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7.3 Project Oral Historian's Reflections

Gemma Geldart


Throughout the project we as a team have been encouraged, and have encouraged each other, to reflect on and discuss any themes and issues as they have emerged. Through this ongoing communication, written and verbal, we have been able to learn and adapt to meet challenges and problems that have arisen throughout and allowed us to constantly reflect on our practice. Further to this, a number of innovations in the project design have opened opportunities for wider discussion and input from other perspectives. Central to all the project activities has been an inclusive way of working, a sharing of ideas and working with people. Building relationships, strengthening and creating networks as well as discovering new ways of bringing people together has underpinned much of the project work, paving the way for future development.


A crucial and perhaps central element has been the Archive "Weekends". Bringing together communities for residential events has not only allowed a place and space for communities to talk, work and get to know each other, but also for us to become part of that community, learning more about the places and the people, and of course, for them to learn more about us. From practical based archive work and trainings, to oral history life story recording and group meetings, the Activities have all taken place against the backdrop of this, often intense, reunion, many former children not having been back together since leaving their community. These events have seen people meet with old friends or former staff, or meet new people from the same community, often from different generations. People have reminisced, reflected, debated, and shared their own experiences. In this sense, they have often been intense gatherings, and it has been important to build the space and opportunity for these relationships to develop alongside the practical activities.


The project director has always stressed that each Archive "Weekend" would be unique, based on the group and the community itself, and this has proven to be the case. Moreover, we have been mindful that within each community there have been individuals bringing their own personal expectations, motivations and personality. Some people come out of curiosity, others want to know more about themselves, or to see their file, others to meet people, others with specific tasks in mind. Some groups are more established, others take more time getting to know each other. By taking a flexible approach and building in time for group and private discussion, we have spent more time with each community, and a way of working with each has evolved based on the people themselves. Meeting the needs of every individual has not always been attainable, but focusing on a 'working with' rather than 'working for' has allowed for open discussion, critique and advice. Generally, the second community events were stronger than the first, with participants more assertive in what they wanted from us, what they could expect and often more directive. I have no doubt that this will continue to evolve as these events develop beyond the project.


Another key feature that should not be overlooked is simply the amount of information that was shared during these events. Coming to the subject as an 'outsider' with no former knowledge of this work, I have found that the ethos, the experience and even the language used were completely new.


Meeting community members, hearing their stories, learning about their communities and experiences first hand and over the course of a few days has been extremely valuable. This has opened up and deepened our understanding, which in turn has allowed for a closer working relationship. Children from Red Hill, for example, are likely to play around with the term 'maladjusted', using it with some affection, or perhaps even tongue-in-cheek, where to some Bodenham children, who remember a sign bearing the term at the entrance to the school, it seems to be a negative label, a stigma, and still a source of resentment or even anger. Understanding that Wennington was an independent school with two thirds 'normal' fee-paying pupils, that Caldecott was primarily a home, children going out to school, or that Bodenham Manor changed quite dramatically under different headships, has been key to understanding the more intangible histories, the personal histories, and then gaining a general overview, which we are now starting to better understand.


Themes have also emerged across communities, which we as a team have been able to reflect on, and develop through more structured themed discussions at the Archive "Weekends" (see 7.4 below). These themes pertaining to 'what worked' and in some cases 'what didn't work' have highlighted key areas of importance. Working with groups to reflect on and evaluate their experience has allowed these groups to identify key lessons, or learnings, that they feel should be passed on. Another feature of the project that has supported this dissemination of ideas and themes has been the Performance. For the first time, former children were brought together with other communities at the Performance "Weekend" with students from Trinity Catholic School (see 4.11.2). Led by the Trinity students, this themed event allowed for exchange and comparison between different communities – the role of play and games, daily routines, self-government, music and art – as well as more discussion of the features particular to each individual community. Alongside the oral history testimonies, these discussions have helped us identify and explore key areas in the field, and may point to several research areas for further exploration.


The cross-community interest and connections made at the Performance "Weekend" were reinforced towards the end of the project with the Conference, with a group of former children visiting the Mulberry Bush School, and with the Final Event. Stemming from participant interest, an Community members/Trust email group has now been established, and the idea of a working group across communities opens up exciting possibilities for further interaction and development. The idea of themed residential gatherings may serve as a future model to run alongside the sole community events, serving the dual purpose of allowing communities to come together and learn from that, but also to focus more specifically on activities, archives, or oral history training, for example, which might be a way of catering for individual needs and interests. Only through the processes of building trust and mutual understanding that have been possible through the archive Events as they have been, are we able to think in these terms now.


In other ways, the relationships developed during the project have proven key not only to what we do but to how we do it. In terms of oral history, this project has required thought and exploration of our working methods and practices. Our consent procedure, in which we don't ask for a release form to be given until the interviewee has seen a copy of their transcript and received a copy of their recording, puts greater emphasis on processes and the building of relationships with participants. Besides an implicit ongoing duty of care which we have as oral historians, we have worked in more practical ways with participants beyond the interview: discussing recordings, working with transcripts, negotiating ways of their taking control of their oral history. Discussing rather than deciding directly what course of action should be taken with an interview, and also thinking much more carefully about what the interviewee wants from the interview beyond the interview itself, has allowed discussion and exploration of the different reasons people record oral histories, and how they feel about them afterwards.


Moving the emphasis away from 'consent' has involved a lengthier process than may be achievable on other projects, and without 'consent' being our main concern, the project has raised the questions of what, and who, oral history is for. At the transcript ATA Event (see 4.2.6), we were able to discuss these issues at length and considered that a methodology must be related to the project itself and what it hopes to achieve. Developing a more inclusive oral history process has been vital to this project in order to engender balanced relationships, not just acknowledging but elevating the participants' involvement and input. Many have taken an active role in identifying incorrect spellings, dates, place names and so on, ensuring an (arguably) more accurate transcript. The majority of consent forms have been returned as 'open' documents, or only with restrictions the interviewee has placed to safeguard sensitive material. Where consent hasn't been granted, a discussion of the reasons has been had, which has often produced unexpected outcomes in itself: a participant deciding to submit a written account for public use, for example, or someone getting involved with other oral history elements such as transcribing or summarising. This, however, has raised the question of why some people record interviews, and what their motivations are. If consent is not the primary objective, then what are the alternative benefits? This area has not yet been fully explored, but informs our ongoing discussions, and will be an avenue to explore through our ongoing work.


The oral history work has also created a range of diverse interviews. We have strived to encourage a life story approach to our recordings, prompting people to tell their story in their own way. From the perspective of the subject, I have found this approach has often led to more implicit insights and reflections from interviewees and we have gained a better sense of who was involved in these communities and what they went on to do. Each participant has shaped their interview to some extent, with some focusing very generally on their life, and others more specifically on their community experience. I have been interested that those recorded during an Archive "Weekend" can often cover very similar topics, drawing attention to the same specific themes, and often people will relate the same stories, or their experience of that same event, or their memory of a specific teacher, which might have been discussed in a group discussion earlier. When so much discussion in groups and among individuals is happening, this is perhaps inevitable (and perhaps also stems from my own immersion in the topic at these events), but it is an interesting facet of the Archive "Weekend" which I feel is worth being aware of. It is difficult to draw direct comparison with those interviews that have been recorded off site or with individual visitors outside of Archive "Weekends", but again, that is an interesting area to be explored further.


In terms of content, the interviews have often been emotional and intense, covering difficult, private and at times, distressing memories. As interviewer, the level of emotional and personal engagement is also very high. When interviews have been difficult or upsetting it has been important for us as a team to be able to come together, and we have actively allowed time for this reflection and discussion together, which has been a real asset of the project design. That we have, at times, needed each other for support, further highlights the need for us to be there for community members whose experiences and emotions will, most likely, have been much more intense. Ongoing support, communication and contact with interviewees has been very important, and perhaps our consent procedure brings the added benefit of 'opening the door' to this contact.


In more structured terms, the project's Assessment, Training and Advisory Events, and Project Management Group meetings have acted as places the team can share concerns, raise issues or simply report on progress. I have found the ATA Events to be particularly innovative, covering a wide range of topic areas and allowing us to reflect with a wider group on our practice and any themes that have emerged. Drawing on the experience and advice of others has given us an opportunity to reflect in a way that is quite unique. These events have allowed a number of connections and networks to be opened up, and there is a lot of scope for development. I would be keen for the oral history group in particular to evolve into a working group model. One participant at the transcription ATA commented, 'Thought this was a super day. I never realised the transcript could yield so much interesting discussion and difference of opinion.' Personally, I have not found a comparable model where such engaging, open and supportive debate can take place, and identify this as having been one of the most successful and essential components of the project.


Our involvement and focus on current practice has added another dimension to our work, and through the ATAs, and ongoing links with organisations such as the Mulberry Bush School and the Care Leavers Association we have paved the way for important work and future directions. With a visit to the Mulberry Bush School by former children (see 4.8) and a proportion of participants very keen to become more involved with the current situation, there has been a growing awareness of current practice allowing comparison with the experiences of former children at their communities. In a variety of forums, the question of 'Could these communities exist today?' has been put forward and has generated some lively discussion. For a number of reasons, (the social and political agenda, health and safety legislation, the national curriculum, to name only a few), participants have rejected the idea that they could exist today, as they were; however, several transferable elements have also been identified (an individual, tailored approach, the benefits of community residential living, the relationships with staff and so on) which might genuinely inform current practice. One former staff member noted during a themed group discussion that when many of these communities were first set up, "you had pupils sent by local authorities...because their parents were divorced, that's all...thirty years on, the pupils that were sent had real psychological and emotional problems". It has been asserted numerous times that some of the children who benefitted from this sort of education in the past are the same type of children now in mainstream education (dyslexic, ADHD, BESD). This raises the issue of whether the project's learnings might extend to be of interest within, and to, a mainstream framework.


Working so closely with and for a number of different people with different needs and expectations has been challenging, supportive, and motivating, often all once. It is these relationships that have sustained the project and that will continue to strengthen the work of the Trust in the future if they can be maintained. There are a number of possibilities that have been created because of the project, and because of the networks that have emerged. I think that the learning and intangible outcomes are best expressed (like the community experience itself) by and through the people themselves. Finding ways then, to now further open the dialogue, extending and strengthening networks already established, will hopefully ensure that these achievements are not only passed on, but also surpassed in the future.