Radical Books

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

David Cannadine, Jenny Keating, Nicola Sheldon, The Right Kind of History: Teaching the Past in Twentieth-Century England, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, ISBN 978-0-230-30087-3, 306 pages, £14.99.

Shortly before the industrial action taken by teachers in June and November 2011 I found myself explaining to classes in the grammar school at which I teach what a ‘strike’ and what a ‘trade union’ is. Mentioning this to colleagues afterwards, including some who had taken part in industrial action during the 1980s, we agreed that the need for such an improvised history lesson might reflect the triumph of the ‘Thatcher interpretation of history’ – history, as it were, with the troublemakers and teachers left out.

It’s refreshing to see this put into context by a new book from David Cannadine, Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon, whose take on the Thatcherite period of reform in education is – if I read it rightly – a little mischievous, emphasising its inconsistencies and failures. Several times we are reminded that it was during Thatcher’s tenure as education minister under Heath that there was a huge move towards schools becoming comprehensives and embracing the ‘progressive’ child-centred ethos which had been gaining pace since the 1960s and which was anathema to her. As prime minister, Thatcher attempted to make amends by encouraging her own education ministers to introduce the apparatus by which the tide would be turned back towards rigorous ‘traditional’ learning – the National Curriculum, the GCSE, and Ofsted.

Was ever a move more Canute-like? It’s not so much that rigour doesn’t exist today – indeed, as the authors make clear, the systematic professionalisation of teaching has progressed rapidly since the 1960’s with much more emphasis on trainee teachers gaining experience in the classroom and reflecting on that experience with established practitioners. And though they don’t touch on it, at least part of the story of why GCSE and A Level grades have improved year upon year is because teachers have had to become cannier about what examiners are looking for, and have passed this on to their students. Meanwhile, Ofsted stipulates precisely what its inspectors are looking for, and any teacher not abiding by these guidelines during a lesson observation would be launched on a path towards being rated ‘unsatisfactory’. (I was a little surprised to see the authors not make use of Ofsted criteria as evidence of how central government, generally quite hands-off until the 1980’s, has since influenced history teaching.)

So there is rigour. But it’s the other elements of Thatcher’s vision which haven’t coalesced. Chalk-and-talk history has gone away rather than been saved by the initiatives of the 1980s. Ofsted itself – scary Ofsted – would almost certainly rate a lesson with too much teacher-talk (however brilliant) ‘unsatisfactory’. The history children learn between the ages of five and fourteen (or beyond) isn’t, in the main, and as Thatcher wanted it, a coherent narrative of British history. It’s now all about ‘us’. At GCSE, and still more at A Level, there is the inescapable reality that you have to ‘know your stuff’; but even here, the emphasis is as much on skills, and on being able to interpret sources. The individual view is vital.

It wasn’t always so. The importance of this book is that it begins to outline a history of (state school) history teaching in England. It’s good to have stressed the slightly mongrel nature of history as a subject, gradually emerging at a time when it was felt that the masses should be better-educated and more aware of their national story. Good things were certainly going on in history teaching in the early decades of the twentieth century, such as a drive to instil a lifelong love of history, but there were few effective resources, and teachers were poorly trained and paid. Broadly speaking, learners up to the 1930’s were expected to be passive rather than active, learning by rote, imbibing long lists of dates and names, encouraged to think well of their nation’s historical tradition. Public exams were not yet important for many learners, partly because so many left school before they could take them. So much, you think, for the ‘good old days’ when things were done ‘properly’ – one thing powerfully to emerge from the book is the reminder that nostalgia about the history of education is misplaced; the authors appreciate all too well that the topic can and has been used as a political tool.

Only later, with the 1944 Education Act and the division into primary and secondary schools, grammar schools, technical schools and secondary moderns, the raising of the school leaving age and the professionalisation of teaching, did significant advances occur. The authors explore the interplay between these changes and broader developments such as technological progress (better teaching resources), the loss of empire and the passing of Victorian values in the 1950s/60s. During the 1960s/70s, things shifted towards being child-centred, so that the national story was replaced by more personalised learning, with students being encouraged to discover, imagine and enquire rather than simply know. This brought into sharper focus than ever before a key issue which had been there from the beginning: the tension between knowledge and understanding.

So the debates we have about education are the debates, really, we’ve been having since the 1960’s/70’s, if not earlier – should it be content or skills, and (because it’s never a case of no content), exactly what should we be teaching children, how, and to what end?

There are no easy answers here, but I admire how the authors have grappled with a limited and problematic base of evidence to generate tentative conclusions and discussion points. This is an important book because it models scholarly care about a slippery topic; the authors are always at pains to point out that what they are trying to measure is very hard to pin down, dependent as it is on one classroom in a school at a time in a certain child’s life. They repeatedly and rightly point out that evidence is problematic to interpret – after all, does enjoying a history lesson mean you’ve learnt something or acquired any new skills? They emphasise too the danger of assuming that all learners in, say, the 1950’s had the ‘1950’s’ experience of history, especially when schools were given such curriculum leeway until at least the 1980’s (and to a large extent still are: one recurrent motif is how little direction there has been from central government, with education ministers generally inexperienced in the classroom and serving short terms of office). They capture superbly, and I think pointedly, those strange time shifts where somebody is effectively teaching citizenship in 1912 (not 2012), or inspiring a class with ‘old-fashioned’ chalk-and-talk in the 1990’s. Patterns and issues there may be, but politics and teleology are definitely out.

The authors understand that one person’s boring history lesson is another’s inspiration. When it comes to our experience of being taught, we are all experts, and that’s one of the problems of writing a history of history teaching.

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