Learning with ILEA: Double deckers and green bananas

Anansi and the Green Bananas storybook and tape

Blog post by Sarah Crompton, part of our fantastic volunteer team.

I am privileged to have the opportunity of volunteering at London Metropolitan Archives on Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH), a nationwide project aiming to digitally preserve audio archives in danger of being lost through degradation or because the technology for accessing it is becoming obsolete. As the owner of a well-preserved video recorder and cassette player for the playing of our family collection of school and recital recordings, skilled in the art of using a pencil to respool tapes that have disgorged themselves into the inner mechanisms of the machinery, I can understand the fragility of analogous methods and the concern that nationally important resources are stored by these means. A countdown of 15 years to digitise how much! I’ll be keeping my ancient technologies functioning just in case they are called upon…

I’m currently working on education resources produced by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), which was in operation between 1965 and 1990. Unlocking this particular part of our sound heritage is akin to unlocking a primary school teacher’s private resource cupboard: 1970’s and 80’s teacher packs of the type familiar from my own education, with workbooks supported by bespoke recordings of specially commissioned songs, stories and renditions of folktales. London teachers may remember the names of such series as ‘Make-a-Story’ for 5-8 year olds, and ‘Share-a-Story’ for 5-11 year olds. London pupils may remember listening to stories with titles such as ‘The Space Dragon’, or singing ‘Double Decker’, a song about the experience of riding on a bus. Past pupils would definitely be transported by just a few seconds of hearing those distinctive electronic sounds from ILEA’s Creating Music in Class.

Listening to these resources now, what is initially striking is the intention of the content to be as wholly inclusive as possible – to simply provide what was needed, for a huge range of needs. So far, I have encountered musical resources made to encourage self-sufficiency and independence in children with learning needs and storytelling resources remarkable in their striving to create a true community amongst children and young people brought together from diverse communities in the post-war years. The focus is very strongly on ‘cultural pluralism’ – understanding and appreciating the culture and experiences of children who were newly in the country, and on recognising the talent and skills of the individual child.

As I was musing on how LMA’s collection of schools resources might be corroborated by information on the strategy for their development, Kate (Catalogue Editor on the UOSH team) dived into the wider ILEA archive, particularly the resources and newsletters produced by the Learning Resources Branch. A 1980 Media Resources Advisory newsletter contains an article by Mike Hussey, Inspector for Multi-Ethnic Education and Community Relations, which defines ILEA’s objective of developing education in a multi-ethnic society and shows how the legislative backing of the 1976 Race Relations Act positively impacted the needs-serving of the entire population.The opening statement comments that this objective was part of the ‘long standing general duty of all authorities’ – perhaps hinting at opposition to a modern progressive approach?

Media Resources Advisory Team newsletters
Media Resources Advisory Team newsletters

One has a sense that the 1976 legislation provided much-welcomed support for ILEA’s plans and the green light for a huge programme of activity. Predating the ‘Share-a-Story’ and ‘Make-a-Story’ resources by just two years, it surely was a factor in ILEA’s confident investment in the large bank of resources now represented in the collections at LMA. Hussey’s article describes the multi-ethnic approach as rooted throughout all activities in the primary school curriculum, and we see represented in the story series the exact same messages reiterated in a statement from the ILEA sub-committee: ‘to live and work harmoniously’, ‘the strengths of cultural diversity’, ‘to meet appropriately and effectively the particular needs of all people having regard to their ethnic, cultural, linguistic or historical attachment’ in both the curriculum and the ‘hidden curriculum’.

The resources

The hard evidence of this inclusive approach contained in the schools resources shows how the Learning Resources Branch in its various incarnations produced a rich flow of curriculum material, books and resources based on London school experiences, gathered through the Media Resources Officer’s liaison with schools and the secondment of teachers to work with Learning Material editors. The stories from both these series I have worked with at the LMA are wonderfully even-handed in the way they distribute the actions of groups of primary school children irrespective of race and gender.

The accompanying teacher guide booklets in the ‘Share-a-Story’ series, for example, educate teachers to recognise that although a West Indian child’s first language might be English, they were on the receiving end of a range of different English accents and pronunciations – standardised, classroom language and creole variations with their distinct inflections. Teachers in England needed guidance to recognise that these children were using a heightened intelligence to negotiate their surroundings, adept at adjusting to whichever version of English was appropriate to whatever situation. Stories were especially written or culled from other cultures, involving characters like Anansi, a well-known figure from Caribbean folklore.

The integration message is also borne out in stories like ‘The Space Dragon’ where children were encouraged to be resourceful, to rely on one another and to appreciate cultural difference as an asset. In the story, a group of children are threatened by the appearance of a dragon until the child from a Chinese family acts as interpreter – as she opens communication with the dragon, the threat evaporates and the children celebrate a new friendship with a dragon-ride across the London skies. Bonding through a true celebration of both individuality and community cohesion.

The Space Dragon
The Space Dragon, from the ‘Make-a-Story’ series (illustrations by Ronald Jackson)

At a time when the media and children’s book publishers are desperately trying to address the dearth of stories with BAME characters in lead roles and illustrations which do not accurately represent children from BAME backgrounds, look here for a wealth of stories with just those enterprising role models and accurate and celebratory pictorial representation. The voices, too: following the Caribbean story-telling tradition where the stories are told naturally in everyday language, these recordings were progressive for English schools in their use of the local and international accents that children would be hearing all around them. Clearly recognising that using English received pronunciation would be inappropriate, alienating and isolating for multi-ethnic audiences living in a local working-class environment, on the tapes from the ‘Share-a-Story’ series children would instead hear the ‘cockney’ voice of Bill Colville saying ‘I wish we could go ‘aht”. This was certainly not a commercially driven enterprise, but there is a feeling that ‘best practice’ was sourced in the very settings that ILEA sought to serve.

I am left with the feeling that children were lucky to be educated in London with this approach at the time – and wonder how this experience might compare with that of children in towns and cities with smaller minority ethnic populations and fewer resources to draw on. A couple of generations further on from the children in these stories, issues of intolerance for other cultures break regularly in the news.  There are valuable lessons to be learnt from these resources, still, and surely a huge potential for reworking and reusing the content.

Audio-visual equipment, illustrated in the Learning Resources Branch newsletters
Audio-visual equipment, illustrated in the Learning Resources Branch newsletters