From new history to the gcse 1960s-1988



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From new history to the GCSE 1960s-1988
The struggle over history teaching is only beginning. It will ultimately be won not by ministerial memo or parliamentary decree, but in the classroom and the library.’1
Despite the reputation of the 1960s for radical change, in history teaching little appeared in the average classroom to ruffle the impression that the traditional approach would continue to predominate. However, undercurrents of change had been stirring even in the 1950s as teachers grappled with the changed situation of Britain in the post-war era, no longer the mother of empire but a diminished political force on the world stage. What history was most suitable for the future citizens and workers of this new era? As the sixties progressed, the challenges of international economic competition meshed with the educational needs of a new post-war generation and led to expansion in all sectors of education. New secondary comprehensive schools demanded a different ‘all-ability’ curriculum, to be taught by young graduate teachers coming out of the expanding teacher training colleges. All of these changes had implications for the teaching of history.
Yet there were also substantial hindrances to change, some would say even including the history teachers themselves. Principal amongst the hindrances was an examination system which dictated the style of teaching downwards through the school. Teachers themselves worked in an isolated fashion – there was no culture of teamwork – which meant that individual teachers who were trying to change things had little impact beyond their own classroom. However, the chief block to change seems to have been their attachment to a long-standing national narrative outline which was commonly taught in the 1960s and even into the seventies. The ‘great tradition’ of history teaching was an outline of British history which all schoolchildren were expected to digest in note-form during their secondary school years and regurgitate in English prose essays in regular examinations.
Gradually, during the 1970s, the ‘great tradition’ was dismantled in a feast of curriculum innovation and examination reform. In its place came ‘skills’, ‘empathy’ and ‘activity learning’ in history as teachers adopted both a new content and a new rationale for their subject. The reasons for this remarkable switch are explored in this chapter.

The Final Stages of the ‘Great Tradition’
There is strong evidence for the claim that there was a ‘great tradition’ of history teaching which had remained ‘largely unchanged’ for the sixty years after 1900. 2 There were isolated educators who urged teachers to experiment, broaden the topics of study and try more ‘active’ methods in the classroom, but none of these exhortations led to widespread changes in the teaching of history in schools. The purpose of the Great Tradition – an unquestioned one for the most part- was the transmission of an agreed body of knowledge, usually related to a national narrative, to future generations. For many teachers entering the profession there was no debate about the history they were teaching:

We never questioned it, you just did as you were told, didn’t you? … You would teach a set content, an accepted content, a corpus, you would teach that in as interesting a way as you could find…. You had these little games and tricks that you played, the children loved them, and then they went away and learnt it and just then copied … as much [from] memory as possible, for their exams.3


Perhaps the best exposition of this traditional approach was the Ministry of Education Pamphlet No.23 produced in 1952.4 England had no national curriculum but periodic advice on the curriculum from the Ministry of Education reflected the commonly-accepted ideas about the teaching of the subject. The Pamphlet recognised that there was in the post-war world a debate about the purpose of history and in particular its presentation to the young. Nonetheless, it contained the very traditional statement that:

It is good for boys’ and girls’ character that they should hear or read about great men and women of the past and so learn gradually to discriminate between disinterested and selfish purposes or between heroism and cowardice.


In the fifties, history was still seen as a lesson in morality as well as a basis for citizenship, though ideas about the nature of that citizenship were changing.5 Memories of pupils at primary schools from the fifties and sixties confirm that heroes and heroines formed the dominant content for teaching history:

My memories are of learning about famous people such as Elizabeth Fry, Florence Nightingale and Capability Brown. We had no text books but listened to the teacher talking. I really enjoyed history because these people came alive to me as the teacher spoke about them. (KI, born 1952)

Mr A. really brought the stories to life, and stories of torture, murder, divorce and battles really seemed so exciting to us all (RT, born 1953)
These stories had been the foundation to a secondary school chronological overview of the national narrative in many schools. To some extent, also, the expansion of grammar schools in the 1950s extended the life of the ‘great tradition’ of history teaching. The grammar school curriculum was relentlessly focussed on preparation for O and A level, and ultimately university study. These examinations dictated the content studied in history from age 14 to 18, but their tentacles reached down to grasp pupils in the lower school, as teachers were obliged to prepare pupils for the narrow yet specific requirements of an examination based on memory, fast writing and cogent English. The typical examination paper in English (sic.) history from the University of London Examination Board offered candidates papers from 55 BC – 1939 , defined solely by sets of dates: 55 B.C. – A.D. 1216, 1216-1485, 1485-1649 and so on. Teachers were expected simply to look at past questions to work out which events candidates might be expected to refer to from the period concerned. Pupils were required to write five essays in two and a half hours, committing to paper as much factual knowledge on each question as they could remember in reasonable prose.6
During the five years leading up to O level, pupils continued as in earlier decades to learn a chronological outline of British history, sometimes with added episodes from British imperial history. Former pupils surveyed for the History in Education Project recorded the grammar-school diet of great sweeps of English history in the lower school, as in the following example:

First year in High School we started with the Romans and spent the next five years working through to the end of Queen Victoria. No social history, just political, and nothing European or global, except where it impinged on G[rea]t Britain. (RH, born 1942, grammar)7


A comparison of two pages from grammar school exercise books nearly twenty years apart and from different parts of the country shows the way in which the story of King Alfred was studied by children in their first year at grammar school. Both teachers set the same exercise, to draw representations of Alfred’s defences against the Danes and his legal code [see illustrations from Muriel Longhurst, 1947-8 and Ian Colwill, 1960-1]. Following the line of British political history, through the Norman Conquest, the medieval kings, the growth of parliament, the Plague and the Peasants’ Revolt, plus the Hundred Years War, there was often hardly time to cover the Wars of the Roses, a common ‘blank patch’ in many children’s historical education.8 The variable pace of the teacher meant some reached the American War of Independence by the end of the third year, whilst others barely passed the Tudors. Some pupils certainly resented the inevitable gaps in their knowledge or disliked the fleeting coverage of major events of interest, such as the English Civil War.9 For those who sat O level, the fourth and fifth years typically completed the national narrative by covering British and European history from 1815-1939, or British social and economic history (essentially the story of the agrarian and industrial revolutions) from the eighteenth century onwards.10
The O level exam engendered a remarkable consistency not only in the curriculum but also in the teaching methods endured by many children. Tedious hours of dictation, copying from the board, teacher-talk and note-taking, tests and essay-writing dominate the memories of many former grammar school pupils:

On arrival at the history classroom, which had a ‘wall’ of four blackboards at the front of the room, we would find the master busy with his chalk, writing reams of words on the fourth board. The first three were already filled. We had to desperately copy down all of the notes in ‘rough’ making sure that we had completed the first board before he finished the fourth because he would then erase the first and start to write the fifth and so on…. Once a week there was a test before we started writing. The test was to remember all of the dates copied from the previous week…. Punishment was severe for failure in the tests running from detention, through the punishment of writing out 100 dates, to being beaten with a cane! (IS, born 1945, technical/grammar)

Mostly she had her back to us, writing notes on Acts of parliament, battles, treaties etc on the blackboard for us to copy. There were no teaching aids and no enthusiasm for her subject. It became very boring, I lost interest & then made no effort. (JL, born 1946, direct grant)

There was no encouraging us to think for ourselves, no independent learning as there is now, and revision for the exams consisted of trying to memorise as much of her notes as possible. (RL, born 1948, grammar)11


Pupils sometimes had the benefit of imaginative teachers who could spin a good story or win the class over by enlivening the lesson with funny anecdotes, ‘re-enactments’ or ‘games’, which won children’s enthusiasm for the subject:

I remember her giving us homework where we had to pretend that we were reporters, writing for a newspaper about early battles. Complete of course with drawings of maps with plans of attack, people fighting, etc. (JI, born 1952, grammar)

I remember a Mr P. being highly innovative and getting us to work in groups to produce newspapers of Tudor times (AF, born 1954, grammar)

I found the teacher we had for the next three years far more interesting – her delivery was more energetic and refreshing… considering the possible dryness of various Acts of Parliament etc that we had to learn it’s a great testament to the teacher that I enjoyed the subject. (SE, born 1955, grammar)12


Children in secondary modern schools, who were not expected to take leaving exams or aspire to university, could be spared the rigours of the intensive note-taking and teachers had more freedom to devise their own curriculum and methods of teaching. Yet the diet of content in one London secondary modern in the late 1950s, recalled by teacher Evelyn Hinde, differed little from the grammar school:

I think I taught a bit of everything. Certainly I’m quite sure I did the Stone Age, the Greeks, the Romans, up to the Norman Conquest in the first year and then you did, not much on the medieval period to be fair, but probably then the Tudors and the Stuarts and so on. And in the last year you tried to do what you could to get them up to the present day.13


The same was true for Eric Houlder teaching in a West Yorkshire secondary modern in the early 1960s:

I think it would be pre-historic and Roman and Saxon the first year, medieval the second, Tudor, Stuarts and 18th century the third, and the final year, as it was in those days, brought us up to the beginning of the First World War.14

Some of this devotion to the traditional national narrative may have been due to the pressure to raise the status of secondary modern schools and copy the grammars. By the late 1950s, some local authorities had introduced local certification schemes for school leavers from secondary moderns. These certificates were accepted by local employers as evidence of standards reached, particularly in English and maths, but they also included the full range of school subjects, including history, which tended to be modelled on grammar school exemplars. The introduction in 1963 of the Certificate of Secondary Education for the 40 per cent of the ability range below O level (which catered for the top 20 per cent) resulted from the growing trend of secondary moderns to enter candidates for O level, and prepared the way for the raising of the school leaving age ten years later. In 1977, numbers sitting CSE history outstripped those sitting the O level.15 Organised locally and marked by teachers not university examination boards, CSEs offered an opportunity to branch out in terms of curriculum and teaching styles, which was taken up at school level by teachers who designed their own ‘Mode 3’ syllabuses and set their own exams. However, most schools followed centrally-produced syllabuses and examinations, which mirrored those of the O level. The questions were more structured than an O level essay title, with short answers required and briefer pieces of writing, but the essential requirements were the same – factual recall and prose composition. CSE was part of a quest for recognition of the attainments of a wider range of pupils, but within a framework of expectations set by the elite O level. This established a strong continuity in terms of history courses and examinations into the 1980s.
Why did the Great Tradition have such longevity in the history classroom?
Surviving school work suggests that the ‘Great Tradition’ continued in some secondary history classrooms through the 1970s [illustrations of school work of J Johnson from 70s] in some measure simply due to the career stability of the teaching profession. Some teachers would have started their teaching career before the war and would still be teaching the same content in the seventies. However, the persistence of a relatively unchanging exam system, in particular the O level exam, also contributed to the continuance of the chronological outline of British history in the lower school years.
Where teachers did branch out with new topics, popularity with pupils might follow, though not always with colleagues, as David Burrell recalled:

I was thought to be extremely revolutionary because the syllabus was the traditional grammar school race through British history…. but in the third year, I introduced a one-term programme for all the classes that I taught on the American Civil War, because it was 1961—the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the War. And I wrote to the American Embassy …. They sent me all sorts of materials … to support it…. Most of the other staff thought, ‘How can you possibly spend a term on one topic?’, but the kids loved it, and the parents loved it. When the parents came to parents’ evening, almost without exception they said, ‘For the first time, my child is interested in history.’16


Whilst children were often encouraged to draw as well as write in the lower forms and some were allowed anecdotes or quizzes as a treat, for the most part, school history was as uniform in its content and delivery methods as if there had been a national curriculum. At this time there were no legal constraints on the school curriculum either from national or local level; the teacher really was ‘king of his classroom’17 but few seem to have wanted to challenge the accepted curriculum or methods of teaching, even though they seem to have led to many children thoroughly disliking history:

Mrs W. completely destroyed my love of history. I can remember being really bored, and dreading the days when we had double history – 80 minutes of being read to. Trying to remember the dates of inventions was a struggle, and I don’t think anything was put in perspective, or given a relevance to us at the time. (RT, born 1953, grammar)

This was the main reason why I became disenchanted with studying history. The teacher read from her notes, we copied them down, she wrote dates and names on the board so that we could copy them correctly, there was no discussion and at the end of the lesson she left the room. There was no interest sparked or encouraged and no suggestion that we should do anything but learn the facts she put in front of us and pass our exam. (JS, born 1954, grammar)

The teacher simply read long passages from books which we dutifully wrote down. No explanation was given. It felt like ‘these are the facts you must remember’. I disliked all of it because it focused on ‘war’ rather than ‘people’. (DC, born 1960, secondary modern school)18


In 1965, Martin Booth completed a set of interviews with history teachers and their pupils at five different secondary schools. Booth’s research showed the schools almost all followed a traditional chronological pattern of study from year one to five with an O level exam at the end which tested mostly factual recall. Even though the teachers claimed to use local studies and sources in history, mostly the pupils remarked on the dominance of note-making and lack of discussion in class. As Booth noted, history in school appeared to be ‘a dreary desert where as far as the eye could see row upon row of school children sit, writing endless notes. But what can be done?’19
Changes to history in the primary school
The first place to see the ending of the Great Tradition in history teaching was the primary school classroom. Control of the primary curriculum had been firmly lodged at local level for many years, in some cases that meant the local authority, in most cases the individual school. Some primary schools still had a rigid subject-based timetable and formal learning, in history as in all other subjects. ‘Stories’ had been the traditional diet of the primary school child, but the tasks set were often exercises in drawing and copying rather than tests of comprehension or even historical knowledge, as Penelope Harnett recognised at the start of her career as a junior school teacher:

We had these special books where you had a blank at the top of the page and then you had lines underneath. And so I would tell them a story and then they would draw a picture of the story and then I would write on the blackboard what they had to write about the story underneath in their best handwriting. And they were marked then, not on their historical knowledge or anything like that, but how nicely they copied from the board.20


Little value was placed on the children’s historical knowledge but it was at least on the timetable and taught as a distinct subject. The advance of child-centred learning in primary schools in the 1960s threatened even that place on the curriculum but also offered new freedom within the primary school curriculum for those teachers who were confident and enthusiastic about history. Child-centred learning was most associated with the Plowden Report of 1967. Primary schools were released from the pressure of the 11-plus exam in the following decade as comprehensive education was brought in across most of the country. The rigid primary school timetables of the fifties were gradually replaced by a new mantra of teacher autonomy and curriculum freedom. The focus of the primary curriculum was henceforth to be the individual child and its needs and interests. The frequency with which history was taught and the style of learning often therefore depended on the preferences and expertise of individual teachers. The dominant orthodoxy of teacher autonomy precluded much in the way of collaboration, so children could be subjected to the same topics by different teachers even in the same school. Indeed one of the most popular ‘history’ topics (as recorded by some of our survey respondents) was the age of the dinosaurs, as confirmed by Penelope Harnett in her interview:

When I taught in Bristol once, I thought I’d do the dinosaurs because I thought my children would enjoy that and I remember going to the staffroom and saying I can’t understand why these children aren’t really getting into the dinosaurs, and this other teacher piped up, he said, ‘Ah, because we did that last term’.… We never had those conversations about what you were teaching, in the staffroom.21


Most primary school teachers had no specific training to teach history at all, and even if one specialised in history on the 3-year teaching certificate course, as Roberta Wood did when she attended Redland College in Bristol, there was very little practical guidance on the teaching of the subject:

We had a very good history tutor who taught us as a history specialist to enjoy history for its own sake. We started off with the Beaker people and continued right up to the present day. … the only aid she gave us on teaching history was to say, ‘If you want a day in London, I shall speak to the Principal but organise it yourselves. You will have to organise school trips when you become teachers’. And so we had several days in London.22


Most schools moved away from individual subjects towards projects, often lasting days or even weeks, which cut across a number of subject domains and allowed children to do practical work, such as model-making or drama, as a means of exploring historical topics. This work was enjoyed by many primary pupils, as the survey evidence reveals:

History extended into art, where I remember painting pictures and drawing historical figures. We also incorporated sites of historical interest when we embarked on geography field trips. (GA, born1956)

Last year of primary school – project on Ancient Egypt, many happy hours as a class painting Hatshepsut modelling Tutankhamen’s mask. (AS, born 1960)

Class projects about the great plague of London in 1665 with a day of dressing up and writing poems! (EH, born 1963)23


Plowden reported that the best work in primary school history offered children the opportunity to research history topics through ‘printed source material, illustrations, film strip, photostated documents from the local record office or elsewhere.’24 These were used to study historical topics in depth, with visits to support children’s imaginative work. The Report recognised the value of stories from history for primary school children and their need to build up some understanding of chronology before secondary school. Critically, however, the Report recognised that the quality of the history teaching in primary schools depended on the continuing enthusiasm of individual teachers – here was its Achilles heel.

Lacking expertise and training in history as a subject, many teachers turned to two stalwarts of the 1960s primary school classroom for inspiration – the text book and the broadcast (radio or TV). For some survey respondents remembering their primary history, the text books most frequently encountered were known simply as ‘Unstead’. A trained teacher and primary head, R. J. Unstead’s prolific authorship in the field of children’s history books is unparalleled as were his sales, both of school texts and in the general children’s book market.25 Although derided by progressive history teachers in the 1980s26, the lavish illustrations and focus on period details as well as the doings of ‘the great and the good’ were a welcome novelty in the 1950s and well-established in primary school classrooms by the 1960s and 70s. They built on the growing idea that in order to interest young children in history, one had to excite the imagination. Although Unstead relied largely on the tried and tested stories from English history, his focus on the imagination was a significant concession to the child-centred agenda.27 The new emphasis on the use of the imagination in history was supported by historians such as the medievalist Marjorie Reeves, who wrote several of the Then and There series of books for older primary children. These combined contemporary accounts, photographs and well-researched but simple text to give children an account of life in a monastery, castle or country house.28 In contrast to the colourful artists’ impressions in Unstead, for Reeves verisimilitude was a vital part of what she called the ‘activity revolution’ in the classroom. ‘To understand is to respond, for gaining understanding is never a passive process … No learning is complete without some activity of body, mind or imagination.’29


Radio and TV for schools offered an important spur to the role of the imagination in primary history. By 1960, 28,000 schools (i.e. the vast majority) had radios.30 BBC radio schools history programmes had occupied a significant role in the output from its inception and were well established by the sixties. However, they were soon overtaken in popularity with teachers and pupils by TV programmes around which project work in school could be planned, as both Roberta Wood and Penelope Harnett recalled:

I think the 1970s must have been one of the best times to teach because you could do anything within reason. If she [the Head] passed the project, you could do what you liked, so I tended to do a lot of history projects, which also coincided with some good BBC programmes.… Zig Zag and then there was Watch;…. Ancient Egypt was one, I know the Angles and Saxons was another … they were based on stories. You had a little bit of teaching and then part of a serial story and they were very good and the children enjoyed them. And you could do a lot of work from them.31

We used to watch TV programmes … Watch and Zig Zag and that was history on a plate, you know … with ideas for follow up afterwards if you wanted to do it. But sometimes we just used to watch the programmes, never do any follow up.32
Broadcasters themselves were well aware of primary school teachers’ reliance on schools radio and television to form the backbone, often the whole body, of their history teaching. By the late 1960s, the BBC reckoned to have a regular TV ‘audience’ of 15,000 schools. Most of them were primaries, since the scheduling was less of a problem in their school day, which was not divided into rigid timetable slots like secondary schools. All programmes had to be approved by the School Broadcasting Council, an ‘advisory’ body on which sat teachers and local authority representatives.33 Output and transmission were co-ordinated by the BBC and ITV and feedback was received from their own schools’ liaison personnel and from teachers themselves.34
The philosophy of the broadcasters was to provide what the teacher could not – colourful visual stimuli, drama and authentic historical ‘voices’ brought directly into the classroom. Ideally, the teacher would prepare the topic beforehand, then follow up with questions to draw out and reinforce historical knowledge. The supporting materials for teachers and workbooks for children were therefore as important as the programmes themselves, though the BBC’s Education Officers reported that use of these by teachers was variable.35 HM inspectorate confirmed that history programmes were only occasionally ‘part of a well planned scheme of work’, despite the fact that television provided the basis for history in between a quarter and two-fifths of primary classes.36 The reliance by non-specialist teachers in primary schools on the programme itself to provide the history curriculum placed even greater stress on broadcasters, such as Nick Whines, to provide programmes which were educative as well as engaging:

Most primary school teachers, unless they were interested in history… would know nothing about the Battle of Trafalgar or the Battle of Waterloo … It’s true to say that prior to the National Curriculum History Long Ago [and] Not So Long Ago [two BBC radio programmes] provided a curriculum of sorts … it was detailed and comprehensive and quite well supported [by materials]… It provided a railway track along which a teacher could take his class for two years and at the end of it the kids … would have encountered shall we say – a hell of a lot of history.37


Interest was sparked by a good story or an exciting historical episode which would capture the emotion and excite the imagination. This meant children focused on a selection of exciting historical episodes to which they could respond, giving them a sense of period rather than a chronological understanding. As Whines recalled,

You were always looking for a way of trying to dramatise something. You can’t go wrong with the story of the Titanic for example. [It] … is such a dramatic story.… The story of Anne Frank … you can tell … in innumerable ways and it’ll be very good to listen to or very good to watch…. The problem I had with my consultants [teacher trainers from Bulmershe College of Education] initially was they wanted to bring in things that seemed to be quite historically worthy but where there was no story and … you would have heard me say, ‘But where’s the story?’. Because if there is no story, it’s almost no programme.38

The type of history text book being produced for primary school children also changed as a result of the appeal of TV in the classroom. For instance, in the early 1980s, Oxford University Press published its Oxford Junior History series to accompany the BBC radio series History Long Ago and History Not So Long Ago. The books were billed as presenting history ‘in a direct and exciting manner… [the series] makes history come alive for children by involving them closely with the people and periods they study.’ The focus was on social history, not political events.39
An even more acute stimulus to the imagination was the history trip or themed day of history activities, when in almost all senses, children could be immersed in a historical encounter. Roberta Wood recalled her efforts to make the experience as authentic as possible:

The Head was very keen, and … signed us up for a week of the Aydon Castle experience, so everybody went from [ages] 5 – 9…. we agreed that they would bring their own lunch and … we tried to rig up all the children in something approaching medieval costume. We said they had to take a medieval lunch. You couldn’t buy a carton of apple juice … the day after, because that was the only thing we would let them drink; that, milk or water. And they could take boiled eggs and a chicken leg and anything that was around in medieval times which eliminated crisps, chocolate biscuits, anything like that. And when we got to Aydon, we did a play, they could dip candles, they could write with quill pens … the whole school I think enjoyed it…. For them to experience what it was like and how cold it could be was very good.40


For many former pupils the most significant recollections from their primary school history were the trips. The very rarity of these excursions from the classroom and the unusual opportunity to see and even touch ‘real’ historical places and objects make them stand out in the memory of the survey respondents:

I remember studying Ancient Egypt. We went by train to the British Museum to see the Tutankhamen exhibition. I recall making huge paintings of the artefacts found in the tomb with my friends. We were fascinated by the gory bits, of course! (AG, born 1961)

[We] learned about local history to coincide with 500 year anniversary of town’s charter and opening of town’s museum. [We] went into the forest to see traditional charcoal burning. (NF, born 1962)

I remember the school visiting the American Museum near Bath… I remember painting a picture of a totem pole after hearing what they were. I also remember bringing in some authentic American Indian moccasins to class an aunt had brought back for me from her travels and thinking I could run like the wind with these moccasins after hearing stories in class which had fired up my imagination. (AS, born 1963)41


The more progressive teacher training colleges reinforced this new more active approach to learning history in primary schools. At Bulmershe, for instance, John Fines encouraged his students to write their own ‘bit of history’ using primary sources.42 Fines explored the potential for drama and role play to enable primary school children to understand historical dilemmas, although the teaching skills and historical knowledge required for this would be challenging for the non-specialist primary school teacher.43 The use of archive sources, suitably adapted, by primary school children was a more accessible step for teachers wanting to bring ‘real history’ into the classroom. John West in Dudley in the West Midlands, set out to equip teachers with the means to do that by providing a range of facsimile resources ready made for children to touch and feel as well as see, read and discuss. West was interested in the ways children interacted with historical sources and how well their ‘time sense’ was developed by exposure to a variety of pictures and objects. 44
Despite these oases of exciting innovation, history teaching in England’s primary schools was described in an HMI report of 1978 as ‘superficial’ in 80 per cent of classes inspected. ‘In many cases it involved little more than copying from reference books’ and ‘few schools had schemes of work in history, or teachers who were responsible for the planning and implementation of work in history’.45 Only 36 per cent of the primary schools surveyed had any written guidelines for history. The evidence from our survey and interviews confirms this picture. Once the curriculum in a primary school was ‘freed up’ from a rigid timetable, history was taught within cross-curricular projects constructed by the individual teacher. The historical knowledge gained could be disjointed and superficial because the key aim was to develop literacy or numeracy skills. For many teachers, history simply did not figure, and there was no compulsion to include it. At a time when reading and science were the key interests of primary teacher training, history was hardly at the top of most teachers’ curricular agenda and this was reflected in the text books used in class by Penelope Harnett:

Children’s reading books had stopped including history stories. The idea was misplaced. You had to have stories about children’s everyday life, it was all children’s child-centredness. 46


History, especially the history of ‘heroes and heroines’, seemed inappropriate for a curriculum planned around the immediate interests of the child, which were necessarily local and personal. This is not to say that most primary school children were not exposed to history in some form during the primary years. Perhaps because it was unstructured and not labelled history; few of the survey respondents going through primary school in the seventies and eighties recall anything like a structured history curriculum throughout their primary years, though many recall interesting trips.47 Some learned to enjoy history when it appeared, even if the knowledge gained was eclectic and disparate. For others, however, recalling their primary years triggered no awareness of learning history at all.48
Following the disappointing conclusions about history by HMI in 1978, it was only a matter of time before ideas for the revival of history at primary level started to appear. In Teaching History to Younger Children, Joan Blyth and Ann Low-Beer, both teacher trainers with an interest in primary schools, recognised that history’s place in the primary curriculum had become ‘uncertain’. They proposed a systematic school-wide approach with a return to a regular dedicated history lesson focusing first on local and recent history, then topics with a ‘chronological coherence’ supported by the use of time charts. These traditional elements were to be part of a plan for teaching history from ages 5 to eleven ‘which encourages the progressive development of skill and understanding together with knowledge’. The content of the primary history curriculum was more challenging. The local and the personal (such as family history) were the obvious routes into the subject, supplemented by topics rarely covered in secondary schools, such as ancient history or world history in the top years, though they recognised that schools would select from these to suit their own tastes.49
In 1985, HMI published a recommended framework for the history curriculum in primary as well as secondary schools, however, it was still offered as ‘best practice’ examples without any compulsion on schools to adopt them.50 Local authorities, with perhaps more power to force change in schools, also responded by issuing their own guidelines on the teaching of history, both at secondary and primary level.51 These documents placed a gentle but increasing pressure on primary schools to adopt a school-wide planned approach not only to history but to the curriculum as a whole. However, the effect of such initiatives was minimal in the 1980s. At the end of the decade, a further HMI survey of 285 primary schools confirmed that standards of work in history were ‘disappointing’ and that history was ‘under-emphasised’ or not taught at all in half of the sample inspected. Less than a third of the schools had a teacher responsible for history across the school and most teachers ‘chose topics autonomously’ making it very difficult to achieve any sort of co-ordination or progression in the children’s learning even within the same school.52 It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that without a centralising measure like the National Curriculum, history would have remained a marginal or non-existent subject at primary level, the province of the enthusiast and confident teacher and experienced only as an occasional ‘extra’ by most primary school pupils.
Directory: history-in-education -> sites -> history-in-education -> files -> attachments
attachments -> History Examinations from the 1960s to the present day
attachments -> History Examination Syllabuses 1960s-present day The main trends in o level and cse (1965-1988)
attachments -> Government policy towards education and history teaching 1945 – early 1960s Government policy towards education after the 1944 Education Act
attachments -> Sources: Education Statistics for the United Kingdom
attachments -> Government Policy towards education and history teaching during the Second World War
attachments -> Summary of Teacher Interviews the Moral Role of History in Schools
attachments -> Notes on Teacher Training 1960s to present day Teacher Training in the 1940s and ‘50s
attachments -> History Textbooks from 1965-2010
attachments -> Teachers’ memories – approach to history teaching at start of career and changes since teachers born in the 1940s ij/T40/HiE33

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