Government policy towards education and history teaching 1945 – early 1960s Government policy towards education after the 1944 Education Act




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So there were no official moves on directing the curriculum until the Curriculum Study Group was set up by David Eccles in 1962 during his second stint as Minister of Education. This was a small group of officials and HMIs which would bring in outside ‘experts’ to advise on the curriculum. The manner of its establishment, without prior consultation with teachers, educationalists or local authorities, led to considerable controversy and in October 1964, it was replaced with the Schools Council for the Curriculum and Examinations which was established in line with recommendations of the Lockwood Committee which Edward Boyle as Minister of Education had set up in May 1963 to devise a more acceptable formula. The Schools Council had considerable teacher input and was jointly financed by the ministry and the local authorities. It would prove extremely influential in modernising many subjects including history.

However there had been occasional earlier forays into guidance from the ministry – just as there had been before the Second World War. In 1952 it produced a substantial (89 pages) pamphlet on ‘Teaching History’, aimed at teachers in all sectors – primary, modern, grammar and sixth form. It was reprinted several times up to the early 1960s so was presumably quite widely circulated. Its first chapter included a description of how the Ministry believed history was currently taught in the early 1950s: the younger child was,

introduced at the junior school stage to some history, though the name of the study may be avoided. Acquaintance is made with some of the great characters and stories of all ages. Explorations are made and something of the story lying behind what is discovered comes to light. Models, puppets, charts of an historical character are constructed. But there is less stress than there used to be upon any fixed content.24

In ‘modern’ schools:

we find to-day that more remains of the traditional belief that there is knowledge, of an objective kind, which should be acquired by pupils in the study of history. Practice varies widely, but it is common still to find that some attempt is made to cover in outline the political history of Britain, with at least some reference to that of Europe, the Commonwealth and the United States. Indeed, attempts to cover the entire history of the world are to be found. On the whole, however, the tendencies of the times are away from any formal political outline. Much more social and economic history is taught, often against little or no background of political outline. There is a strong disposition to treat of separate topics, such as the histories of clothing, trade, food or government. There is a similar disposition to study distinct phases of historical development: feudalism, the industrial revolution and so forth. But it should be noted that the traditional idea of history as an evolution, as bestowing a heritage, survives and is generally at least implicit in the syllabus. And with it there survives the idea that this heritage is something it is right and valuable to study.25

And in the grammar schools, it said the development of history teaching was similar but inevitably university entrance requirements, especially after the establishment of the school certificate in 1917, “tended to create a pattern of well-defined historical periods amongst them clearer than was to be found in the senior or modern school”. Although there was variety in grammar school syllabuses, especially in the first three years of the course, “a sequence has emerged which in general outline is unmistakeable, and it is being followed by some three-quarters of these schools today. It runs somewhat as follows:

Age 11-12. Pre-History, Ancient Civilisations, or Medieval History.

Age 12-13. The Tudors and Stuarts.

Age 13-14. The Eighteenth Century in England, with some American and Empire History and sometimes the Eighteenth Century in Europe.

Age 14-15 & Age 15-16

Nineteenth-century English and European History(occasionally American) to be

taken for the certificate examination.26

As far as the amount of time devoted to history in secondary schools was concerned– this had remained remarkably constant throughout the century: “it is still uncommon for pupils in any kind of secondary school to receive less than two periods a week of history”.27

At the sixth form stage “the picture, of course changes”. Half cease to take it; those who take arts courses usually include it as one of their three or four subjects or at least receive some historical background in studying English or foreign languages. Although ‘Teaching History’ did not say a great deal about it, by then there was actually quite a wide range of pupils in the sixth form studying history despite the overall small numbers involved; there were obviously those doing A level history who might or might not plan to study it at university; those aiming for a university scholarship who usually stayed on to a third year in the sixth form, those doing science A levels who were taking a side course in history, and those who stayed on one year in the sixth form to do a secretarial or commercial course or to await the start of a course such as nursing who did civics or current affairs courses during the year. 28 There was increasing guidance from history educators and the Historical Association on how to deal with these different clienteles for history teaching.29

The pamphlet discussed the various ‘new’ ways of teaching history – ‘lines of development’, ‘patch’ and period history and ‘tracing history backwards’ – exemplified in one of the BBC’s schools radio broadcast series where a contemporary issue or theme was traced back to its origins. It was quite positive about all these methods as it felt that a very ‘dry’ exposition of outline chronological history was often difficult to make interesting. Bringing children an understanding of heritage and morality were two of the reasons it cited for teaching history but it also emphasised a third – what it called the ‘imaginative experience’ in which the child was given “practice in that most salutary art, the art of entering into an entirely different atmosphere and point of view from one’s own”.30 This was the particular virtue of the ‘patch’ method which the pamphlet was especially enthusiastic about. The pamphlet also tentatively called for history – especially for those leaving at fifteen and sixteen – to be brought up to the present day rather than ending at 1932, or even 1914 as many schools in fact continued to do for many years to come. If the schools did not do this, history often seemed irrelevant and remote, and ending the syllabus so early meant that the crucial history of modern Asia and the Commonwealth would probably be omitted.

The rise of ‘social studies’ also meant that some modern phenomena would be studied with no historical context at all. In the last years of some modern schools, “history itself (is) on the defensive; it is not uncommon to find it abandoned in the fourth year of the course in favour of some kind of civics or social studies of a more or less contemporary kind”.31 However ‘Teaching History’ was much more concerned about the rise of the social studies courses which were sometimes substituted for history and geography right through a school. The pamphlet gives an example:

In the first year homes are studied. (Every child has a home, so the syllabus is ‘starting from the known’. Costume, food , furniture and so on will all come in.) In the second year communications; in the third year agriculture and industry; in the fourth year citizenship.32

The pamphlet agreed there was much “that is logical and sensible about this”, with “real and solid advantages”, but it felt that what was lost was “undeniably important”: the loss of the story, of showing the way things came about and even the re-creation of the past.33 In a later chapter the pamphlet encouraged close co-operation between history and other subjects – English, geography, religious instruction, even art and music – it is the substitution of social studies for history that it is concerned about.34 The idea of merging history and geography and introducing elements of civics and economics had been mooted in the later interwar years, particularly in the discussions around citizenship initiated by the Association for Education in Citizenship and the history teacher FC Happold had favourably discussed the teaching of ‘social studies’ in the early 1940s.

In the years immediately after the War the teaching of humanities subjects as ‘social studies’ was again fashionable, and a number of schools, particularly secondary moderns, tried it, although by the mid 1950s, “this period of post-war enthusiasm and experiment had faded” and by then “many schools appear to have returned to a traditional curriculum”.35 Writing in 1964, Charmian Cannon argued that this was partly because of “the social and economic pressures which led to an increasing concern for standards, and in particular to their expression in examination qualifications” in the secondary moderns which had been the schools most interested in introducing social studies.36 There were also problems with the vague nature of the subject and the fact that very few teachers were trained specifically for it. Historians and history teachers (and geographers) were often extremely critical of the new development, seeing both a threat, and a dilution of their subject.37 In fact the substitution of social studies, or a general programme of ‘humanities’, instead of separate humanities subjects, would be an issue which would emerge time and time again over the following fifty years.

As far as guidance for actual teaching in secondary schools was concerned, the pamphlet made the usual suggestions – the use of blackboard and chalk for the basic exposition and explanations – then also aids; textbooks, pictures, radio, film-strips, lantern slides, model-making where it was appropriate although not to the domination of the lesson even in modern schools. It also suggested a dedicated ‘history room’, although this remained much less common than for geography. Limited use of original sources was suggested – a few local records offices were already making copies available either by ‘photostat’ (a form of copying – the first Photostat machine was produced in 1907) or photography.

Evidence of the actual teaching done in the various kinds of schools suggests that the kind of suggestions in ‘Teaching History’ were those generally followed. An exhibition of the work of secondary modern schools which was held in Bristol in 1949, “showed the attempt to make school history something more appropriate to the needs of the children than an attempted simplification of adult ideas. The two most fruitful types of approach seemed to be the study of a topic through the ages, or a local survey. Inevitably in an exhibition of this kind the emphasis was on work that could be visually represented in charts, diagrams, models etc.” although the report of the exhibition somewhat obliquely finished by saying that it was of value, “not only because it suggested to some teachers ideas that they would like to introduce in their own teaching but also because it suggested some of the things to be avoided at all costs”.38 It seems clear from reports and articles about secondary modern schools (including the Newsom Report – see below) that pictorial and handcraft work was often used in history lessons with the less academically able children although the more academic, as we have seen, were increasingly directed towards examinations and syllabuses not dissimilar to the grammar schools.

Turning to the syllabus in secondary modern schools , in 1956 the BBC carried out a postal survey of history teaching in a sample of schools on its register of listening schools in England and Wales. This obviously meant that it was not a completely random sample but being on the register by no means meant that a school regularly listened to Schools Programmes, let alone history ones. 300 replies from secondary modern schools were received. Nearly 80% spent at least 70 minutes a week on history and over 10% spent over 100 minutes a week on history. In the first year about 80% of them took a chronological approach, most starting either with prehistoric man or with the Romans and going up to not later than 1485. The other 20% used ‘lines of development’ or ‘topics’. In the second year 78% still used a chronological approach but the periods studied were much more diverse. In the third year nearly a third of schools were adopting a less formal method than chronological – usually ‘patches’, ‘topics’ and special subjects such as the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, the French Revolution and the History of the Commonwealth. 69% of schools still used a chronological approach in the third year with starting dates ranging from 1485 to 1900 and closing dates from 1485 to 1956 but nearly a third of all the schools were covering the 19th century, many of these continuing into the twentieth.

In the fourth year, 59% of secondary modern schools had non-chronological syllabuses, mainly Civics or Citizenship, usually combined with other features such as Social Studies. This bore out what the Ministry pamphlet had said in 1952 about the fourth year, although 36% of secondary modern schools in the survey still had a chronological framework in the fourth year, mainly covering the 19th and all or most of the 20th century. 24% of the modern schools mentioned that they had fifth year classes (ie pupils staying beyond the statutory leaving age of 15), about half of which were studying GCE history. As far as textbooks were concerned the returns on this topic suggested there was very little tendency for teachers to base their teaching on these although many teachers had some available for use for reference purposes. There had been a similar survey eight years before which had come only two years after one in 1946. The 1948 survey had shown how much growth there had been in special schemes of work for the newly established fourth year, showing particular development in civics, citizenship or social studies and in looking at the history of foreign countries such as the USA or USSR. Between 1948 and 1956 the main change that the authors of the survey noted was the increase in the variety of history syllabuses. Overall, “a general impression given by the descriptions of the syllabuses is one of diversity and experiment; many of the teachers...appear to attach great importance to preserving the distinctive features of the school’s own syllabus”.39

One of our own survey participants, a male teacher born in 1927 who taught in secondary modern schools from 1951-1967 described the early years of his career:

In 1951 every secondary modern school I knew had one teacher responsible for drawing up a history scheme of work and ordering books for it. In small schools, most sec mod schools were 2-3 form entry outside cities, that teacher could combine 2 periods of history a week with being a form teacher. Most of those teaching history in these schools had some degree of interest in the subject, few had any extensive knowledge of it and none, myself apart, had a degree.

We saw the purpose of the history course as giving pupils an outline, especially of English history. A typical course was Year 1 - Stone Age to Ur, Egypt, Rome and Roman Britain (or perhaps Greece instead of Egypt – but there were 3 terms); Year 2 - Saxons – Middle Ages; Year 3 - Tudors & Stuarts; Year 4 - The Industrial Revolution to today. World History & Politics were largely omitted and war was too close for comfort.

Most textbooks came in Books 1-4 and mirrored the school syllabus. Lines of development were talked about – I heard Professor Jeffries talk persuasively – but not adopted except perhaps at the end of a term when a class in groups might be charged with researching lines of development on different topics and bring them together in a voluminous timeline for the school open day/parents’ evening.

Such ideas demanded library access, class movement and discussion and a teacher able to cope with multifarious questions off the cuff. Not all teachers had the knowledge and many schools were reluctant to let pupils out of desks. Because I was in a new school I had been able to have tables and was allowed to arrange them in groups like a modern primary school. I was also the school librarian which made access easier.

Those teachers whose knowledge of history was wider than the textbook saw that teaching an outline was not enough. We had to arouse interest and feed it when aroused. I found the best way was to make people live and encourage pupils to use their imagination. These might be real people like Florence Nightingale or an imaginary medieval peasant living in their village...

A couple of illustrative examples -The first lesson on the Tudors: start with pupils’ own family tree and how to set it out. Move on to the Tudors and set questions like ‘who was Queen Elizabeth’s granddad?’

As part of work on Middle Ages [I would] take pupils to a (ruined) monastery or abbey. Start in the dormitory and imagine it is dark and cold as we walk in file carrying (imaginary) candles to the first service in the church. Eat sandwiches in the refectory in silence except for monkish sign language they have been told about. Sit in the chapterhouse to give out worksheets that demand looking and drawing not just reading notices. Later include a day’s timeline with their day and a monk’s day. (One year [I] managed to get the guest master of an abbey to visit the school. He caused a riot by arriving on a motor scooter in full habit plus a motor cycle helmet.)40

The next quote is from a lady attended a modern school. She was born in 1930 and left school just before the Second World War ended, but her account shows the more eclectic syllabus of some of the modern schools:

I have found that I still have my old history book from this time. My first written page... was headed Prehistoric Britain. The ‘Ancient Civilisation’ then Romans which took us up to 410AD. This used all of 6 pages of the book. We then jumped to William Shakespeare and I had stuck a picture of Elizabeth 1 on the page. The Pilgrim Fathers warranted a page and a half, then it was the Plague and the fire of London. There is a family tree from Henry Seventh to James the First of England. Then an Appreciation of Sir Robert Walpole. Causes and effects of the war of American Independence got two whole pages and then we were on to the French Revolution. The next heading is Admiral Nelson. There are several places where we must have had tests of some sort as I have answers to short questions. After ‘Transport through the ages’ we are on to Robert Owen and Florence Nightingale. Bismarck and the German Empire is followed by Louis Pasteur and Cecil Rhodes, Marie Curie and The Growth of the Co-operative Society.

At the start of the autumn term 1944 we reached the Twentieth Century and ‘From bicycle to aeroplane’. And the Women’s Suffrage Movement. I left school at Christmas as I was 14 in the October.41

As far as the grammar school syllabus was concerned, almost everyone who completed the History in Education Project survey form who attended grammar school from the 1940s to the early 60s reports a syllabus similar to the one described in ‘Teaching History’ for grammar school children – chronological through to the GCE Ordinary level years when usually the nineteenth century was studied. In the sixth form a much wider range of periods was studied. Adrian Elliott’s research on grammar schools in the 1950s showed that beyond the minority of famous academically outstanding grammar schools there was a mass of small schools, many of which had poor facilities, overburdened teachers and pupils who often struggled with the GCE Ordinary Level examinations (which were set at a higher standard than the old School Certificate) and left early.42 Elliott was discussing grammar schools generally but the experience of many of our respondents in their history lessons bears this out. The style of teaching was almost invariably ‘chalk and talk’ – pupils’ opinion about this is enormously dependent on the quality of the teacher, although for David Newham who was born in 1938, the problem was the content – and possibly a change in culture. He was one of those who was moved to a grammar school after two years in a secondary modern. At the secondary modern, Mr Newham, “ liked all topics of history as I was fascinated by the different style/expectation of life during the different periods of history”. However:

When I was 13 years old in 1951 I passed my 13+ exam and moved to a well-respected Grammar School. There I was disappointed to find that our work consisted of learning about the Corn Laws and all of its ramifications on English life. This took up a whole term and was exceedingly boring, something that the whole class was agreed upon. Worse was to come as all of the subjects chosen for history for the rest of my school life were of the same level of boredom. I am afraid that I cannot remember what those subjects were after all these years as my mind has blotted them out. No Wars of the Roses, no Civil War, No Dissolution of the Monasteries. In those days the teachers in all subjects discouraged questions during the lesson and quickly disappeared at the end of the lesson.”

I endeavoured to enjoy the extremely dull subjects but I found it a hard struggle... I feel the grammar school curriculum in all subjects was chosen especially for the esoteric nature of the subjects with no consideration given for our needs in the real world”.43

Other respondents remember an intensive use of the blackboard in their grammar school: this lady, born in 1937 said: “The history teacher used to walk into the form at the beginning of the lesson and immediately started to write notes on the double blackboard at the front of the room. Once both boards were full, she would wipe the first and continue to write notes so you had to be quick! We did have a textbook as well but my most vivid memory is of the scribbling on the blackboard”.44 And another correspondent, born in 1945 recollected even more intense use of blackboard technology:

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… His style was to underline names in red, significant places in green and dates in blue. We were expected to write up the notes in our ‘best’ books as homework and he expected his style to be copied meticulously. 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. (I think we had three lessons a 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!45

Not surprisingly he “hated the whole process of learning history and dropped the subject as soon a school procedures allowed me to. (I always failed the tests and in my last annual exam scored a lofty total of 9%)”.

Sadly many others also had a negative memory of history lessons although corporal punishment in conjunction with them is unusual. In the 1940s and 50s simple boredom is the most common problem; this lady born in 1940 typically remembered:

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