History in Education: An Ongoing Debate

Trevor Fisher examines the ongoing debate over how history is taught in the classroom.

Trevor Fisher | Published in History Today

1. History in education is at a crossroads. History in schools, colleges and universities faces considerable challenges, despite the massive popularity of the past in the wider culture. There is abundant evidence to support Anthony Beevor’s view that ‘there is no sign that the great history boom is slackening’, as any televison schedule shows. History publishing is flourishing, while 2003 saw a third monthly, Living History, join History Today and BBC History on the magazine racks. Dedicated TV channels cater for the specialist, while a constant stream of light weight historical and family origin publications cater to a wider public.

2. With interest in History at a high level, the future of the subject in education should be rosy. However there is considerable unease amongst practitioners, and a wide ranging if spasmodic debate on the subject in the broadsheet newspapers. Conferences to discuss the future of history were organised in 2002 by the Historical Association and the Prince of Wales, who initiated a summer school which also focussed on English Literature. Articles in newspapers commenting on school and university history regularly feature in the press, testifying to a sense that all is not well.

3. Much of the comment may be ill advised or contradictory. Professor Niall Ferguson has been quoted as saying “History in many of our schools has been boiled down to History and the Henry’s” (1). Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the Times, has written that “most school history is as dreary as most school science. It starts with the Saxons and Normans and hopes that someday, somewhere, pupils will learn something of the present day… history refuses to start with the relevance of the recent past and retreats, in every sense to the Dark Ages”. (2) Paul Wilkinson, of the Kent Archaeological School, countered this by complaining that “our children are increasingly less able to study a wide range of British history, especially prehistory, ancient and mediaeval history (3). The latter two views are mutually exclusive.

4. Controversy about school history is not confined to Britain. In October 2003, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, flew to Bonn to hear a complaint by his German counterpart, Edelgard Buhlmann, that the overemphasis on Hitler and the Nazis in British schools was distorting Anglo-German relations. (4) The assertion that school history is obsessed with the Nazis is questionable, for in the various versions of the National Curriculum the proportion of school history devoted to British history has varied from half to two thirds. However the perception of overemphasis on Hitler is echoed by many university admission tutors and may relate to examination history post 14.

5. If there is a problem here, then this relates to the wider culture and the high profile of the Second World War. This is reflected in the high output of television programmes which are war related. As History is not compulsory post 14, teachers are forced to teach what students will choose to opt for, and do not have the kind of control of the curriculum many commentators imagine they have. While it could be argued that options could be restricted to prevent students taking a limited range of choices more than once, the response of teachers is likely to be that while Britain remains one of the few countries which allows students to drop history at 14, it would be unfair to stop them offering what students want in an educational environment where recruitment is the key factor in sustaining classes.The dominance of war over much historical study is an issue which is rarely debated, highlighting a debilitating tendency to divorce issues of school history from the wider culture which is deeply unsatisfactory. School history is widely debated, but the debate is not always well informed.

6. Despite the visibility of the subject, both school and university history teachers feel under threat from the growth of a Gradgrind utilitarianism. Charles Clarke may or may not have made the comments attacking mediaeval history attributed to him last spring, and there may be more funding going into research, but at undergraduate level history teaching may face pressures similar to those facing history in schools and colleges.

7. Within schools, history has lost much of its place in the National Curriculum. History ceased to be a fixed part of the Primary School Curriculum – Key Stages 1 and 2 – some years ago. In the GCSE years known as Key Stage 4, History could lose students as the government introduces more vocational exams thus restricting History’s chance of gaining students. The remaining guaruntee of History teaching is at the Key Stage 3 level, 11- 14, but some teachers fear this could be removed in the future. History’s weakness within the National Curriculum is frequently contrasted with the situation in other countries. In the great majority of European countries, History is compulsory throughout secondary education. Efforts to secure a similar status for history in this country have not been successful, which explains the importance of the new Vocational GCSE in history. History needs to appeal to a wider student audience than just the academic streams.

8. Threats to school history are not new. This is the third time that teachers have felt their subject to be insecure. History was under pressure in the sixties and again in the early eighties. (5) The initial National Curriculum structure gave History a secure position at both primary and secondary level, but that structure has been eroding for well over a decade. How the Tomlinson proposals may affect History is imponderable, but it is unlikely that History can rest on its laurels.

9. The situation at Advanced GCE is of particular concern. In an extensive survey of trends, (6) Professor Chris Husbands compared GCSE and A Level statistics from 1993-2000. At GCSE level in the middle 1990s GCSE entries rose, but A Level grades after 1995 fell despite the increasing number of GCSE historians. His detailed analysis of the exam data led to the conclusion that history’s position in the curriculum was “delicately poised”. At GCSE history appeared to be attracting “fewer but more able pupils”, but at A Level “it would appear to be attracting fewer pupils but not the most able”. If these trends have continued post Curriculum 2000, and into university, this would be deeply worrying. While overall A Level and undergraduate numbers do not appear to be critical, if History is not able to attract the most able students and hence practitioners, the discipline’s standing must inevitably decline.

10. Academic historians appear to assume that the attraction of the discipline for potential students remains as high as ever, but this assumption needs scrutiny in the light of the latest figures for graduate employment. The attraction of academic history for potential undergraduates has rested in part not only on its intellectual qualities but also on an assumption of a wider appeal. It has been argued that the degree has marketability as a wide ranging intellectual training providing high level skills much in demand in the wider market place. This perception was butressed by surveys showing a high percentage of history graduates obtaining employment within six months of graduation – 90.2% in the 2003 Times survey.

11. However the analysts have recently changed their methodology. They now measure not jobs per se, but jobs requiring a degree qualification. This has markedly changed the picture of graduate employability. The conclusion, published in October 2003, was that the proportion of History graduates securing jobs, training or further study which required a degree dropped to 63.8%. This is the same proportion as for philosophy, a degree often castigated for its unworldliness. (7) This unwelcome information must inevitably influence policy makers and potential students alike. There is a growing debate about the production of graduates in our society, now totalling 40% plus of the 18+ age cohort and a real doubt that many of these graduates are in fact needed, or can get jobs requiring degrees (8). The government assumptions over the last forty years that the British economy can sustain degree production on this level are now being questioned amid worrying indications that graduates can no longer expect jobs requiring degree qualifications, and indeed that the jobs they secure may not repay the increasing amounts being demanded by the government for degree courses. The elite institutions are likely to remain prestigious, if only for the time being. However the mass of degree producing institutions may not be able to maintain their attractiveness to students required to make increasing financial demands to secure first degrees. If this debate begins to demonstrate that in fact Britain is overproducing graduates and that the degree is no longer an automatic passport to a professional career, History in particular may suffer.

12. It is clear that in school and college History must look to its laurels. It may be that it faces an uphill struggle in the academic sector as well. History appears to be losing much of its intellectual appeal, as well as its status as a cultural influence of the first order. The discipline appears unable to provide significant intellectual figures who are also able to play a major role in public debate. The era when historians of the stature of Hugh Trevor Roper, A J P Taylor and E P Thompson had a public profile commensurate with their academic standing appears to be over: Eric Hobsbawm is the last of the breed. The TV historians like Simon Shama and Richard Holmes perform an excellent role which cannot be underestimated. However this is pop history, shading in to the entertainment history of figures like Tony Robinson. The issue is not perhaps televison history per se, for television is not well suited to intellectual debate, but the level of discussion in broadsheet newspapers and the periodicals and the wider intellectual culture. It is beyond dispute, of course, that historians contribute in many valuable ways to public discourse. But they do so largely as expert witnesses. The era when intelligent non specialists would be expected to know the work of a Gibbon or a Toynbee, an A J P Taylor or a Thompson, to be taken as an educated person is arguably coming to an end.

13. Within the academy the discipline of history also appears to face a dusty future of fragmentation, overspecialisation and an inability to confront first order questions. The recent volume of essays entitled WHAT IS HISTORY NOW? Edited by David Cannadine (9) was markedly different from the original WHAT IS HISTORY? of E H Carr. Carr’s book was a debatable but coherent study of a discipline. Cannadine has edited a collection of essays, stimulating but lacking coherence or any serious overview. While a collection of essays is unlikely to have the unity of a single volume, what was significant is the lack of a sense of a coherent discipline underpinning the essays. What was presented was less a discipline with different facets than a collection of fragments. The book suggested that history is in danger of becoming an incestous dialogue between increasingly obscure specialisms with little of the intellectual sharpness needed to command wide respect. One book cannot prove a thesis, but it reinforced an existing sense that it is difficult to know what history graduates nowadays have in common, whether, indeed, history can claim any more to be a coherent study in the way that competitors like Literature and Pyschology can claim to be.

14. The trends across the historical sectors reviewed in brief here suggest that whether in the school room, the lecture room  or in wider public discourse, History is facing challenges which require sustained and vigorous debate and response. Clearly, the debate has started and although writing about current trends in the broadsheets is of variable quality, it is vitally important that it exists. More specialised debate has already started. Important conferences were held in 2002 with significant successor activities which have had an impact.

15. The Historical Association PAST FUTURE conference held on September 25th 2002 was  focussed on teacher practitioners of  history, but appeared to offer the prospect of a more wide ranging debate as it involved practitioners who were not exclusively school, college or university teachers. However in the seventeen months since it was held there has been no follow up, though an important report of the Conference was published in spring 2003 as PAST FORWARD; A VISION FOR SCHOOL HISTORY 2002-2012 (10). The report noted that ‘While consensus on some key issues for the future emerged, the Conference raised some important questions for further discussion… these have been included in the hope they will promote further debate about the future of history in our schools.’ (11)

16. The five key questions for further discussion involved An entitlement to history, Improved Progression and Continuity, Closer Links Between School and University History, Improved Opportunities for Professional Development, and Improved resources. The report may still be available from the Historical Association. It is debatable whether the hope of a wider public debate has been fulfilled. There has been no follow up conference and the Association has neither explained why nor facilitated the participants in an over subscribed event to take the debate on under their own auspices. A planned electronic debate facility has yet to emerge. The Historical Association is clearly under-resourced and its ability to respond to all the calls on its time and energy is clearly constrained by financial and organisational factors – much of its work is in addition carried out by volunteers. (12) The conference demonstrated both that the Association can initiate important debates, but that it may lack the resources to continue the debate.

17. The developments involving the Historical Association parrallel other discussions involving the Royal Historical Society and the History at University Defence Group. Alas it is difficult to discuss these since high level participants give different views. It has been reported that there are bilateral arrangements involving “regular formal and informal contacts between” the groups, and that there are unwritten agreements for the various bodies to take on different responsibilities in representations to government bodies. However other equally well informed sources deny that there are any such arrangements. Given that there is no consensus of the facts of the matter, it is not possible to assess how effectively debates within the different groups and with governmental bodies are progressed. More information on activities at the top and a wider access to developments should be provided if a wider public is to be involved in the development of policy.

18. The Prince of Wales’s Summer School, in contrast to the Historical Association, provided a follow up conference to its 2002 initiative. (13) The School provided much stimulating and valuable debate, and in taking English Literature alongside History made valuable connections between the issues in History and Literature which illuminated both areas. However despite much that is valuable in the Summer School, which hopefully will be repeated in 2004, the constitutional position of the Prince Of Wales limits much of the value of the initiative. To take but one example, this is not an initiative which can constitutionally scrutinise the actions of the government, a very necessary task. The Summer School has been a useful forum of debate, within limits. The reports of its debates should still be available from the organisers, but it is not clear what developments, if any, will take place in 2004.

19. History in education is thus in a paradoxical situation. A debate on the challenges facing History, has begun to take place, but somewhat fitfully and with severe limits. It is however clear that there is no adequate forum for that debate, and only limited resources to sustain it. Much of the discussion which has taken place over the last two years has, moreover, lacked the accurate factual information on developments and the broad focus which is required by a subject which is simultaneously an academic discipline and a broad study embraced by a gloriously eclectic range of people. Unlike almost any other subject save English Literature there is a wide non-specialist public as well as specialists, and the high level of interest in school history outside the education profession is a major advantage. There is much that is good about history teaching, particularly in schools where OFSTED inspectors regularly report a high standard of practice. Yet the insecurity surrounding the discipline remains, and controversy is endemic.

20. There is no neat conclusion to a survey of this type. In writing on this subject in the September 2003 Teaching History, I concluded that “Threats to history existed in the 1960s and the early 1980s,  and were defeated. It is not over-dramatic to suggest that the threat is infinitely greater than previously, and will demand a commensurately greater response than was mustered before” (14). I hold to that view. The current debates are testimony to a wide sense that the challenges are considerable, and need to be confronted. However the key issue is not what should be done, for there is nothing like a consensus among interested parties. It is to provide a forum or forums for sustained and rigorous debate, and the resources to sustain such a debate, and link with other debates in similar areas of the humanities. Sustained debate cannot be left to underfunded volunteers – a Task Force with proper resources is needed, with the nuts and bolts firmly screwed into place. Discussion about how a proper dialogue around history in education may best be organised and resourced may be unglamorous, but it is essential. Can the History Community in the broadest sense stage rigorous, open and vibrant debate about the Future of Times Past? It is an open question. On the answer to that question much will depend.

TREVOR FISHER      March 31st 2004


As this article went to press, news came in of a conference to be organised by the Institute for Historical Research at the University of London, jointly with the Royal Historical Society, the Historical Association and the History at University Defence Group. This is entitled HISTORY IN BRITISH EDUCATION and the organisers state that “the conference should be wide ranging…  and should be concerned with the central subjects of what history should be taught, how it should be taught and its place in the curriculum”. This is a very wide brief and the limited details available suggested a wide range of topics had been pencilled in. However the crucial area of establishing a consensus of what is vital and what not vital, which underpinned the old and now anachronistic 1066 AND ALL THAT curriculum, was not clearly indicated as an area for debate. The conference is pencilled in for February 14-18th 2005, and a year of intensive planning clearly lies ahead.

(1) Times 9th October 2001

(2) Times, 5th July 2002

(3) BBC History January 2003

(4) Times 9th October 2003

(5) For issues in the 1960s see Mary Price HISTORY IN DANGER? Teaching History 34, 1968. For the 1980s see my article in Teaching History 53, 1982

(6)  WHAT’S HAPPENING IN HISTORY, Chris Husbands, Teaching History, Historical Association journal, June 2001 pp37-41

(7) Times Higher Education Supplement, 10th October 2003, p10

(8) The Times, 29th March 2004, headlined a report by Phillip Brown and Anthony Hesketh, arguing that the overproduction of graduates has led to a decline in starting salaries and indicated that three years after graduating, forty per cent of graduates were in jobs that did not require a degree. The authors questioned whether the assumptions of a knowledge based economy underpinning government plans for expansion were sound, and predicted a future in which significant numbers of graduates might never be able to repay their loans. The report, THE MISMANAGEMENT OF TALENT, will be published by the Oxford University Press in October. It mirrors concerns many in the 16-19 sector have that the current expansion of universities is unsustainable, amid talk of “selecting” and “recruiting” universities, with the latter suffering serious financial problems as they struggle to balance the books.

(9) David Cannadine (Ed) WHAT IS HISTORY NOW? Palgrave 2002, E H Carr WHAT IS HISTORY?  Penguin 1990 (paper), Palgrave 2001 (Hardback)

(10) Historical Association 2003. The title of the report indicates a narrow focus on school history which was not the remit of the actual debates, which although focussed largely on practitioners was not exclusively school designed.

(11) op cit. P50

(12) HA Website, Secondary Education section, updated May 2nd 2003, indicated that The Education Conference in York had been commercially unviable, that two subseqent conferences had been cancelled, and the committtee under Michael Riley was reviewing conference strategy. This section of the website is officially updated at regular intervals, the last recorded (on 16th Febraury 2004) being October 24th 2003. However the main text is identical to that of May 2nd 2003. The Association is clearly underfunded and the reliance on  overstretched volunteers is a major limited factor. However it is not easy to understand why, given that other conferences were unsuccessful while Past Future was oversubscribed, there has been no follow up.

(13) The initial conference was on 4th-7th October 2002. The follow up was on 30th June to 3rd July 2003. Copies of the conference report may be obtained from Judy Dudley, Course Secretary, North London Collegiate School, Canons, Edgware, Middlesex HA8 7RJ.

(14) Trevor Fisher, HISTORY’S FUTURE; FACING THE CHALLENGE. Teaching History 112 p37.