Dr Nicola Sheldon, Institute of Historical Research,
University of London
Melbourne House Talks
30 January 2011
What’s wrong with history today?
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N.Sheldon
Press coverage of the History
National Curriculum 2009-10
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Outline of this presentation
 Was there a ‘golden age’ when children learnt all about
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‘kings and queens’?
Why did the national narrative disappear from the
school curriculum in the 1970s and 80s?
Did the new National Curriculum of 1990 restore it?
To what extent is there a ‘new style’ national narrative
in English schools?
Should Mr Gove restore the national narrative?
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Control over the curriculum in
English schools
 No central or nationally-legislated curriculum
 No prescribed text books
 ‘Advice’ given by Board of Education dwindled after
1945
 No central control over teacher training
 Examinations controlled by university bodies
 Majority of children never took leaving examinations
pre-1965.
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The traditional national narrative
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R J Unstead (1915-88)
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Examples of the English national
narrative in school work pre-1970s
Courtesy of Muriel Longhurst
1947-50 and Ian Colwill 1960-67
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Outline of a typical history course
for secondary pupils pre-1970s
 Age 11-12: Ancient World to Norman Conquest
 Age 12-13: British History 1066-1485
 Age 13-14: British, European and World History 1485-
17th,18th or 19th century….
 Age 14-16:
 British History 1815-1945
 British/ European History 1789-1939
 British Social and Economic History 1700-1945
 Modern World History 1870-1945
A New Look at History (1976) p.26
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A Survey of British History (1951)
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The history classroom: 1960s-70s
Copyright London Metropolitan Archives
Copyright The National Archives
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Marjorie Reeves 1905-2003
 Native of Bratton (daughter of R.J. Reeves, Bratton Iron
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Works
Trowbridge High School for Girls – St Hugh’s College,
Oxford
Doctorate on medieval mysticism
1931-8 St Gabriel’s Teacher Training College
Tutor at St Anne’s College, Oxford until 1972
Edited and wrote Then and There series of text books
(195s-80s)
Why History? (1980)
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Challenges to the position of
history on the curriculum
 Threats
 Comprehensive secondary schools by end of 1970s – mixed
ability classes and full ability range to cater for.
 New subjects crowded the curriculum.
 History seen as traditional and unpopular (surveys).
 Opportunities
 Post-war cohort of teachers + expanded training colleges.
 1964 Schools Council set up to fund curriculum
innovation.
 Response
 ‘Defensive innovation’ by history teachers: New curriculum, e.g. world history, social/local history
 A re-think of the rationale of the subject - ‘love, freedom
and new history’
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A history teacher remembers his
youthful idealism …
 I got a job in Devon at Exmouth School, which was
the largest comprehensive in England at the time
with 2,400 students. Great place … to learn. There
were twelve NQTs (first appointment teachers) in the
school the September I started. It was a time of huge
excitement and we really thought that the world was
going to change. It was 1969, the world was going to
change, it was going to be a better place, there was
going to be peace and love and better history and I
expected and hoped to be part of that movement.
(Interview: Chris Culpin, 22 September 2009)
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School work in ‘new’ history from
the 1970s-80s
Courtesy of Charlotte Crow, 1979-80
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The alternative(s) to the national
narrative 1970s-80s
Schools Council History Project based on the
‘needs of the teenager’
 What is History? - introductory investigations
 History Around Us – local history study including
site visits (coursework = 20%)
 Study in Development – a theme through a long
period of time (Medicine Through Time)
 Depth Study – Elizabethan England 1558-1603;or Britain
1815-1851; or The American West 1840-1890
 Modern World Study – Communist China; or ArabIsraeli Conflict; or The Irish Question
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The birth of the National Curriculum
 1988 proposed introduction of the National
Curriculum in 10 subjects;
 History the most controversial – PM wanted a core of
factual information based on British history - a
chronological national narrative;
 History Working Group responded by emphasising
‘historical enquiry’, ‘skills’ and economic, social and
cultural aspects as well as political history.
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Brief summary of the first NC
 KS2 (age 7-11) core topics:
 Ancient Civilisations: Greece (also often Egypt – a ‘non-European
society’)
 Romans, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons – ‘invaders and settlers’
 Life in Tudor and Stuart times
 Victorian Britain or Britain since the 1930s
 KS3 (age 11-14) core topics:
 ‘Medieval Realms’ - Britain 1066-1500
 ‘The Making of the United Kingdom’ - Britain 1500-1750
 Britain 1750-1900
 Twentieth-century World
 A past non-European society (e.g. the Aztecs, Mughal India, Black
peoples of the Americas).
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The National Curriculum and the
Welsh national narrative
 Cultural identity at the heart: ‘the centre of gravity of Welsh history … has lain in
the social, economic and broad cultural experiences
of the people of Wales’
 ‘the awareness of the Welsh as a separate people
rests… on a belief in the particularity of their own
past and traditions… the teaching of the history of
Wales … is a crucial aspect in safeguarding that
identity.’
(Final Report of the History Committee for Wales, June 1990, paras. 4.2, 4.5))
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What does Britishness mean?
 Interviewer: Do you think the history you were taught
at school helped you to feel proud of being British in
any way?
 Ken, born 1923: When I saw that question I smiled,
because that’s a question for a modern schoolboy. It
has got no relevance at all to a schoolboy in the 1930s.
We were proud; everyone was patriotic. We were aware
of our nationality. Today it’s different and that
question is relevant, but it wasn’t relevant in 1935. The
thought never occurred to us.
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The problem of identity in English
school history 1970s- present day
 Old narrative out of date – end of Empire;
 Multi-ethnic Britain challenges any single narrative;
 Devolution and the problem of English national
identity;
 Uncertainty about the national characteristics
England/Britain should promote;
 Cultural change since the 1960s – scepticism the basis
of the new history?
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The evolution of history in schools –
the National Curriculum in 2010
 The slave trade and the Holocaust the only mandated
topics in the National Curriculum (although most
teachers still do a lot of British history)
 (Be nice!) Tolerance and social cohesion the priority
 Citizenship more prominent (history as a means of
learning lessons for the present).
 But…. No national narrative – so, have we lost our way
or reached a new level of maturity in our study of
history in schools?
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The Dutch canon and the re-birth
of national narratives
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Mr Gove and the Curriculum Review 2011
 Should History be part of the National
Curriculum at all?
 If so, what content should be
prescribed for it?
 If content is prescribed, how will it be
tested?
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The strange disappearance of the national narrative in