History, Notebook, Reviews

Review: The World in One Place Learning Together in a Multicultural City

Back in June I was fortunate to catch a pretty short preview of The World in One Place: Learning Together in a Multicultural City exhibition at the Old Print Works in Balsall Heath. Seeing the trial run made me keen to see the fully scaled up version when it opened at the Library of Birmingham in August ahead of a run throughout the autumn until 30th October 2021.

Produced by Future Seed CIC with the aid of a grant provided by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, The World in One Place is an in depth exploration of primary schooling in Birmingham between the middle and end of the 20th Century. Whilst it embraces the city in its entirety the focus of the exhibition is firmly upon the city’s “inner-ring” which became home to thousands of migrant families from South Asia, the Caribbean and other parts of the world which Britain had colonised during those years.

Through capturing the primary school experiences of children from migrant backgrounds, as well as those of the people who taught them, the exhibition vividly captures and communicates a sense of how the school system tried to adapt and accommodate children from a wide range of backgrounds during those years.

How far schools were actually able to welcome, embrace and effectively support children from migrant families is an open question running throughout The World in One Place. Quite often whether through gross cultural ignorance, out-and-out racism, and former pupil’s memories of feeling isolated or bullied, the answer has to be that it failed to do so. This situation was exacerbated by the class biases and oppressions inherent in Britain’s hierarchical education system aimed at reproducing manual workers and housewives. Traits baked into the system during the 19th Century generations before the mass migration of people of colour to cities like Birmingham. These problems are not flinched from and are openly discussed and explored through oral histories and contemporary documentation throughout the exhibition.

This is however, only one of the strands and stories which The World in One Place picks out and explores. A key locus for the exhibition is the wider changes in terms of school premises, pedagogy and technology which occurred during the period. This comes through especially strongly in the many interviews with former class teachers, head teachers and other education workers which are presented throughout the exhibition, as well as reflections from former pupils and the numerous photographs and publications which visitors view and read.

The focus upon the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s largely predates the rise of the National Curriculum and Ofsted following the 1988 Education Reform Act. This means that it captures a time when individual Local Education Authorities, schools and class teachers possessed a high degree of autonomy and the ability to experiment and innovate. This comes through in the exhibition’s narrative about how schools tried to adapt their curriculums and approaches to be more inclusive, as well as through interesting sections of the exhibition covering the early days of school computing and school trips. One thing which especially stood out for me in this section was a panel about how in the 1960s and 1970s Birmingham LEA would organise educational cruises for older primary children, which would visit North Africa and other destinations in the Mediterranean.
Closer to home it is interesting and quite moving to discover how teachers would often run trips or other activities for children during the school holidays, because there was a chance that their pupils would otherwise not get any other kind of trip away. It is quite hard to imagine schools and individual teachers getting involved in this kind of provision for pupils out of term time today.

Many of the teachers whose oral histories are shared throughout the exhibition admit to a degree of culture shock when they first came to Birmingham. In numerous cases they had grown up elsewhere in the country – often in Wales – and had little or no experience of living and working in a multicultural community prior to moving to the West Midlands for work. The exhibition conveys a sense of the progressive ethos that this generation of teachers attempted to foster with varying degrees of success. Some innovations brought in during the period included the creation of relatively informal teaching and learning environments and attempts to broaden the religious education curriculum beyond Christianity to include the faiths of children from South Asian migrant families.

It is also something that is captured in an exhibition panel which reflects on the debates around corporal punishment which raged in schools throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s when the practice was eventually banned in state schools. Many of the teachers interviewed say that they disdained the practice, or came through experience to see it as counter productive. Whilst the voices of former pupils interviewed for the project remember many teachers, even in primary school, who regularly beat pupils. One fascinating document included in the exhibition is a letter from a headteacher to parents that was sent home in 1975 advising that the school was shortly going to introduce a new behavioural policy which would see more pupils being caned for bad behaviour. The letter’s existence and the headteacher’s comments in it about how he expressed hope “that we are not about to endure economic conditions like those I experienced in the ‘20s and ‘30s” illustrates that whilst younger teachers were bringing new outlooks and ways of doing things into schools, many older teachers whose worldviews had been formed decades previously, remained in post limiting how quickly schooling could change.

A thoughtful and interesting aspect of The World in One Place is how the Curator Izzy Mohammed, Co-Curators Carol Lyndon, Anna Orrnert and Ian Cuthbert (who was the exhibition’s designer) have laid out the project’s findings in the Library of Birmingham’s upstair’s exhibition space. Upon entering visitors are greeted by a set of small coat pegs and a wooden bench with space for shoes underneath it which has been dressed with children’s coats and school bags. This visual framing is maintained throughout the entirety of the exhibition with different aspects of the exhibition being presented in relevant parts of the mocked up school building. These settings include a school hall complete with wall bars and a gym mat, a staff room with sofas, an ashtray, and copious drinks making facilities and even a mock-up of an entire primary school classroom.

Picture of “The School Corridor” section of the World in One Place exhibition Library of Birmingham 2021, author’s photo (2021)
Picture of “Staff Room” section of the World in One Place exhibition Library of Birmingham 2021, author’s photo (2021)

The effect of this was immediately to cast my mind back to my own primary school days in the 1990s and early 2000s at a single form entry, single storey, late 1970s vintage primary school in south Birmingham. Judging by the conversations that other attendees were having around me I was far from the only visitor to be moved in this way and have their mind jolted back to their own early school days. This served to create an effective state of mind for people to encounter and engage with the exhibition, including parents who were there with their children (it being the school summer holidays when I attended), talking about their own experience of primary education and how it had changed in recent decades. In this way the exhibition did an excellent job of sparking off discussions amongst attendees which touched both upon the individual exhibitions, panels and themes, and wider questions about education and how it is experienced – for better and for worse.

This can be a difficult thing to achieve in an exhibition, especially one which covers a lot of ground and material, some of it quite difficult. The curators and all those involved with the project have done an excellent job of creating a space which is welcoming, engaging and dare I say it educational. The exhibition uncovers and shines a light upon an important neglected, and often (far from fairly) maligned period of history, which is vital to understanding Birmingham and the wider UK today.

The World in One Place Learning Together in a Multicultural City is on at the Library of Birmingham until 30th October 2021.