The aim of this study was to explore narratives of former pupils, who attended primary school between 1944 and 2009, to understand educational change and the everyday experience of educational policy. By exploring education through a lens of experience, the study adopted narrative inquiry as a method to awaken hidden stories of the ordinary, everyday experiences of the participants (narrators) to gain insight into their memories of primary school. Drawn together, these individual experiences form a ‘collected memory’ which provides insight into primary education across the different decades.
The findings demonstrate how narrative inquiry offers insight into primary school experiences by examining stories as data sources, which bring to bear the experience of school from the perspective of former pupils. The stories, combined with an examination of literature and legislation, highlight how and why teachers are remembered, the curriculum, educational inequity, memories of playground games and books read at school. An implication for teacher educators is to include the understanding of experience and the impact that teaching methods and policy implementation can have in later life. Significantly, it is the stories themselves which bring to bear the experience of policy as recalled by the narrators and highlights the narrator-researcher relationship in awakening and interpreting the stories, demonstrating the value of story as a method for understanding education.
Examination of the literature surfaces the rise of neoliberal ideology in education and the impact of this on children’s learning experiences. In addition, the government’s promulgation of the feminisation of the primary school, constructed through the government’s casting of women in the primary phase is observed. Education makes claims about inclusion, equality, access and social justice, it is hailed as the leveller for a more just and equal society, the stories elicited in this research demonstrate that the many facets of the education system are complicit in the notion of power (James, 2015). Therefore, those in positions of educational and political power in our society should not be generators of prevailing inequalities of policy but seek to identify and remove barriers to raise standards for all.
The recommendations call for a repositioning of teachers as experts, and not merely ‘deliverers’ of policy and curriculum context. The performativity agenda of testing and inspections drives behaviours in schools, which are neither allied to the ethos of many teachers, nor to their pedagogical and subject expertise, therefore political and legislative change is required for teachers to be able to reassert themselves, to reclaim their authority and to lobby for greater democracy within the school system, particularly in relation to policy and curriculum development. Raising the profile of teachers and pupils as stakeholders is critical so that all stakes are equally valued and understood.
An original contribution of this research demonstrates the value of story in gaining insights into how policy was experienced by the narrators and from which lessons can be learned. Thus, through application of narrative inquiry, it can be argued that story is a powerful method of understanding the experience of policy as remembered by former pupils. The concept of awakening, in bringing the story to bear, is key in this research, expanding Clandinin and Connelly’s (2000) notion of wakefulness. This was evident in the co-production of stories and the artefacts that were presented through the opening of narrative spaces in the interview process to awaken the story. This study therefore makes an original contribution, by using narrative inquiry as a methodological basis for awakening stories from the past, to understand the experience of educational policy set against the lived experience of the narrators over six decades of primary school education.