History in the Classroom
As the debate rages about how history should be taught in state schools David Cannadine discusses his recent research project.
One of the many remits of the Institute of Historical Research in the University of London is to bring together high quality scholarship about the past and serious engagement with the broader public in the present. Having been closely associated with the IHR, first as Director, then as Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Professor of British History, I am well placed to know the truth of this and to recognise its importance. And it was while I was at the IHR that the current debate began about the nature and the quality of the teaching of history in English state schools. As is the way with such front-page, media-driven political controversies, it was very much a polarised and present-centered discussion: about history teaching, but with little if any historical perspective. But was there, I wondered, a back-story to all of this? For how long had history actually been taught in English state schools? What sort of history had been taught? What, if any, had been the previous discussion about it? And how far were the concerns that were now being ventilated entirely new, or just the latest example of a debate that had been going on for a very long time? What, in short, was the history of the teaching of history in English state schools? And what light might the establishment of such a history throw on the present debate?
These seemed serious questions, deserving of serious investigation, and the Linbury Trust was willing to finance an initial investigation to establish the nature of the problem and the extent of the relevant material available through which to address it. With the help of a research assistant, I launched a preliminary inquiry and it soon became clear that this was, indeed, a major subject, for history had been compulsory – and controversial – in the classrooms of English state schools from the early 1900s. There was a huge amount of official information available, in the form of (for example) suggestions and proposals from Whitehall as to what sort of history should be taught, the evidence in a succession of royal commissions and committees of inquiry and the reports of His (latterly Her) Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools. There was also a great deal of unofficial material, including commentary in newspapers, articles in professional journals and documents in the archives of the Historical Association. It also became clear that there was potential for supplementing these written records with the testimonies and recollections of those who had taught history and learned history in English state schools. And so big was this subject that it soon became clear that any inquiry would have to be confined to England: for history teaching in Wales, Scotland and (Northern) Ireland has always been separate and different – also needing investigation, to be sure, but for now England was more than enough to be going on with.
The Linbury Trust agreed to fund a major research project into the teaching of history in English state schools (both primary and secondary) from the early 20th century to the present day: in part because this was something that needed doing for its own sake, in part because it would provide a historical perspective on current debates and in part because such researches might enable us to offer our evidence-based recommendations. The funding made it possible to appoint two Research Fellows, who were based at the Institute of Historical Research, Dr Jenny Keating and Dr Nicola Sheldon, who worked on the project for two years. Jenny Keating focused on the period up to the early 1960s, while Nicola Sheldon concentrated on the later years, which included the establishment of the National Curriculum. Both of them waded through a mass of archival material and they also organised surveys and conducted interviews with former teachers and former pupils, so we were able to build a picture of what it had been like to be taught history in the classroom. Despite the wide ranging discussions of history in schools the voices and recollections of teachers and pupils have rarely been heard and the creation of this original source – both spoken and written – is one of the lasting legacies of the project. Much of it has been put up on the History in Education website at the IHR (http://www.history.ac.uk/history-in-education); the recorded interviews have been deposited in the British Library sound archive; and the hard-copy materials the project generated, including exercise books donated by former pupils, have been given to the Institute of Education at the University of London.
The most public product of this research project has been The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England, which Palgrave Macmillan published last November. As seems to have been generally recognised the book broke new ground in that it was the first attempt to produce a comprehensive account of history as a taught subject in English state schools from the 1900s. One of our findings was how little has changed: history has never been compulsory in English schools beyond the age of 14; there have always been those who believed that the subject was being well taught and others who believed it was being badly taught; there have always been those who wanted a cheerleading narrative of national greatness and others who wanted a ‘warts and all’ account; there have been those who insisted that history was about knowledge and facts and dates and others who have urged that it is about thinking and about skills. But, along with these continuities, there has also been change: in technology from lantern slides to wireless to television to the computer to IT; in the structure of schooling, from elementary and secondary via grammars and secondary moderns to comprehensives; in examinations and syllabuses, from School Certificate via O Level to CSE and GCSE and from Higher School Certificate to A Level; and in changing ideas as to the nature of history in general and our nation’s history in particular.
One of our reasons for writing a history of history as a taught subject was to provide an account of what has gone on in the classroom for more than a century that has hitherto been lacking (and, by implication, to urge that similar accounts should be written of other taught subjects, from biology to English literature, mathematics to economics). Our second purpose was to put the contemporary debates in perspective: for much of what is said now as if novel and original is merely the latest (and ignorant) iteration of what has been said many times before and much of it presumes the previous existence of a golden age in the teaching of history, from which there has recently been a deplorable falling away – a golden age which, in all our researches, we never found. Our third purpose, then, was to attempt to establish the nature and dimensions of the current problems in the teaching of history and to make some evidence-based recommendations that we urge the Secretary of State to accept. The single most significant problem that we isolated was not the structure of the current National Curriculum, which seems generally well balanced and well designed; rather it was the fact that history is only compulsory in the classrooms of English state schools until the age of 14. In most countries in Europe, it is compulsory until 16 and, when Kenneth Baker created the National Curriculum, he wanted history to be compulsory until 16 in English schools, too. Most of the other problems concerning history education in the classroom could be addressed if that recommendation was implemented. As an Ofsted report recently put it: ‘The biggest issue for school history is its limited place in the curriculum.’ That is the problem; our research makes plain the solution.
David Cannadine is Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University.
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