Dr Nicola Sheldon, Institute of Historical Research,
University of London
History of Education Society Conference, London
26-28 November 2010
The strange disappearance of the
national narrative in English schools
1960-present day
Outline of this presentation
Myths and icons and the English national
narrative in schools up to the 1970s;
 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?
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03/10/2015
N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
Myths in the National Psyche
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N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
The National Narrative in the
Wider Culture
Not a new
phenomenon….
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N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
Examples of the English national
narrative in school work pre-1970s
Courtesy of Muriel Longhurst
1947-50 and Ian Colwill 1960-67
03/10/2015
N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
Outline of a typical history course
for secondary pupils pre-1970s
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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:
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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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N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
A Survey of British History (1951)
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N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
The curriculum in English schools
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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.
03/10/2015
N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
Why did teachers perpetuate the
national narrative?
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We never questioned it, you just did as you
were told, didn’t you? And I tried to make it
as fun as possible. And the other thing is it
succeeded, and teaching in those days was full
of tricks…, memory games.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 that, as much
from memory as possible, for their exams.
(Interview: J D Clare 7 April 2010)
03/10/2015
N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
Why do we need to do history?
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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’
03/10/2015
N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
A history teacher remembers his
youthful idealism …
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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)
03/10/2015
N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
School work in ‘new’ history from
the 1970s-80s
Courtesy of Charlotte Crow, 1979-80
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N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
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
Arab-Israeli Conflict; or The Irish Question
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N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
The backlash from government
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
constructing a curriculum for ‘social
identity’ not ‘national identity’.
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03/10/2015
N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
The National Curriculum and the
Welsh national narrative
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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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N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
The problem of identity in English
school history 1970s- present day
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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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N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
The new narrative of school history?
(refer to handout for Key Stage 3)
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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03/10/2015
N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
The Dutch canon and the re-birth
of national narratives
03/10/2015
N.Sheldon
The Strange
Disappearance of the National Narrative
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