning? How do some teachers create instant calm? Why, after the amount of money that’s been spent on it since - say - 1979, is there no convincing evidence that any aspect of education has really improved? Why do pupils go crazy when it’s windy?

I don’t know the answer to any of these important questions, and I’ve got a lot more. The only thing of which I’m certain is that we won’t get the answers by looking at a few objects retrieved from under our foundations. If so, that lets me off lightly. I may just fill up a box with ginger biscuits, and leave it at that.

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