Learning the rules: writing and researching school stories in history of education

Stephanie Spencer (Department of Education Studies and Liberal Arts, University of Winchester, Winchester, UK)

History of Education Review

ISSN: 0819-8691

Publication date: 4 June 2018



The purpose of this paper is to set out three dilemmas that challenge historians of education who write for both professional and academic audiences. It focuses on the example of using fiction as a source for understanding the informal education of girls in the twentieth century. It contributes to the debate over the purpose of history of education and the possibilities that intersecting and contested analytical frameworks might contribute to the development of the discipline.


The paper discusses the rules of engagement and the duties of a historian of education. It reforms current concerns into three dilemmas: audience, method and writing. It gives examples drawn from research into girls’ school stories between 1910 and 1960. It highlights three authors and stories set in Australia, England and an international school in order to explore what fiction offers in getting “inside” the classroom.


Developed from a conference keynote that explored intersecting and contested histories of education, the paper sets up as many questions as it provides answers but re-frames them to include the use of a genre that has been explored by historians of childhood and literature but less so by historians of education.

Research limitations/implications

The vast quantity of stories set in girls’ schools between 1910 and 1960 necessarily demands a selective reading. Authors may specialise in the genre or be general young people’s fiction authors. Reading such stories must necessarily be set against changing social, cultural and political contexts. This paper uses examples from the genre in order to explore ways forward but cannot include an exhaustive methodology for reasons of space.

Practical implications

This paper suggests fiction as a way of broadening the remit of history of education and acting as a bridge between related sub-disciplines such as history of childhood and youth, history and education. It raises practical implications for historians of education as they seek new approaches and understanding of the process of informal education outside the classroom.

Social implications

This paper suggests that the authors should take more seriously the impact of children’s reading for pleasure. Reception studies offer an insight into recognising the interaction that children have with their chosen reading. While the authors cannot research how children interacted historically with these stories in the mid-twentieth century, the authors can draw implications from the popularity of the genre and the significance of the legacy of the closed school community that has made series such as Harry Potter so successful with the current generation.


The marginal place of history of education within the disciplines of history and education is both challenging and full of possibilities. The paper draws on existing international debates and discusses future directions as well as the potential that girls’ school stories offer for research into gender and education.



Spencer, S. (2018), "Learning the rules: writing and researching school stories in history of education", History of Education Review, Vol. 47 No. 1, pp. 2-15. https://doi.org/10.1108/HER-04-2017-0008

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