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History in the Classroom

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As the debate rages about how history should be taught in state schools David Cannadine discusses his recent research project.

Infants class, Lavender Hill School, south-west London, c.1925One 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?

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