Always sitting in rows and taking copious notes from the board. Very little explanation of the notes was given and I understood very little.
Our History teacher swept into the room, her gown was always covered in chalk where she had rubbed against the board, and she told us which page in the book we would be working from. We wrote notes until the bell went and then she swept out. I do not remember discussing any of the work we did.”46
And this woman, born in 1946, attended a direct grant grammar school:
[I] only took history for 1st three years then [was] forced by timetabling and choices to drop it. I remember vividly each lesson commenced with the whole class standing by their desks reciting , with dates, the kings and queens of England from 1066. (Think I could probably still do it!)
The only other thing I remember is being taught about battles (no idea what century). We were thrown (literally) these badly copied (pre photocopiers) ‘maps’ (if you could call them that!)The teacher then scribbled loads of arrows on the board which we had to copy onto the maps. I believe they were the opposing troop movements but half the time we didn’t even know which country we were looking at. It’s rather sad really, the teacher was old and overweight and was just the laughing stock of the whole school (including some of the other teachers who would just roll their eyes when she was mentioned).47
However there were also of course many excellent teachers: Ceril Little who was born in 1938 attended a small grammar school in Nottinghamshire:
We had one history teacher only from 1950-1955. She introduced each topic by talking to us. We had history text-books, but did not follow them slavishly. We were encouraged to find things out for ourselves. The homework our teacher set often involved us in imagining ourselves in a particular historical event/period/scenario...I especially enjoyed medieval architecture and the Tudor and Stuart periods. Along with a fair proportion of my class-mates I really enjoyed the ‘Imagine yourself living in the Civil War’ type of homework. Fourteen-year-old girls in the 1950s were not sophisticated young ladies! 48
Even very traditional teaching methods could be inspiring with a good teacher: this lady born in 1943 wrote that “We started with the Babylonians & worked through chronologically, learning important dates. Had a fantastic teacher – had a good degree & loved her subjects – made lessons fun and interesting.” In her classroom, “we sat in rows, facing the teacher. Kept quiet, listened, asked questions. We had text books and homework &, I think, weekly informal tests on what we had been studying”. 49
Perhaps even more enthusiastically, this woman, born in 1944, wrote;
This was when the real love of History as a subject began. At Grammar School in the Cotswolds we had an absolutely inspirational teacher... He made all of it come alive, so much so that I took my O level a year early and then once in the VIth form, went on to do A level History. It was a small Grammar School, and [he] taught us all the way through from the First Year. Although we were made to learn dates, it was mainly to hang the facts on and we had discussions rather than lessons from him...His success rate was excellent mainly because he just loved the subject. He made us think in the discussions we had, not just take down facts and learn them...We were not taught in topics. More flowing than that. We learned to ask why things went the way they did rather than just learn facts.50
Overall, for those of our respondents born in the late 1930s and 1940s, at secondary school during the 1950s and early 60s, there is a fairly even split between those with positive, and those with negative memories. And it should be said that many of those who remember lessons negatively have gone on to love history in adult life, some going on to take A levels, degrees, even a PhD in late middle age. Of course our respondents are a completely random self-selected group but most of their descriptions of their lessons bear out the idea that the quality of the teacher was enormously important. This lady, born in 1949, became a teacher herself, though not of history. She wrote:
No textbooks or other materials used. Teacher did not speak, nor were we allowed to. She wrote tiny notes, at speed, across three blackboards which we copied into our exercise books quickly so that she could keep going on the boards all lesson...We learned the notes and used them to answer essay questions in tests and exams...
I have always wished I'd covered more 'interesting' topics. However, a few years ago my daughter did the History of Medicine for GCSE, which I thought was wildly exciting, but which she hated. Possibly we worry too much about interesting pupils; perhaps it's the personality of the teacher etc which counts. 51
The Government’s 1952 publication ‘Teaching History’ had concentrated mainly on secondary school teaching. In 1959 the Ministry of Education produced what was a kind of update to its pre-war ‘Handbook of Suggestions for the Consideration of Teachers and others engaged in the work of public elementary schools’ which it stated had last been published in 1937.52 It stressed the continuity since 1937.
The 1937 Suggestions stressed the change in emphasis in educational thought and practice from the subjects of instruction to the child. Primary education today is deeply concerned with children as children, with their great diversity of aptitudes, abilities and temperaments, with their many, but interdependent and changing needs. The present book calls also for a more critical consideration by teachers of the quality and substance of what is offered to the children for their learning, and for a firmer realisation that children’s capacities, whether they be small or great, should be exercised to the full.53
By now of course the 1944 Education Act had abolished the term ‘Public Elementary Schools’ so where the earlier Suggestions are concerned with the whole schooling of many children, the 1959 ones were the first to concern themselves only with younger children. As far as history was concerned, the 1959 Suggestions were fairly negative about history; the chapter on it was entitled ‘The problems of teaching history to the young’, and began by stating that, “Its position in English education has never been very secure”.54 They described the changes in the perception of young children;
Whereas in the past the stress had been placed on finding out what was objectively important and teaching it, now much more attention was being given to children’s interests. The belief was becoming widespread that adult generalisations must not be forced too soon on children who would only be stimulated by what they understood and for whom learning must have a ‘here and now’ value.55
And if children were only stimulated by what they understood, the best way to introduce them to history was, once again, via “the magic of a well-told story”.56 Much was claimed for such stories; they stimulated the child’s imagination and, “in putting himself [sic] in another’s place sympathy is born”. They presented the idea of change; provided inspiring companions in “the heroes and geniuses of mankind”, and showed a different life which was “yet worthy of respect” and in turn developed “humility and tolerance”.57 It was for teachers to choose these stories, according to their own enthusiasms and their knowledge of their pupils, but the Suggestions described a process moving from myth and legend in the last year of infant school and early years of junior school, to stories of real people by the time children were eight or nine. These stories could then be focussed on “a person or a period…so that even juniors can get some intuition of ‘period’”. Then, “on occasions, a concentration of stories can be centred not on a period of time but on a movement such as the Crusades or the Discoveries. The story may then turn into what is a historical narrative and children may learn how a common impulse has cut across national boundaries”.58
For those who developed a sense of connections in history and a sense of time, “a sequence of stories, mainly about our own country and arranged in chronological order, might be provided for the last year in the junior school. A time chart will be useful at this point and may be supported by the learning of key dates associated with the stories which are told”.59 Other teaching aids and methods to be used were well-illustrated books, including source books, textbooks, and works of fiction; the re-enactment of the stories in mime and drama; construction of models and paintings. Archaeology, relatives’ memories, small exhibitions, visits to historic sites could all be employed as long as “care…be taken not to prolong or refine [the activity] beyond the capacity of children”.60
The BBC carried out a postal survey of history teaching in primary and primary classes in all-age schools in May 1955, similar to the one described above about secondary modern schools. 514 schools responded to its questionnaire. In most schools where history was taught, it was started in the third year of school life, usually for two 30 minutes periods a week. In the first two years history consisted mainly of storytelling usually from the earliest times, with about half of the schools including stories from Ancient Civilisations. Then it was usually taught within a chronological framework, although some small schools continued with storytelling, sometimes following a chronological pattern. A few schools had no history syllabus at all but introduced history through topics, projects or social or environmental studies, all involving two or more school subjects. All the schools concentrated on British history in the later years, with the majority dealing with ‘Modern Times’ by the end of the sixth year and a few doing some World History and a tenth of schools including some local history.61 Surprisingly, the majority of respondents to our survey who were at primary school in the late 1940s and 50s remember very little about history at primary school; for those that do have memories it is always the stories of great figures, and Greek and Roman myths.
The Newsom Report (mentioned above) looked at the education of younger teenagers of average and below average ability. It presented a depressing picture of physical conditions in their schools. In an accompanying survey of a sample of modern schools carried out in 1961, more than a quarter had no library room and a third had no proper science laboratories. The report judged that “something in depth for a short time rather than a little of everything all the time is probably the right approach...for the boys and girls with whom we are concerned”. 62 History was often grouped with geography and religious studies as humanities or social studies; it might retain its separate status or be included under ‘social studies’ although the survey suggests that 61% of forms in schools in the survey received 50-90 minutes of some kind of history a week (cf 11% none). The pupils the Report was considering took no external examinations in history but ideally visible achievements would result – “the production of a class book, the making of a film strip”. The aim of the work in history was to help the children to understand the nature of evidence and how to question it, and also to lead “to an ability to enter imaginatively into other men’s [sic] minds”. “Psychological sensitivity and intuitive awareness” were more important “than rational fact-finding”. Moral issues were significant:
It is important, too, to know bad company and to avoid it. Evil men also have power. Were those who followed Hitler necessarily worse men than those who rallied to Churchill? Why did they do it? Might we not have done the same?...These are sobering questions which ordinary young people ought to face.63
The Report also advocated studying contemporary history and citizenship issues, particularly in the last years of school so that pupils would “understand the world in which they live, not only the world into which their fathers were born”. 64
Relatively few children attended the technical schools but in these there was sometimes an attempt to teach history in a way that was relevant to the different strands of technology studied in the school, using a lines of development methodology. For example, the history of building; technical and engineering advances; domestic life, costume and banking, were all studied at Worksop Secondary Technical School which had building, technical and commercial streams.65 Sheila Kotak was born in 1929 and described history at the junior commercial school she attended in Bristol which was a variation on a technical school.
At Junior Commercial we covered the whole period from Romans to about 1918, seen mostly from the point of view of how people lived, and, from the late 18th century, major legislation passed. We spent some time learning about Factory Acts, Trade Unions and the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions...
And I can remember we did quite a bit about the Elizabethans and the contrasts in Elizabethan times between poverty and riches. And I can also remember the teacher telling us about the rhyme: “Hark, hark, the dogs do bark, the beggars are coming to town. Some in rags, and some in tags, and some in velvet gowns.” And he told us the story behind that, and who the different groups were, and why they were beggars, about the monasteries and the poor people and the rich people and all that sort of thing, and all the things that had been happening. So I remember that bit. And then, when we got to the late 18th or 19th century, we did a lot about factories and trade unions and that sort of thing, a lot of social history and a lot of contrasts.66
Few children attended comprehensive schools in the mid to late 1950s, and little was written about history teaching in them. However George Rudé, the historian of popular movements, who spent the latter part of his career teaching history in universities in Australia, Canada and Scotland, also taught history in schools including public and grammar schools, and finally at Holloway comprehensive in Islington. In 1957 he wrote about the way history was taught at Holloway. He argued that history should be part of the common core of subjects up to the end of the third or fourth year with a minimum of two teaching periods a week; he thought it should then probably be an optional subject for GCE in the fifth year in view of the wide choice of subjects offered at comprehensive schools. There should be a common syllabus “for every form in a given age-group, irrespective of the level of attainment or presumed intelligence of the classes into which pupils are divided”, and this syllabus should attempt to integrate all aspects of human activity (such as economic, social, political, religious) into a single pattern rather than just focussing on one of these.67 His rebuttal of those who said slower children could not cope with this was that it was the method of instruction rather than the syllabus that should be changed; similarly he was uneasy about special syllabuses for pupils in the fourth year technical courses who sometimes followed courses with a vocational bias such as the history of buildings or embroidery. These, he said, like the diluted courses for ‘less able’ children, gave “a one-sided and unreal picture of man’s history and are, therefore, in my view, undesirable”.68 And at his school they had decided to teach a common four-year history syllabus to all the boys even though about half would leave half way through it, rather than devising some kind of civics or current affairs course for the leavers as happened in many secondary moderns and probably some of the new comprehensives. The other problem in the comprehensive was that of examinations – should all pupils of the same age-group take the same examination; they were trying to work out a suitable system that would involve all the boys. As for the syllabus, Rudé was diplomatic but dismissive of ‘social studies’, ‘lines of development’ and ‘patches’; “it does not seem to me that any one of them can in itself be an effective substitute for the systematic study of man’s history as a more or less chronological sequence in its many-sided aspects, proceeding by stages of development (including both failure and achievement) from the distant past to the present day”.69 Instead he argued strongly for the kind of syllabus they had at Holloway – a straightforwardly chronological one from ‘Early Man ‘through to ‘Modern Britain’, with themes for study throughout each year which gave scope for looking at the wider areas of history such as social, military or economic factors.
It is hard to generalise about history teaching during the years between 1945 and the 1960s. The grammar schools taught in a way that would have been recognisable in the interwar years; the secondary modern schools appear to have attempted new ways of teaching but lack of facilities, properly qualified history teachers and the growing pressure to achieve examination results led them back to a more traditional approach. Primary schools continued with story-telling. It is easy to see why so many teachers became so enthused by the new ideas and methods which would emerge in the 1960s.
History in Education Project
Institute of Historical Research
University of London