Skip to content

Blog post

Why don’t we have Counter-factuals? We could learn a lot

Sara Delamont

Historians write counter-factuals:  brief papers that speculate about ‘what ifs?’  For example if William of Normandy had lost the battle of Hastings in 1066 what would the UK have looked like in 1100 or 1200 or even 2020?  If Martin Luther had been burned at the stake for heresy in 1571 would there have been a Reformation?  If Socrates had been killed at the battle of Delium in 424 BCE would we have heard of his work at all (as we know it from men who met him long after the battle) and would we have The Clouds?  What would Australia be like today if the very small group of troops from their army had not held the Japanese invaders on the Kokoda Trail in 1942?

They are often entertaining, but also serve to raise questions about exactly how what occurred unfolded and its importance, by considering alternatives.  In 2015 the result of the Battle of Bosworth Field and the fate of Richard III is an obvious candidate for such playfulness.  Some eminent historians, especially Richard Evans, have condemned them, but they are thought provoking.

I would love to see BERA produce a collection of ‘What if?’ essays about education, covering historical and more recent policy issues.  For example:

1) What if Harold Wilson had legislated to abolish selection at 11 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1965?

2) What if the English ‘National’ Curriculum of 1988 had enshrined MACOS?  (Man:  A Course of Study:  Bruner’s ideal curriculum for the western world)

3) What if Sophia Jex-Blake and the other five women who entered Edinburgh medical school in the 1870s had failed their exams?

4) What if Dorothea Beale had decided to be an Anglican deaconess rather than the headmistress of Cheltenham Ladies College?

5) What if the Taunton Commission had refused to consider the education of women?

6) What if the Thatcher government had not abolished the binary line in UK HE?

7) What if the Thatcher regime had not devolved HE to the four nations?

8) What if the irregularities behind Cyril Burt’s results had been exposed before the 1944 Act and the subsequent use of IQ tests in the 11+ and 12+?

9) What if the IFASES (The Industrial Fund for the Advancement of Science Education in Schools) had only funded science facilities (labs and equipment) in girls’ schools?  (It gave most of its money to elite boys’ schools, building science and engineering facilities and providing equipment)

10) What if the Robbins Report had been entirely rejected by all political parties?

11) What if Mrs Thatcher had succeeded in abolishing the ESRC?

12) What if the 100 people invited to be the founding members of BERA had all refused?

13) What if Brian Simon had been killed in the Second World War?

These are questions I would love to see addressed by the relevant experts, such as Carol Dyhouse for Question 3, and Gary McCulloch for Question 9.  I am sure every BERA member has lots of their own.

Anyone who has not read a counter-factual can find 25 ‘What ifs?’ in R. Cowley (ed) (2001) More What If?  London:  Pan