The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England

David Nicholls on the changing nature of English school history teaching

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Reviewed by: David Nicholls
Author: David Cannadine, Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan

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It’s remarkable that historians hadn’t until now produced a systematic account of the evolution of history teaching within the English state school system.

Cannadine, Keating and Sheldon explore both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ sides of the history education equation – its provision by the state and its reception by pupils. The former is set in the familiar context of state education since the turn of the 20th century, with notable landmarks including the rise of comprehensives, and the introduction of the national curriculum in 1988.

Over the century, history teaching added new dimensions, such as women’s history, and more progressive teaching methods. These developments took place in tandem with the emergence of a graduate, trained profession, and of new sources for teaching, such as wireless, film, television and computers.

Public examinations, the increase in the number of entrants and of the pass rate (to the point where almost no one now fails A-level) form part of this unfolding narrative of organisational change.

However, the authors’ most original material relates to the ‘demand’ side. They have assembled an archive of interviews with teachers and pupils to provide an account of experiences that have hitherto been neglected, and an invaluable resource for future research.

Until 1988 governments preferred to advise rather than tell history teachers what they should teach. This reluctance to prescribe a national narrative becomes more understandable when we realise that, for much of the period, only a small minority of pupils actually studied history.

Even today, around two-thirds abandon it by the age of 14.

Since 1988, the history curriculum has become much more contested and a central purpose of the book is to ensure that debates on its future are grounded in historical facts not political prejudices. It’s certainly a sobering read for Michael Gove as he embarks on yet another overhaul of the curriculum.

On the back of their investigation, the authors recommend more class time for history, a fully integrated syllabus from 5 to 16 with a broader chronology, closer scrutiny of exam papers to deter repetition, and education ministers better briefed and in post longer so they can deliver change.

Above all, they want history to come into line with other European countries by being taught to an age when pupils are more capable of grasping its complexities. They make a strong, persuasive case and it’s possible that history may one day be compulsory to 16 as part of a Baccalaureate-style curriculum.

But on their own evidence of government policy to date, we’d be wise not to hold our breath. 

David Nicholls, emeritus professor of history, Manchester Metropolitan University
 

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