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In 1987, librarians at the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA) Centre for Learning Resources went on strike over the selection of materials considered to be ‘controversial’. The ILEA – the local education authority which oversaw inner London’s schools – had been under increasing pressure to remove particular books from circulation; many of these books contained depictions of gay and lesbian lives, and were criticised in the press for their supposedly corrupting effect on London’s schoolchildren. The ILEA’s compromise of restricting the books’ usage and publishing guidance on ‘controversial issues’ was received by librarians as an affront to their professional standing, prompting the industrial dispute.

This paper unpicks the internal and public debates which the ILEA’s elected politicians, librarians, teachers, and professional staff engaged in, to understand how constructions of ‘family’, ‘childhood’ and ‘children’ were employed strategically and fluidly to meet different political aims and to respond to demands from different groups. Parts of the ILEA’s leadership attempted to utilise the idea of ‘family’ as a private space to defend their policies around the use of children’s book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, and drew on ideas of healthy adolescent psychological development to justify their spending on youth workers for gay and lesbian teenagers. However, the ILEA’s work was at odds with the widespread support of the Greater London Council (GLC) towards gay liberation causes, of which the ILEA was a sub-committee. As Lucy Robinson and Stephen Brooke have shown, the GLC were unique in their enthusiastic funding of gay and lesbian organisations and issued their own charter for gay and lesbian liberation. The ILEA, however, were reluctant to implement some of the GLC’s measures. This paper will argue that underpinning this reluctance was an understanding among ILEA leaders of how the politics of childhood operated in the 1980s public sphere. This case study will show how ‘childhood’ as a category was not static, but one constructed and used strategically and changeably by policy-makers, and was central to the politics of education and sexuality in 1980s England.

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