Summary of Recording – Alan Farmer Early career – finished A level early so went teaching with no training – started a PhD but dropped that and appointed Head of History with no training in tough part of Sheffield for a year – then did PGCE. Taught in large comprehensive school in Sheffield – went into teacher training 1984. Worked in innovative history department in 1970s – local history CSE for ROSLA pupils. Criticisms of Schools History Project – not suited to the less able – most took the ideas and adapted them rather than the whole package – danger of losing the story element in history – primary source materials not always engaging for children. Interpretations still important – ‘stories’ of history not just ‘story – but a lot of consensus about ‘hard core of fact’. GCSE a positive step – adopted best approaches of SHP – has written books about it but has never taught it. Good quality traditional history teaching did exist – teachers who interested kids massively through chalk and talk – cannot assume because O level was a bad exam it was taught badly. By 1980s, 3 main syllabuses being taught for O level/CSE – to get the O level you had to cram – churn it out – CSE a lot of multi-choice assessment – also used in A level General Studies – could have been a valid way to assess history but not used effectively. National Curriculum history – more effect on primary schools – content in secondary not greatly dissimilar to before NC – ironically probably more choice after than before. Made no difference to GCSE – pity it did not become a NC subject to 16 – idealistic view that history is important for everyone. Did lots of National Curriculum training for primary teachers – well-funded – six weeks at first then reduced, but still loads of time – took the teachers to historical places on day off school a week or week-ends. Tried to give them some content knowledge and good resources – informal feedback was good but no follow-up on effectiveness in schools. Better training than for geography. History unifies a society – socially and regionally as well as nationally- national has got to have its sense of itself – important for native as well as immigrant populations – fair amount of consensus about British history – not a great deal of Scottish or Welsh in it. Too much history – cramming gallons into an eggcup – lack of time to teach it all – probably history is better taught than most subjects –standard of applicants to train as teachers on a history PGCE – could select able enthusiastic people, unlike in science and maths. History been ‘in danger’ for 40 years – a good thing because we don’t get complacent – would defend history as a ‘kind of mortar to society’ – but that’s not how you sell it in school – tend to sell it on basis of skills but in reality many subjects can deliver the skills. Need for more European history – apart from the Nazis. Text books useful to get teachers started – his primary school text books from twenty years ago still selling – worrying as teachers should not be chained to the text book. Age-related methods of teaching – variety important – but we all like stories – the mythic-romantic approach – but enquiry approach still good way forward. National Curriculum wrong to assume that once you’ve been taught something you remember it forever. Today’s student teachers much the same as in the past – but learn more about lesson aims, objectives and how to reflect on their work – could be spending too much time writing evaluations than preparing new ideas for the classroom. New technology – more choice of materials – but more time needed to work out what works best – review of technology used in his career. Primary level fewer specialists in schools to help the other teachers with history – mostly literacy and numeracy specialists – history’s perennial struggle to survive in schools.
INSTITUTE OF HISTORICAL RESEARCH HISTORY IN EDUCATION PROJECT
INTERVIEWEE: ALAN FARMER
INTERVIEWER: DR NICOLA SHELDON
9TH JULY 2009
Okay, I’m Alan Farmer, retired from St Martin’s College, Lancaster three years ago. I was then Head of History and Geography and I’ve done a bit of teaching since then, but still write, so I’m still writing history textbooks. Is that sufficient?
Yeah that’s great, thanks. Can you tell me about your own educational background and why you decided to study history and become a history teacher? Who knows, Nicola. I always used to ask questions – probably ask you if I interviewed you – whether an interest in history was genetic or social and still don’t really know the answer. It’s a bit of both isn’t it? There’s certainly nothing very much in the family that’s historical, so presumably more social. Always enjoyed history, even at primary school as I remember, and that interest must have come from somewhere. Guns, comics, books, visits. But not specifically mum and dad. Secondary school, I did have a very attractive twenty-four year old blonde, when I was eleven, perhaps that …
Your history teacher?
Yeah. She also taught geography. Miss Cox went on to become a teacher trainer. But no, I enjoyed history, was good at history. That said, I was probably better at maths and I was a pretty good all rounder and when I had to decide options I was kind of put a stream ahead – it was grammar school I went to - for A level, didn’t do history O level, never done history O level, went straight on to A level but I could have gone the science - maths, science route, but instead went the history, geography, English lit route. Would have been better doing history, geography and maths, but I had to do English and enjoyed that at A level more than history. I got the A levels a year early, I had nothing to do for a year so I actually went teaching. This was 1967, they were short of teachers so I went straight from school one day into teaching the next, year six, eleven year olds, in a tough part of Sheffield. Class of thirty-five and I had them to myself for two terms. You couldn’t do that …
No, nowadays, no.
… now. But it was great there. The Chief Education Officer’s twins were in the class but I’d no idea what a Chief Education Officer was so that didn’t worry me at all. The main problem was trying to work out which twin was which, but yeah, that was great. Then on to university, Nottingham, got a first, started a PhD, decided I didn’t like the loneliness of it, although it was going reasonably well I guess, so thought about accountancy because I’d got an uncle who was an accountant partner. But dropped my PhD and had to do something else for a few months so I got the job straightaway as Head of History which was, again, barmy, in an eleven to sixteen school. Again, tough part of Sheffield. And went straight in as Head of History without any training. There was myself and a King, a South African King, George Umbele who’d escaped house arrest in South Africa, and the two of us were in charge of history in this school and did our best to teach history, which was great. So I did that for best part of a year.
So you didn’t actually do a teacher training year? Yeah I did, because come the end of the … I could have continued at the school, decided that I was thoroughly enjoying myself, got the job in the accountancy firm but decided I didn’t want to do that. I did apply for the BBC and got on a shortlist of sorts, but they decided they didn’t want me. So the BBC didn’t want me, I didn’t want accountancy and therefore I was quite happy to stick with history teaching and thought if I’m going to stick with this I’d better get the PGCE, not that you needed one at that stage, but I thought well, it’ll be interesting to go and get a bit of tuition as to what I should be doing rather than what I’ve been doing. So that was I guess the background to becoming a history teacher.
And where did you train then?
Trained in Sheffield, not university, at City College, partly because I applied very late I think and probably the university had no places at that stage. Because I wasn’t going to go into history teaching at all at one stage.
So where did you get your first job then after that? First job was at Myers Grove, which was a massive comprehensive, biggest school in Sheffield and one of the biggest in Britain, 2,000 kids. Big history department, seven or eight I guess, good morale among the staff, good camaraderie. Was there for three years, rose to second in department and then went to, as Head of History, to a school called Freshville School, which has since gone, it’s amalgamated with other schools, and was there until the end of 1984. So I was Head of History and then kind of, as you do, you were telling me your career, became Head of Humanities I think and then Head of Sixth Form. And by 1984 was seeking to advance further I guess.
And so that led directly or naturally into teacher training? Well yeah, I guess it did, albeit there weren’t many teacher training jobs circa 1984 so the obvious way forward I guess seemed to be Deputy Head. I had one or two interviews on that score. I didn’t really want to be Deputy Head because I did really like history. I guess if I’d have wanted management and all of that, I would have gone more into the kind of accountancy way of things way back. Always liked history and always liked teaching history. Never really liked the management side of things, albeit most of my life seems to have been involved in more management than history. It’s the way of the world I guess. So 1984, applied for this, that and failed at this and that on the Deputy Head front, but applied to St Martin’s and got the job there starting very early in 1985.
So when you were teaching all those years in Sheffield, was your approach to teaching developing as you went on – was it something you started with and stuck with? Did you learn from your teaching training?
I’ll answer your first one first. I’m not sure I learned a great deal from the teacher training because I think the teacher training was a bit scared about me really because I don’t think he’d got any real experience in a comprehensive school or even a pretty tough school, whereas I’d obviously taught for the best part of a year and therefore had experiences that the poor chap who was supposed to be teaching me hadn’t got, so I think he was a bit in awe of me rather than me of him. But all teacher training is, I mean it’s valuable because you meet other folk, not necessarily the people who are doing the training, you meet other people in your position, so you learn a lot from sharing experiences with them about their experience in school and you learn a lot about teaching in different schools because you, yeah, you build up experiences from place to place and from class to class and every class is different. So it was useful in the sense that I saw another two or three schools and met other folk that I became friendly with who were history teachers. On the job, yeah, learned a considerable amount at Myers Grove because there were seven or eight historians, all older than me but mainly young. It was a go-ahead department, very go-ahead, with School History materials and visions and aspirations to be very innovative, so I learned a lot there.
When you say … are you referring to the Schools History Project? Yeah, that was coming in early seventies, but Myers Grove was there at the start with the materials and anxious to pursue that. I’m not sure I was one of the great evangelical School History folk, but I liked some of its approaches, so I was in early with that. Freshville, small department of two or three and perhaps you become a little bit more set in your ways. Plus history wasn’t the only job, it was more the kind of management of others as well as the teaching of history, and you know, as you go into one job the other job pales a bit. But yeah, you’re always learning with regard to history teaching, whether or not you’re teaching fully. I think you should be, but you must be, every class is a different orgas … organism, whatever the word is. But you know what I mean, it’s different. It’s the same way that an actor must feel with an audience, that every audience is different so you’re putting on a similar act but you can be inspired or not by the audience. Perhaps not a very good analogy, but I’m sure you know what I mean.
When you were teaching there, at Myers Grove in the seventies, what were the big ideas coming into history – just Schools History Project or other things as well?
Lot of emphasis on local history. At that stage there was … it had just been, I mean ROSLA was not far away so you’ve got these children who would have left way back in the sixties who we now had to educate, entertain, interest, and we did have a kind of good local history CSE syllabus I guess for them. So there was quite a lot of forward thinking on that with … today they’d be called special needs, I suppose, kids, which involved a lot of visits and ways of approach. So that was a bit, I guess avant-garde. Otherwise Schools History and a kind of enquiry history mystery detective approach was probably about it as far as my memory is concerned.
What about the O level and A level classes? How were they taught? They weren’t taught … I mean A level was taught pretty traditionally I guess and … O level, the exam was traditional but that didn’t mean to say that the teaching of O level was in any way necessarily tradition, because to get good O level results I always felt, and I think a lot of those I worked with felt, that you had to interest, motivate, stimulate the kids, so albeit the final way of assessment was pretty dull as dishwater, the teaching was always good fun and you’re always trying to be a little bit innovative in terms of how you interested and motivated. In some respects at those times the more interesting bit was CSE because both at Myers Grove and then at Freshville, did introduce CSE syllabuses which you could do, rather than just take one from a board you could invent your own. So at Myers Grove we invented one or two, we invented the kind of local history one, but then we did a more mainstream one for those who were just below the O level, but who could get the grade one and that was regarded similarly to an O level. So we did that and I took that to Freshville and modified it a little bit. So that was quite interesting. I’m not sure it was innovative because a lot of folk were doing the same kind of thing at that time.
So you’ve written that you prefer content to skills where history in schools is concerned. Yeah, absolutely.
So what’s your view about the SHP approach to learning history? Because it emphasises skills.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Did write with Peter Knight, this Active History, Peter was totally against the word skill as a word in history terms. He liked the word procedure, didn’t think skills meant anything at all. I say that, I’m fully aware of SHP from the outset, did have some good materials like the history mystery approach, but there’s a book coming, a major book coming. I think it … it was a bit too evangelical in some respects, a bit too didactic. Indeed some of its materials were a bit too didactic, ie you will all teach this, and I think it did itself a disservice by almost ignoring content. I mean at one stage Mark Pullen was probably better known than Winston Churchill and that could not in any respect be right, that can’t be right. History, there was a danger that history would, you know, the baby would go down with the bathwater or something. Its materials were … could easily chain you I think to … and the materials were very expensive if you didn’t get in at the start, you probably couldn’t afford those materials. They chained you to a form of teaching that was not necessarily the best way to teach. You got rid of the story approach, or you could get rid of the story approach because of the materials that were used and story is, as well as the enquiry approach, story’s always been, you know, story or enquiry – well it’s a bit of both, good history teaching has got to be a bit of both. And Schools History could forget the story side which I think is sad. Not sure that the Schools History material was really suitable for poor kids, and I’ve taught an awful lot of poor kids.
You mean poor backgrounds?
No, no sorry, poor academically. The less able kids found a lot of the materials difficult. Yes, you could, and at Myers Grove we did and at Freshville I think it continued that a bit. You did try and water down the ideas that School History pioneered. You could have plenty of history mysteries, but of course history mysteries weren’t new, they didn’t come in with SHP. I remember secondary, at grammar school when I was being taught there were all kinds of history mysteries, indeed that was a common way forward in the fifties and sixties, so this wasn’t new. Perhaps a bit of a fetish as well for primary sources. I don’t think primary sources is necessarily that interesting for young kids, the language levels can be very difficult, and not sure why there should be a fetish for primary sources. I mean real historians, if that’s what SHP was about, doing what real historians do, most real historians don’t necessarily play with primary sources, most of them get to know the secondary sources first before they mess around with the primary sources. So perhaps it was a bit of an emperor’s new clothes job, SHP. But I ... I mean it did … it was a way forward, it wasn’t a bad way forward, apart from the way that content in a sense was put on a back burner, or might have been. I think in reality it wasn’t, I think most schools were very sensible in terms of people I met throughout the seventies and early eighties who were teaching, they took some of the ideas of SHP which were good ideas and some of the materials, some of the journals were good, and played with those rather than took the whole thing. Of course, if you’re doing it at O level, later GCSE, I suppose you had to take their package. But their package wasn’t bad as a GCSE package, it was good to teach too. I only ever did it once, but enjoyed it.
Do you think that, when you say you sacrificed the story, are you referring to simply the interest of stories or the idea of there being a thread of development, a story line throughout history?
Yeah, it’s a good question. No, I’m talking about the specific … you can’t teach the whole of history, so I’m talking about the multitude of smaller stories that make up history. No, SHP didn’t mean to say you would necessarily lose a story because the good history teachers would tell the story and use the kind of SHP approach, but there was a danger because of the nature of the materials that the story approach could get lost and all you’d do is set kids to work with primary materials that weren’t necessarily always that engaging. And lose the story element. Which is still basic I think to good history. I mean history’s a bit like … it is like newspapers isn’t it, newspapers are present history in a sense and they have a story.
And an interpretation.
And an interpretation, yeah.
So is it that teachers should give the interpretation to the pupil? Yeah, that’s an interesting one. I think a teacher almost inevitably would give an interpretation, because even if they simply present case for and case against, they are actually choosing the materials that they put case for and case against so there will be some kind of bias probably creeping in. But you can do it reasonably objectively and historians usually try their best to be as objective as they can. Interpretation, I think one of the great things about history, whether you’re telling a story or not, is the kind of interpretation. Kids love it if you say, oh this is one … but there is another … and there may even be a third. And I think that’s all part of the stories of history, it’s not just the story of history. There are many different stories of history. But out of those stories you get some kind of consensus about what did happen. I think.
I remember you once saying that you didn’t see what all the fuss was about because ninety-nine per cent of history was agreed upon.
I think that would have been overstating the case. What I might have been trying to – that would have been massively overstating the case – what I would have perhaps been trying to say would be that you can be too relativist. That there was a Battle of Hastings, I know you can be ever so relativist, it wasn’t 1066 and it wasn’t much of a battle and it wasn’t Hastings and so on. But in 1066 something did happen and I think there would be considerable consensus about what went on. There would be debates about precisely what caused the Normans to invade, there would be massive debates about what caused the English defeat and there’d be massive debates about what followed, but nevertheless, the core is fixed, that the Normans did come in 1066 if you adopt the present BC/AD system of dating. And there’s an awful lot of consensus about that kind of hard fact. It’s a bit like watching … I love sport. In fact you’re privileged because we’re not watching the cricket in the background. But you know, if you watch any kind of sport, yeah you can interpret this, that, but there’s a hard core of fact as well as the interpretation of that fact. So ninety-nine per cent, I’m sure I didn’t ever say that, but if I did I must have had too much to drink.
But there is, I’m sure, a hard core of fact. I don’t want to define fact, but I think you’ve got to accept that otherwise you can’t accept anything really, I think. And we are all then totally and utterly islands, we can’t even have a conversation about anything because your toothache’s not the same as mine and every word is different. I think we’re lost then as a society and as people.
That’s very profound.
It’s not at all.
If we move on to GCSE, did you think that was something positive, positive step forward? Yes, that’s a good thing in 1066 terms, I think so. And that in part arises from School History so I may have sounded anti-School History, but I think School History in many respects served a good purpose. I just think perhaps it went over, for a while it was perhaps the evangelicals, who had considerable power within the history fraternity and perhaps were a bit too blinkered in the direction that they were setting history upon. I think GCSE was generally a good thing in my view, it adopted many of the best approaches of School History. It by and large laid down criteria that most history teachers could work with and that they accepted. The fact it joined O level and CSE was a good thing, because I mean that was a bit like cricket professional and amateurs, I mean that just wrongly somehow divided kids at the age of fourteen into that or that. That was a good thing. So yeah, a good thing. Never taught GCSE. God, I’ve written books about it and I did massive numbers of courses on it, so I always felt a bit of a charlatan with the GCSE because … but never taught it. But there again, never taught, er, never did O level. Went straight to A level, so perhaps I shouldn’t feel too guilty. But GCSE generally, feel positive about that, think that was a good thing.
Do you think it’s the positive – why, because children enjoyed it more or simply because it joined together this artificial divide?
I think it had joined together, united a little bit and that was no bad thing. Did pupils enjoy it any more? I think that would be very difficult to say one way or the other. I think there was an awful lot of good teaching at O level, just as there was an awful lot of good old history teaching. I think this is one of the problems with new history, just going back – bring me back to the O level if I lose that thread of thought – but old history, there were some really good teachers who interested kids massively through chalk and talk, partly because they had nothing else but chalk and talk to use. They didn’t have any of the other teaching aids that have come in really since the early sixties I suppose, or even late sixties. So a lot of good old history, lot of good O level history I think was taught as well, so the notion that O level was always taught badly because it had a pretty bad exam, I don’t think follows at all. And whether GCSE is taught better than O level, I think it’s examined and tested better than O level, a better way of testing and there’s more logic to its rationale and its criterion there ever was with O level. Whether it’s better taught, I think you need the wisdom of Solomon for that and you need rather more because I’m not sure that there’s been any research that I’m aware of that has ever tried to find the answer to the question. But still tend to the view that GCSE in the circumstances of the time – we’re talking what, mid eighties I guess aren’t we – was a pretty good, pragmatic move forward. I mean it’s resulted in, for most of that period in there being three choices I guess, which was no bad thing. You did have a degree of choice, but a reasonable degree of choice, arguably with A level, there’s rather too much choice.
A lot, yes. So the three being Modern World, Schools History Project and Social Economic? Yeah.
Which has generally fallen away now, so it’s mainly … I think that’s no bad thing. I’ve taught all three – well, at O level or CSE, not GCSE, but I taught those three … I mean they were the big syllabuses before GCSE so that’s what you taught at O level or CSE. But Social Economic I always found the … that was, I didn’t like that at all really. [laughs] But that was me, other folk loved it.
Would you say that the testing and assessment at GCSE was better, was that because it gave more scope for students to show in more different ways what they understood?
Yeah, I think so. I mean the O level was simply write as much as you can, or as sensibly as you can about this, that or anything else in what was it, two and a half hours, something like that. And I used to cheat really there because at Freshville I used to put kids in to do it often a year before they should, because you could teach them in a year, because they didn’t need to know all the stuff. They only had to be able to answer four or five questions, so if I didn’t put them in for June in their – what would it be, they were year four then – it would be year ten. So the end of year ten. Or there was a possibility in November. And you could get history out the way because there was an awful lot, to get the O level you had to cram didn’t you really, you had to learn the stuff and then churn it out. And you could always get kids through in a year, even kids who weren’t necessarily very able. But that got one subject out of the way which made it perhaps a bit easier for their other subjects. So that was a pragmatic way forward. CSE, a lot of the assessment there was multi-choice and I feel that in some respects we’ve gone wrong with multi-choice. The Americans use multi-choice very, very effectively in their system. We’ve always decried multi-choice, partly perhaps because of CSE, partly because of the American system. And we always say it’s not very good, forgetting the fact that the A level general studies, which is well regarded I think, has been for years and years, uses multi-choice and very skilled multi-choice questioning. The problem with multi-choice questions, an awful lot of time really needs to be gone through to set a paper where you’ve got challenging multi-choice questions that are fair across the board. But I always felt on the history front we possibly could have gone, we could have experimented down that road rather more than we’ve ever done. And I think that’s a bit sad, given all the research that’s been done. It’s always been denied as a way of, a valid way of assessing history, but I think it could be a valid way of assessing some history criteria, knowledge, understanding.
That actually brings me neatly on to the National Curriculum because a number of people in favour of the National Curriculum actually believed that a set of very simple tests should be set, the testing would be … [both speaking together]
Clearly very simple then weren’t they really?
Yes, but that was the original idea. So I mean it was seen, the first National Curriculum, as a sort of riposte to the skills approach and an attempt to define content, so what do you think about it, how did it turn out?
In history terms I’m not sure it was necessarily that, because I think history reached some kind of consensus circa 19 … with the blue book and GCSE, a bit of a consensus had been reached I think, which needed to be reached and you didn’t need to be Solomon to reach that consensus which was a sensible consensus. I’m not sure that in history National Curriculum was necessarily the content and not the skills. There was an element of that maybe. National Curriculum … I think probably had more effect at primary than secondary in most respects. Secondary, yes, the National Curriculum that we got in content terms was not massively dissimilar from the content that already existed because it was going down quite a lot of research, Spartacus, the interesting publishers, did some interesting research suggesting that there was effectively a National Curriculum before the National Curriculum in most secondary schools. Indeed, arguably the National Curriculum provided rather more by way of choice than you got previously, which I always thought was a nice irony. It made really not a jot of difference at GCSE did it, except that – may come on to this later – it was a pity I think that history didn’t become a National Curriculum subject down to sixteen. Every other country, civilised country in the world I think it’s taught to sixteen, but we allow more than fifty per cent of kids to drop it at fourteen, that can’t be right. But that’s probably one of your other questions, but it can’t be right that the National Curriculum in history allowed that to happen. We should have fought for history to have been in there in some shape or form at secondary to the age of sixteen, but we lost that fight. You could see the pragmatic advantage of not having kids who were conscripts, you only got the volunteers. So from a pragmatic point of view I suppose it helped, but from an idealistic perspective if you believe history to be important, and I do, then I think we should have perhaps put up more of a fight for it to have been in there. So that’s a slight negative on the National Curriculum, but I think the National Curriculum had rather more of an impact at primary than at secondary. Could be wrong in that, I’m speaking from a secondary perspective, so maybe I’m talking nonsense, but I don’t think so because I did quite a lot of National Curriculum training for primary teachers. My career had moved on, so for years and years and years, at least four years, we did courses at St Martin’s for primary teachers from mainly Lancashire but occasionally Cumbria, to try and get them up to speed with the National Curriculum and had hundreds, I would have thought, of teachers who went through that training, which was massive. The amount of money that was thrown at National Curriculum was …
Was that a day for a teacher or …
No, they had six weeks. Then they reduced it, but they had loads of time. It was extraordinary because they could … they didn’t necessarily all get six weeks, but most of the first courses would get three or four weeks, I think ultimately then they kind of reduced it to two weeks, just extraordinary. I mean we made a major, major mistake at St Martin’s, thinking about it now, because the money was there for everywhere and there was so much money and the first course we thought we ought to do … we had courses for all the modules. So we thought oh well, Romans and Saxons and Vikings, York. So we’ll go to York, we’ll take all the teachers to York for three days, alright. And then modern stuff, oh London, we’ll go to London for a couple of days. So we had – and this was apart from the time that they were coming to the college, as then was.
Were they doing that in their holidays?
Well yeah, they were doing it or they got a day off school a week or … we did this at weekends, that actually saved some money, but all the hotel fees were paid. So this was I guess cheaper than getting supply teachers in to … Where we made the mistake, coming back to the point, was that we should have realised that Egypt and Ancient Greece were on the curriculum and take them off to Egypt, and I’m sure the money would have been there, we could have gone to Athens and gone down the Nile. But anyway we did … I mean there was so much money, so yeah, it was great fun and they were really delightful folk on these courses because they were there in part to mug up their history. So you were trying to give them a bit of content, but in a kind of interesting way and the kind of way that they might thereafter teach kids. It’s a bit like teaching mothers to suck eggs or something, but I mean it was an interesting interplay and you could give them good resources I guess. So I was involved in that to a degree, but I had other primary colleagues at St Martin’s who were more involved in that perhaps ultimately than I was. I got a couple of the departments who were more primary trained. I was never primary trained and although I was on the Primary History Association Committee for more years than I care to remember, I’ve always been really secondary and never pretended to be – apart from perhaps on the Primary History Committee – I don’t think I pretended too hard there to be other than more a secondary expert than primary.
Did you get any feedback about how effective those courses were for primary school teachers? They were always well evaluated, but they would be wouldn’t we, because we were taking them away to York and London and giving them materials. They ran for a long while. How effective they were in school terms, we never did any follow-up on that score and of course there was never any tests of … thankfully there were never any tests of what kids knew or could do at primary history. I mean the good news was that most children did seem to enjoy primary history for a while and most teachers did seem to enjoy teaching National Curriculum primary history.
That’s just an informal feedback?
That’s just an informal feedback which I guess I’d get from being on the Primary History Committee. Must have seen various local studies were done about kids’ enjoyment of subjects and we had a few advisers there, I think who’d done a little bit of work. And history invariably was one of the, or was perceived to be one of the greatest successes at primary level, certainly in the 1990s, circa 2000. I lose touch thereafter so it would be unwise to say anything more, whether it’s … well I’m sure it’s no longer riding the crest of a wave because it’s clearly been cut back and cut back as there’s been greater emphasis on literacy and numeracy. But for a while in the nineties I think primary history, National Curriculum history, primary level was again a good thing. And far better than geography. Again, historians were pragmatic and reasonably good resources were produced, teachers were pretty well trained, certainly they were in Lancashire to a degree that would not be recognised today, the amount of money that was thrown at the National Curriculum in the dim and distant past.
Just wanted to take you back to the point you said why it’s important to do history to age sixteen, because it probably links in with my next question. I mean you’ve written that history in your view is ‘the memory of society’.
Well that’s Marwick, I think he probably said that before me and then there was … that was The Nature of History which I crammed for an exam I had to do in a finals in circa 1970 and I’m sure Marwick pinched it from somebody else, but yeah.
Does that link into this, why it’s important to do it to sixteen? Yeah, I think history is what unifies a society. I’m not talking just nation states, I’m talking the various tiers of society, from world through regional, through national, through various tiers of local societies. Language first and foremost I guess, after that maybe religion, but I think I’d say that history is a bit more, should be more important than religion – dangerous thing because you’ve got to weigh up that I was at St Martin’s College – but I mean history does help, should help to give a society some kind of reference point to understand itself a little bit. Religion can do the same, but that can be more divisive than perhaps history.
Well do you think that’s become a more problematic issue for British or English society over the last twenty years?
No, I thought your question was interesting. I’m not quite sure why it should be different for England and Scotland or Wales or Ireland, I’m not sure where the difference is. I would have thought any society, certainly any nation has got to have its … sense of itself and I would have thought that new folk – well I would have thought that folk who were native to a particular place should know something of its past, albeit it’s an interpretation, obviously, but nevertheless there is a fair amount of consensus about – about what the shape of Britain’s, France’s, Germany’s, Russia’s, America’s history looks like. So the folk who were born and bred and probably just as important for folk who come here to, again, to have some kind of stability and reference point that they’re committing themselves to a society and take on board that society’s memory of itself. So I’m not sure that I can see any contradiction there.
The England one, I suppose I was thinking that Scotland and Wales have developed their own history syllabuses. But I mean do you think England has one, a history just as England? Well we’ve got a National Curriculum, which is surely our …
That’s British history isn’t it? Yeah, but there’s not a great deal of Scottish and there’s not that much Welsh, because they are a bit tangential in this, probably even less Irish. So it tends to be, the British bits, yeah I would obviously incorporate Wales and Scotland and Ireland. Including southern Ireland for much of the period. But I’d hate there to be an absolute just English, I mean I think that would be … I wouldn’t want that at all, no I do quite like the United Kingdom, so I am British in that sense. But that’s purely personal.
Yeah. But the thing about going to sixteen, was that based on the idea that it is some sense of maturity in being able to accommodate the history of one’s own country up to that date?
I just think, I mean there’s so much history, that’s the problem. All history teachers know this and it’s cramming gallons into an eggcup. And a little bit more time to reflect upon the past would I think generally be a good thing for society and for the people of society in the future who I think should know a little bit about where their country has come from, or where their local society has come from or where their region has come from. Because there’s not much awareness of Europe is there really, apart from the Nazis, which is all a bit sad really. That’s about it in terms of Europe and we do belong to a kind of regional block, and there’s world, there’s world history out there and all we know is little bits and pieces. Do think it’s rather sad that there wasn’t room for a little bit more history to be taught because if history is the memory of society, if you don’t really understand the present and the future of anything without knowing something of the past, and I think that’s generally true, then it must be a good thing to know more about the past, must be a good thing to have a good memory with a lot of good things in there, then it’s a pity that the memory of history for more than fifty per cent of kids and future adults stops at fourteen. That’s not to say thankfully that most won’t come to history again, most will because they’ll get some kind of interest in some aspect of life and then get interested in its history. Whether that’s music or sport or art or whatever it might be.
So would you say history’s function in schools has been to sort of ignite a spark? Yeah.
And then something that can go on in one’s own adult life into … Yeah, yeah. I mean the pragmatic in me says of course it can put the spark out totally. That is the downside, it depends on how well the subject is taught. But I tend to the view, I could be totally and utterly naïve, that the pot’s half full rather than half empty - your glass is still half full so you’re okay - tend to the view that probably history is better taught than most subjects, in part because of my PGCE experience, that to get on a history PGCE course you actually have to be really quite able. There are probably five or six people and have been throughout my time in history PGCE, in the history PGCE world where you’d have that choice. You could actually select folk who were able, enthusiastic to become history teachers in a way that science, maths, couldn’t. So I suspect that out there, there are an awful lot of good history teachers who should be able to spark children better than other teachers who aren’t as intellectually well equipped I suspect, I would say that to other teachers I think, that the historians probably by and large have got better degrees than most other subjects within schools. I always worried about maths, I always think maths ought to be put more on the spot and history’s always been in danger throughout my forty-odd years of being involved with it. Maths has never been in danger and yet surely all the maths that you ever really needed and that society ever wanted us to need we’d learned by the time we were eleven. I agree that the nuclear scientists need a bit more maths than the eleven year olds, but I’m not sure that any of the maths I did post-eleven has been of any value in my life thereafter.
Why do you think it’s been in danger all these years? Of course it’s never capitulated but … In some respects it’s a good thing it’s been in danger because it means we have to be on our guard and we don’t get complacent and I think that’s quite a good thing, so we’ve moved a bit with the times. May not have always gone, in my view, in the right direction, but that’s life and that’s democracy and that’s, nothing wrong with that at all. At least we’ve had to regroup and rethink and that’s a good thing. But why it’s always been in danger. Partly because people can’t see any benefit to society. Those in the past, when I was teaching in Sheffield, a lot of the parents of certainly the children who were not perceived to be the academic high flyers, would say well this is not going to help my son go down the pit or my daughter work as a secretary or whatever, so they were arguing from a very blinkered job-oriented perspective. I guess a lot of that kind of view still persists. I would defend history more on the memory, society’s memory and it’s vital as a kind of mortar to society that we have all got some sense of past identity, a kind of common sense of past identity in the same way we’ve got a common language so that folk who live here for however long have got some kind of things that help bind people together, because I think that’s quite important in any society otherwise it becomes very disparate and folks split up. You can’t sell that very easily in school, it’s a kind of high philosophical argument that just won’t work at school. So in school you often end up selling it as procedures or skills, the skills, that history teachers are absolutely vital, nothing else does it and therefore do history because of the skills. So I’ve said that umpteen times without believing a word of it for much of the time because I mean if you’re doing skills, and the subject it seems to me that undoubtedly taught the best skills was Latin, and Latin died a death, it’s gone really. But the skills that you get from Latin surely outrank most of the others. Served Europe quite well for hundreds of years. So I don’t think you go down … but you have to, in terms of trying to sell your subject. But at a philosophical level I wouldn’t be able to sell that very easily. But that’s why I still defend history and regard it as important from a kind of high – well it’s not just national – it’s a kind of world … I’m looking at the national because you mentioned England, but the local, sense of locality, we’ve mentioned Wales, Scotland, they’ve got a sense of locality. Has Yorkshire? I’m not sure Lancashire has. Cumbria’s not … no. Have to devise a Cumbrian history syllabus to give the good folk of Cumbria a sense of being Cumbrian. They don’t feel that at all I think because there’s no kind of local Cumbria identity. Yorkshire has one. A Yorkshire history course? No.
It’s possible. It is. But there ought to be, I mean there ought to be a bit more European. Perhaps one of the reasons we’ve no sense of being European is that we have very little knowledge, most folk, of anything to do with Europe really, apart from the Nazis. And the world, apart from slavery and a bit about America, this general, not much awareness of … perhaps Ancient Egypt, but that’s done in the dim and distant past as far as most people are concerned.
It is that problem of time. Moving on, you’ve written quite a few textbooks for primary history. Yeah, not as many as I’ve done for A level. I mean I’m mainly A level.
A level. I’ve done three or four; four or five perhaps for primary, yeah.
So do you think these reflect an improvement in history teaching, different key stages over the past twenty years? You know, the textbooks have helped improve teaching? They’ve changed a lot haven’t they? [0:51:17]
They’ve changed a bit, I mean they’ve improved. Well that’s not necessarily the content or the illustrations. It’s in part perhaps better technology generally. Colour helped a lot. I mean a lot of the textbooks I first worked with were mainly black and white, but today mainly colourful, certainly for youngsters. Textbooks better, probably. But it’s not just about textbooks is it, thankfully. Thankfully, you’ve got to have good textbooks, they’re there as a starter, but if teachers at any level ever become totally chained to the textbook then there’s something wrong with the way they’re teaching history. You know that, I know that.
Yeah. But it’s about creating your own material.
It is, absolutely right. That’s partly it, but I mean the materials are there in textbooks but you’ve got to look beyond those and textbooks just there as occasionally to help and to be cut up and re-pasted. Primary, they’ve probably got less time in fairness, so primary, and they aren’t by any means all history specialists, although there’s a lot of history specialists in primary schools, although not as specialist as they once were because of the way teachers are now trained at primary. But I guess many want something that’s relatively easily accessible, but whether books are better or not, I’m not sure. The primary stuff is … the stuff I did for Ginn twenty odd years ago, and it worries me, still, you know, I still get reasonably healthy cheques every year, so the books are still selling and that’s twenty odd years down the line almost.
Well you could see it positively, either they’re very, very good books and people like them or they just can’t get out of ordering the same thing year in, year out. Yeah. But it’s a bit worrying.
Yes. I mean you do hear the argument, people say, well history never changes so we don’t need new books. You do hear that argument, yeah. You’re obviously quoting me, my ninety-nine per cent, which I don’t ever agree to have said, but I do think there is a kind of core of fact that has to be accepted otherwise you never get very far very fast in life and not in past life. You have to accept I think that some Romans came and a few Saxons came – hardly any really – and fewer Vikings came, but there was, the Normans – well, quite a lot of Normans came I think, in 1066 – you have to accept - and there was a Spanish Armada – you have to accept some dates.
What really matters when it comes to teaching history to under elevens or eleven to fourteens? Or is it different at different ages?
Well it’s materials and method isn’t it, I guess. It’s content and method of teaching. Well, variety is the spice of teaching life so plenty of different methods to suit the various needs of the learners who’ve all got different styles of learning. So there’s loads of different methods you might use and they can interest or entertain or whatever. With regard to content, I hate most theories about education but I still quite like the Kieran Egan one, the notion of mythic and romantic and whatever. It still has some appeal so, you know, the really young kids, key stage one are at the mythic level as far as history’s concerned and therefore history must be taught to them very much as fairytale, which still strikes me as right and it’s the way I would teach my grandchildren and did with the kids I guess. Yeah, there’s the enquiry bit as well which goes along with that, but that’s probably as much true of the methods that you use. But the story is the story, the mythic approach. The romantic approach is the kind of Sun, Daily Mirror approach, which works for indeed most of us most of the time, which is why probably we’d still have a quick look at The Sun or The Daily Mirror even now if we’re ever presented with one. You know, we could read it very quickly, but we’d have a smile. But I think that tends to be a good way forward with youngsters eight to fifteen and often beyond. So it’s The Sun, Daily Mirror approach, the bizarre, the larger than life, the strangeness, the odd things that folks in the past have done that tends to entertain. As well as the enquiry approach which I think, let me not attack SHP too much, I’ve been a bit unfair there because I think the enquiry approach is still an absolutely good way forward.
I really would like your view on the trend towards, if you like, ‘me’ centred approaches. Something I’ve noticed in looking at the very recent materials that are being produced, is that pupils asked always to start with themselves and to relate very much the topic to themselves. Are we talking key stage one here are we?
No, later than that, in secondary, key stage three. Oh, I’m not … I think they should have moved on at that stage, would be my gut feel. I mean key stage one is where that might work and of course that’s, I guess, got to be reinforced. I mean part of the National Curriculum’s failure was the notion I guess that once you’ve been taught that you remember it forever and therefore you don’t need to be taught it again. Well we all know that that’s rubbish, that you do have to kind of be kept up and reminded that things … you forget, is what I’m trying to say, and that being the case, I could see why there might occasionally be some sense in right, let’s return to me at various points, because we’ve forgotten this along the way because we’ve had all this other stuff to remember at the same time. But I’m not sure I’d go along too much with that at key stage three.
Because you’re emphasising the strangeness of history and the exotic and the attraction of the exotic. On the other hand, some teachers will argue it’s important always to have the student’s reference point.
Yeah. The Kieran Egan theory as I remember it was that we actually never lose the kind of, well the mythic, the romantic and the whatever and I suppose if you go back down then … I’ve nothing against the me, I think that could be a valid way forward and indeed, I guess as a secondary teacher that was often the way you did try and link a lot of the content to the kids, that the here and now, this is you here and now, this was them in the past. So it’s absolutely a valid way forward, I’ve no problem with that at all.
Looking back on your time as a teacher trainer, what differences have you noticed when you compare the way history teachers approach their work now and when you first … when you retired and from when you first started – were there differences, were they much the same? I think much the same. Famous last words, but I don’t think there were any major differences. My experience, the vast majority of people who wanted to be history teachers were committed, enthusiastic, well motivated, determined to interest the kids and had the potential to be good teachers, which I think most became. Thus the point about most history teachers probably are better than most other teachers. History teacher trainers are fortunate in that position. So that has been true throughout my time with teacher training. Has it changed? I think there’s now more emphasis on aims, objectives, the reflective practitioner bit than there used to be, for better, but also for worse. I mean there is a finite amount of time that all teacher training, would-be teachers, student teachers, trainee teachers have and I guess there’s a bit of a fear that they might be spending rather too much time on writing down evaluations than actually preparing materials and coming up with new ideas about how to put particular topics across. It’s a bit like police, you know, filling in forms rather than going out and catching criminals and I think there might have been a bit too much emphasis on one rather than the other. Particularly as today, would-be teachers, those who are being trained have got so much more potential with regard to the materials that you can use than you would have or I would have, so in a sense they need rather more time to prepare because they’ve got so much more choice of potential material at their disposal. I mean the computer makes so much accessible but does take a lot of time to work out what the best bit of video, the best questions to ask, the best still photograph to stick up. It’s just mind blowing, but you suspect that quite a lot of them are spending all their time just re-examining their navel. But that’s just me. Perhaps they have to re-examine their navel, it’s me, me, me, me isn’t it, I suppose, so that’s seems reasonable even for student teachers.
So overall, what have been the positive changes that have affected history in schools in your career and what have been the most negative ones? … Negative? Apart from the fact that because I think history is vital, perhaps not explained why I think it is as well as I could, but I think it’s vital. I’m saddened by the fact that fewer children now do history than did when I was at school, or did I think down to the 1980s, so that there’s been a fall in the amount of history that’s taught and there’s probably been less history taught at primary over the last ten years than was the case before that. So I’m saddened by that. That might be negative, otherwise it’s generally positive. Going back to the materials. When I first started teaching it was largely chalk and talk. I mean how did you photocopy, there wasn’t a photocopier so you had to Banda or Gestetner. And they didn’t work very well. You did your best with them but chalk was often better than that and so the real positives, well the photocopier, tremendous. Video, DVD, tremendous. Getting film into the classroom in the early seventies – Sheffield used to have films that you could hire out, the old cine film, but once you got the thing started if you didn’t get it in in the time it was still running and you couldn’t, unless you broke the reel you were stuck, so you had to kind of, your timing had to be perfect and you had to order these things weeks in advance. So that was just a nightmare using film, because there was no video until what, late seventies or mid seventies anyway. Late seventies I think, even. So recently the computer and all that goes with that, which incorporates everything really, it’s just mind blowingly good. I continue to go into school, even this year I’ve done a bit of observation and what the kind of materials the teachers can use and the way they are using those materials is super, tremendous. So that’s all positive. So I think the material, people who want to teach are still good, that’s not changed very much at all, certainly not at secondary. I did have a dig at primary. Perhaps … the system of training primary teachers that they had a subject specialism, so you got quite a lot of history specialists into school who would then probably help others to teach history, but we’ve very few specialists now of any description apart from literacy, numeracy, going into primary schools and I think that’s a bit sad, so maybe that’s a bit of a negative. But that’s just the way the world has gone really.
So do you feel optimistic about the prospects for history in the school curriculum? Yeah. It’s still in danger but it’s been in danger throughout my history teaching life and it’ll continue to be threatened. But you do need that struggle to survive I think and history has struggled to survive quite well really over the last forty-odd years and I think it is important. I think it’ll continue in some shape or form. I hope it continues in pretty much the form it is now. It’s better being taught as a separate subject than under a broad humanities umbrella I think. So in that sense I am defending SHP as well, because at least they did try and say history is history and it’s not geography, it’s not humanities. Albeit the first, the school time and place one, the seven to thirteen, that was quite an interesting integrated approach which I liked and very much approved of, albeit generally I do favour history being taught in splendid isolation.
Thank you very much. Is that okay?
Yes. [End of recording]