Let's not lose sight of the council archives

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
The most recent conference of the Scottish Records Association, held at Strathclyde University, focused on the history of Scottish education. One of the messages was that would-be researchers need fear no shortage of material. Indeed, one has only to browse through the two volumes of Craigie's bibliography of Scottish education or the Scottish Education Bibliography on CD-Rom produced by Jordanhill Library of Strathclyde University to realise what a wealth there is in the printed sources alone.

However, once one starts looking beyond printed sources into the archives, one soon discovers the problems common to most historical records: that their survival is often haphazard. Until the end of the last century, records were sparse and largely originated from the educated elite. Since then the population has increased perhaps fivefold and literacy is almost universal. As a result, we live in a society overloaded with far more information than can be permanently stored.

One can see in the records of Scottish education how what was a trickle of information swells out to be a mighty flood. Until the 19th century, Scottish schools, unlike English endowed schools, did not keep individual records. So we are largely dependent on incidental references in church records or in the estate papers of the heritors who were taxed to pay for the schools. In the later part of the last century, these can be supplemented by some town council records, by the first local newspapers, by the First Statistical Account and by the records of the Scottish Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Only as government begins to intervene in the 19th century does the stream begin to broaden out. Local newspapers become more widespread; governments held a series of inquiries, perhaps the best known that of the Argyll Commission (1865-68); there is information from school inspections, from logbooks and from the records of the school boards.

Only in this century has the education system become so complicated as to spawn extended central and local government bureaucracies, with their proliferation of documentation. This point can be illustrated from the records with which I am most familiar, those of teacher education. For the 19th century, we have to depend on the surviving fragments left by the church colleges, eked out by the reports of the Committee of Council on Education. However, in 1905, the state took over responsibility for teacher education from the non-denominational colleges (the Roman Catholic colleges followed in 1921).

From then on, there are consecutive series of records created by the bodies set up to administer teacher education: the Provincial Committees; the National Committee for the Training of Teachers (1921-59); the Scottish Council for the Training of Teachers (1959-67); and after that the boards of governors and academic boards of the individual colleges. Alongside these the reports of the Committee of Council on Education continued until 1946 and then became the annual series, Education in Scotland, until that was discontinued in 1949. For those wishing to delve deeper, there are also the S(O)ED files in the Scottish Record office.

These records are typical of the wider field of educational records in being bureaucratic. In most cases their original purpose was to ensure administrative continuity by providing a record of policies adopted, of decisions taken and - more rarely - of the reasons for them. If that continuity is broken, the records cease to be of practical use. Someone then has to decide which of them are worth keeping for the benefit of historians.

Already such breaks in continuity have led to significant losses. When the school boards were abolished in 1918, many, though not all, of their minute books survived but most of the other records were lost. Similarly, when the county and city councils were replaced by the regions, minutes were often preserved (some of them in the safe hands of the Scottish Records Office), but not many of the background papers which would help us interpret them.

The main records of Strathclyde Region have been deposited in the archives at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. In some other areas the future of the regional records is less secure. Unless significant sections of them are properly preserved, the history of an important period in Scottish education will always be difficult to reconstruct.

Willis Marker is author of Teaching the Teachers: the history of Jordanhill College of Education.

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