Education archive brings a century of progress to life

A new project is bringing alive 100 years of disabled people’s education, through the voices of those who experienced it.

The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) has recorded the school memories of 50 disabled people from across England for the How Was School? project, launched this week at an event in London.

There are already about 250 interview clips on the How Was School? website, with a quarter of them on film. This will eventually rise to about 400 clips.

ALLFIE hopes the archive will help schools and colleges bring debates on citizenship, equality and diversity to life.

As well as the audio interviews, 10 of the interviewees were filmed, and four young disabled people were filmed talking about their current experiences of education, with all the interviews carried out by nine disabled volunteers.

Clenton Farquharson, one of those interviewed, told the launch event: “For me, the enjoyment about being involved in the project was the journey: exploring my experience of school, the good and the bad.”

Joanne Wacha, another interviewee, said: “I have not been disabled all my life… I wasn’t sure if my experiences would be seen as the same as other people’s.”

But she said the project showed her that other disabled young people “went through the same thing I went through”, and added: “It was great to kind of have a voice and be able to let people know how I felt. I have grown up and feel more empowered.”

Tara Flood, ALLFIE’s chief executive, said the 50 interviewees had shared their stories, childhood experiences and memories.

She said: “There is a wealth of experience that until now had been pretty much invisible. It is a very timely reminder for politicians and policy-makers of how much progress has been made for the inclusion of disabled people in mainstream education.

“From those 50 stories we have really been able to capture the significant changes in education law and policy over the last 100 years.”

The project was supported by the British Library, which is storing all of the interviews in full in a public archive, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

Dr Robert Perks, the British Library’s oral history director, said the interviews would now join the library’s collections, alongside the Magna Carta, Gutenberg’s bible, lyrics written by The Beatles, Captain Scott’s diaries, and a recording of Florence Nightingale.

The How Was School? website includes a timeline showing the significant developments in approaches to disabled people’s education, from the paternalistic views of the early 20th century educators who saw disabled children as “ineducable”, and often sent them to remote residential institutions, to the more inclusive approach of the 21st century that sees most disabled children welcomed into mainstream schools.

ALLFIE has also created a learning resource for schools, with worksheets, teachers’ notes and a DVD.

Kevin Caulfield, who worked on the project for ALLFIE, said they now hoped to create a mobile display which could be used in libraries and other exhibition spaces, and to involve artists in using the How Was School? material in their own work.

His colleague Gelila Tekle-Mariam said ALLFIE was also seeking funding to hold workshop sessions, and would send information about the resources to every one of England’s 30,000 primary and secondary schools this September.

ALLFIE is now hoping to create a group of volunteers, including young disabled people, to deliver the workshops in schools and colleges.

News provided by John Pring at


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