Richard Willis is Honorary Research Professor at the University of Sussex
I am delighted to have recently joined the Speaking Citizens project as an experienced historian of British education. The overriding aim of my contribution to the project is to analyse how ‘oracy’, speech and rhetoric impacted in the second half of the nineteenth century on national policies designed to promote educational opportunity and equality.
Such advances were seemingly one outcome of the work in England of two Victorian pioneers: Frances Mary Buss (1827-1894) and Emily Davies (1830-1921).
I intend to research and assess the significance to the community of the oral evidence given to the Schools’ Inquiry Commission (1868) by Buss and Davies who through this agency almost collectively, it appears, brought about key reforms to female schooling in Victorian England. I want to explore primarily the SIC’s minutes of meetings and cross-examination when Buss and Davies were interviewed by the commissioners in November 1865. The SIC was set up a year earlier in 1864 to investigate middle-class education at a time when there was a crisis in citizenship characterised by fragmented communities and by huge gender inequalities.
An examination of primary and secondary sources (largely available in the archive in the library at the North London Collegiate School) should serve to gauge the extent to which Buss’ and Davies’ evidence directly or indirectly led, by the end of the nineteenth century, to the creation of a substantial number of endowed schools for girls.
It is apparent that many of the improvements in the education for girls may have had a key bearing on the work of a few impassioned feminist reformers who served the community and who were the first women to give evidence to a royal commission. Some accounts have underplayed Buss’ contribution, but I’d endeavour to show the degree to which Buss and Davies were instrumental in bringing about radical reform to England’s system of education.
I build on a Leverhulme-funded study at Cambridge University where I was a co-investigator of an oral history project on teacher training and professional identity. I was there a member of an Oxbridge team of academics who broke new ground in methodology and in introducing a revisionist history of school-based models of teacher professionalism.
I’ll also look at the nature of any spinoffs benefiting, at a local level, girls whose curricula prior to the SIC reporting had centred on household duties such as sewing and cooking in preparation for marriage, one of the few pathways open to women.
This study should go some way in endorsing Andrew Wilkinson’s work in showing how an emphasis on speech can open up a route to equality of outcome and social cohesion, solidifying greater opportunity for members of our community. While it is true that there is still much sex discrimination as, for example, in the case of the corporate underrepresentation of women at board level, let’s never return to the gloomy days where stark prejudices tended to dominate.
COVID-19 coincides with media campaigns to tackle racism, and gender inequalities seem to have assumed a lesser role. Yet it is fascinating to look back at some of the major developments that put an end to many of the social and economic mistreatments that were prevalent in Victorian England.
Research into Buss and Davies no doubt substantiates the unquestionable importance of ‘oracy’ and verbal exchange not only in decision-making on a national scale but also in all echelons of the community. Speech should not be side-lined but rather given priority in articulating new policies for change.