The national curriculum and the changing face of school history 1988-2010 We have mostly been on the defensive and reacting to changes all the time. History is quite good at adapting



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THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM AND THE CHANGING FACE OF SCHOOL HISTORY 1988-2010
We have mostly been on the defensive and reacting to changes all the time. History is quite good at adapting; it has had to…. In many schools, history remains the most popular optional subject, despite everything that is thrown at it. It is resilient in that sense.1
The Origins of the History National Curriculum
Prime Minister Jim Callaghan’s speech at Ruskin College, Oxford on 18 October 1976 is generally taken to mark the start of a major shift in political attitudes to the school curriculum, formerly regarded as the ‘secret garden’ of teachers and academics.2 The ‘Great Debate’ launched by Callaghan originated in global economic shifts which were by the late 1970s challenging the British economy and putting pressure on government revenues at a time when education was requiring considerable investment (the school leaving age had been raised in 1973 and university education had been expanded). As Callaghan made clear, ‘Public interest is strong and legitimate and will be satisfied. We spend £6bn a year on education, so there will be discussion.’ For the first time, a politician was addressing the ‘goals of our education’ explicitly and questioned whether ‘the new informal methods of teaching’ provided the skills school-leavers needed for employment in a British economy which needed to compete with the rest of the world. Callaghan proposed a ‘core curriculum’ and ‘national standard of performance by schools in their use of public money’. Thus the era of public accountability in education was launched.

The ‘core curriculum’ mentioned by Callaghan would provide a basis on which the efficiency of the education system could be measured, especially in relation to certain basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. This would be done by the setting of benchmarks and testing of the subjects taught.3 Already, however, an alternative approach to curriculum reform was being developed by Her Majesty’s Inspectors of schools (HMI). This involved a ‘common curriculum’ for secondary education, which would ensure all pupils were ‘entitled’ to certain areas of experience (they identified eight such areas). The inspectors set up an experimental project with schools in 5 local education authorities (LEAs) to co-ordinate their curriculum based on this common entitlement curriculum.4 The project continued with reviews from 1977-83.5 The inspectorate was seeking to address a number of issues, including the effects of comprehensive school reorganisation, the raising of the school leaving age and the changes brought about by both the Schools Council and ad hoc local curriculum developments. The inspectors recognised that a more mobile population would lead to a lack of coherence and real disadvantage for an increasing number of children in their education, given the differences between schools’ individual curricular offering.6 The inspectors referred to ‘the bewildering diversity of practice, the problems of lack of balance within the curriculum, and the possibly adverse impact on pupils [of] unacceptable differences in the quality and range of educational experience offered .… Some common framework of assumptions is needed which assists coherence without inhibiting enterprise.’7 It could be argued that the story of the history National Curriculum and its several revisions have been an illustration of the difficulty of achieving the balance between ‘coherence’ and ‘enterprise’.

The Department of Education and Science developed the ‘core curriculum’ idea implicit in Callaghan’s speech in two documents: A Framework for the School Curriculum and The School Curriculum.8 The former listed a limited core of required subjects and even suggested the amount of time which should be spent on them. The latter laid out the Secretary of State’s interest in the school curriculum, both its content and quality, though it recognised that both the core and common curriculum ideas had validity.9 These were followed in 1985 by the white paper Better Schools, which set out the Conservative Government’s intention to reform the school curriculum and the examination system, to improve the quality of the teaching workforce by training and appraisal and to reform school governing bodies as overseers of school effectiveness.10 Speaking at a conference in Birmingham in 1986, Sir Keith Joseph, the Secretary of State, described Better Schools as a ‘far-reaching programme for improving the performance of our schools’ focused on ‘ways of identifying the expectations against which we can measure educational achievements, and ways in which educational achievements can be assessed’.11

Joseph had already signalled the direction of policy in speeches the previous year given at the conferences of the various subject associations. Addressing the Historical Association on 10 February 1984, he confirmed the government’s aim to ‘reach widespread agreement on the objectives of the school curriculum’. Within this, he made clear the commitment to history as ‘an essential component in the curriculum of all pupils’ which should feature in primary and secondary phases up to age 16.12 Sir Keith’s speech referred positively to the role of ‘knowledge, understanding and skills’ and the importance of offering children different interpretations of the past. He even included a consideration of the value of empathy or ‘sympathetic understanding’ to children’s developing historical work in school.13 In these respects, he was reassuring the supporters of new history and the history educational establishment in training colleges and HMI. The speech also contained support for the teaching of British history and the ‘development of the shared values which are a distinctive feature of British society and culture’, though he also recognised the sensitivities involved in teaching pupils from ‘a variety of social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds’.14 The speech seems to have been well-received, but there is nothing in it to indicate how the ‘widespread agreement’ on the history curriculum would be arrived at and it seems that Sir Keith had no worked-out plan for taking a national curriculum forwards.15

In May 1986, Kenneth Baker replaced Sir Keith Joseph as Education Secretary. Baker was committed to introducing a national curriculum to ensure schools reached a required standard which was testable and comparable, an idea he knew would be opposed by many in the educational establishment.16 Baker preferred a common curriculum, embracing the full range of educational experience to which all children would be entitled. This was in contrast to Margaret Thatcher, who wanted the core subjects only to be specified by government, leaving schools to decide on the rest of the curriculum. The eventual National Curriculum with its closely-specified 10 subjects was close to Baker’s conception, though he did not manage to control all of the agendas in which he had an interest once they got into the hands of the subject working groups (he had decided views on English, foreign languages, technology, history and geography). In history for instance, he ‘wanted to see essentially a timeline from whenever you started whether it was pre-Roman Britain or Roman Britain up to today … to give children an idea of the continuum of history’.17
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate and the History National Curriculum

During the same period, ideas about the common curriculum and the place of history in it were being explored by the inspectorate. In 1980, HMI had published A View of the Curriculum which proposed a ‘much more explicit consensus nationally on what constitutes five years of secondary education’, i.e. a common curriculum. For this to happen, the skills and knowledge contributed by individual subjects would need to be identified and the ‘amount of common ground’ extended with a ‘substantially larger compulsory element’ in the final two years. This discussion paper did reinforce the importance of history in the curriculum – it claimed there was ‘a strong case’ for maintaining ‘some study’ of history to age 16.18

Two documents published in the 1980s reflect the developing views of HMI in relation specifically to history. History in the Primary and Secondary Years: an HMI view (1985), published under the leadership of John Slater, senior Inspector for History, set out the ‘case’ for history along similar lines to the SCHP a decade earlier. Central to the study of history were ‘specifically historical skills (which are the essence of the subject)’, whereas content was a matter of selection and would differ according to the location of the school and the issues relevant to contemporary society.19 The document recognised the importance of chronology but did not elevate it above other aspects of historical understanding. Indeed, the inspectorate accepted that opinions would differ and offered three different chronological frameworks in their appendices.20 History in the Primary and Secondary Years demonstrated how far the ideas of Coltham and Fines had become the orthodoxy for the history HMIs. Pages 18-19 contain a table of detailed objectives for the development of age-related historical skills and understanding, including empathy and evidence-handling skills. In 1987, Slater left the inspectorate for academia and later became a critic of the history National Curriculum.21

By 1988, on the eve of the introduction of the National Curriculum, a different view on the curriculum was put forward by senior history Inspector Roger Hennessey.22 The opening paragraphs of History in the Primary and Secondary Years stressed history’s role in preparing young people to be discerning citizens. The 1988 publication, History from 5 to 16, argued for history in schools on the basis of its role in the transmission of heritage and ‘an appreciation of human achievements and aspirations’. It also stressed the need to ensure students understood ‘the values of our society’ and learned about ‘the major issues and events in the history of their own country and of the world’.23 Skills and sources were still important in the objectives listed by the inspectorate, but chronology was noticeably more prominent at the head of the list.24 Whereas the 1985 document specified very little essential content and expected the curriculum to differ between schools, by 1988 HMI saw the selection of historical content as ‘crucial’ to the common curriculum and a long list of expected knowledge by age 16 was specified in detail.25 Attention was also given to ways of ensuring continuity in the study of history between primary and secondary school and progression in the skills developed at different stages of learning.26

The History Working Group and the debate about the History National Curriculum
Thus, the expectations of politicians and the work of the HMI were both expected to inform the process of creating the National Curriculum which was enacted in principle by the passing of the Education Reform Act of 1988, the most significant piece of education legislation since the Butler Act of 1944. The full National Curriculum included three core subjects (English, mathematics, science) and seven foundation subjects, of which history was one. A task group of ‘experts’ was appointed for each subject area to agree on the required learning to be covered in programmes of study made up of a selection from the list of history study units each of which covered a particular topic. At each stage of the school career (key stages 1-4) children would be taught a mix of ‘core’ and ‘optional’ units to make up their programme of study. The teaching of the curriculum was to be tested using a standard framework of assessment across all subjects. The framework, consisting of ‘attainment targets’ on a 10-level scale, had been devised by the TGAT (Task Group on Assessment and Testing) headed by Professor Paul Black who was head of the Centre for Educational Studies at King’s College, London and an expert in science education. The 10-level scale was originally devised to reflect the progression of children’s understanding in science, but all the working groups were required to apply it to their own subjects. Benchmark tests were to be set at ages 7, 11 and 14 (at the end of the first 3 key stages) with GCSE marking the final one at age 16.27

The political battles surrounding the creation of the National Curriculum, and especially history, have been chronicled by the politicians in their memoirs.28 Duncan Graham, the former Chief Executive of the National Curriculum Council (NCC)29, in his account of the troubled birth of the National Curriculum, described the competition for influence between civil servants, politicians and the NCC as the body charged with ensuring a workable curriculum was produced. He makes it clear that HMI were hardly consulted and mainly ‘out of the loop’ in terms of policy.30 Nonetheless, once the working groups were appointed, it was difficult for the civil servants and even more so for the Minister to keep control of them.

The appointment process for the History Working Group (HWG) in January 1989 is wreathed in mystery. It appears that Mrs Thatcher vetoed initial choices which had too much of a connection with new history.31 The Chairman, Michael Saunders Watson, seems to have been chosen on the basis of a chance meeting with Baker.32 Others had also met Baker at earlier events. However, according to Roger Hennessey, there was consultation with HMI over the choices and a deliberate policy not to go for ‘the extremes’.33 Consequently, the Group were an eclectic mix of ‘lay’ members, with an interest in history, such as Henry Hobson, the Chairman of Somerset County Council who had published a popular history book, and ‘expert’ members from within the history education community. There was no representation of the Schools History Project, nor were there any of the leading supporters of new history. 34 Yet the Group was no cipher of the Right either. Tim Lomas, a local authority adviser and expert on exams, joined the group six months into the process, in July 1989:

We would hardly have represented the automatic names. I think that was deliberate …. What emerged at the end of the day was a very varied group and in some respects a quite innovative group, but it was almost as though they were starting from scratch.35

The Working Group included only two teachers, one primary and one secondary, though the two late joiners, Tim Lomas and Chris Culpin, had also been teachers. There were also two teacher-trainers and two academic historians (John Roberts and Peter Marshall) from higher education. Saunders Watson proved an able chairman, impervious to pressures from outside, be they media speculation or civil service promptings, although the Group knew the remit had limitations which had to be observed. However, there was still room for manoeuvre, as Lomas confirmed:

Although it was anathema, I suspect, to many in the Government at the time, the Schools History Project philosophy was very influential in the History Working Group [with regard to] … the idea of combining skills, the concepts and the content … And … I don’t think, if we hadn’t shown a certain independence,… we’d have had concepts like interpretations [included].36

In fact, the atmosphere in the Group appears to have been workmanlike, even intense, as they argued into the long hours about the study units and the attainment targets.

The role of the civil servants in discussions, in particular Roger Hennessey as the senior HMI, proved to be significant:

Although [my role was] meant to be Observer, I could advise them on actually what was going on [in schools] and what best practice was, what worst practice was, and why. So I suppose I had a privileged position … but I certainly tried not to dominate conversations or debates, and often would sit quietly as they went on, and produce the torpedo later on.37

Critics regarded Hennessey as too influential; however, it seems that the Group accepted and even appreciated his input.38 To some extent, anyway, the HWG was content to follow the Government’s diktats over the content of the history curriculum. There was a ready compliance with Baker’s demand for 50 per cent British history, though their perception of what ‘British history’ actually meant was somewhat different from the traditional chronological run-through of kings, queens and political history. Hennessey saw the introduction of the National Curriculum as an opportunity to address issues of gender and ethnicity which had only been tackled piecemeal by particular local authorities in the 1980s:

We thought that because history gives off messages as to what is and is not significant in schools, matters like gender and ethnicity really ought to be addressed by the History Working Group, and the group agreed with this. If you leave these things out, they are regarded as not significant; if you put them in they are controversial…. This was a chance to put right something which had been entering … confused debate outside, or was not debated at all, which is even worse, perhaps.39

Despite his ‘traditionalist’ views on the primacy of historical knowledge, or perhaps because of them, Hennessey thought it was important to include social and cultural history, liberalising the content of the curriculum to reflect changes in British society, not reinforcing a 1950s version of the national narrative. In this he was in tune with members of the HWG anyway.40 He was also at one with the Group in their preference for a version of British history which respected the contributions of all four nations, rather than focusing only on the English perspective.41 On the other hand, he also put pressure on them to be pragmatic about the Government’s requirements, in particular to reflect national characteristics in their choice of British history topics.42
Mrs Thatcher’s view was that factual knowledge and in particular a traditional version of British history should be pre-eminent in the history National Curriculum, whereas Baker, though agreeing on the need for more British history, took a subtler approach which accepted that imagination and sources could be useful in teaching history. However, he still thought it possible to define progression in terms of historical knowledge:43

I would have hoped they would have been more precise and definite. I think it is possible to define stages of progress and understanding. I’m not saying you should know every date … but some understanding of what has happened and what happened next and you can measure what they know.44

Thatcher’s reaction to the Interim Report of the History Working Group (‘I was appalled’)45 confirmed her feelings of disquiet about the teaching of history and she pushed for a greater proportion of time to be devoted to British history and more emphasis on chronology.46 Duncan Graham at the NCC considered the rift between the politicians and the Working Group to be extremely serious, ‘The interim report made history a public debate and yet again the national curriculum was in jeopardy’.47 For those on the ‘inside’ in the HWG, the pressure came from two directions at once, as Peter Marshall, the academic historian on the Group, admitted:

It was at the time pretty scary and difficult … because you always felt you were being assailed on two sides; on the [one] side by the great body of teachers who were saying you’re government stooges, you’re laying down these impossible regulations on us, and when you knew that far from that being the case, the Prime Minister would have tremendous energy [and] was obviously reading everything.48

Baker departed in July 1989 before the Interim Report was published in the August, but his successor, John MacGregor, was under as much pressure from the PM to modify the HWG’s proposals.49 MacGregor, an arch-conciliator, asked for more attention to chronology and more British history in the compulsory units, both of which were not difficult for the Group to concede. The biggest stumbling block concerned the Working Group’s refusal to specify historical knowledge within the attainment targets (i.e. what the pupils would be tested on).50 Their rationale for this was that historical knowledge is not acquired cumulatively (unlike scientific or mathematical knowledge) and therefore there is no hierarchy of historical knowledge which could be related to the key stages and tested as such. Tim Lomas had been brought into the Group to deal with the assessment issues:

One wouldn’t have started from where we had to start from in a perfect world. We were very conscious of the fact that conventional, progressive levels one to 10 don’t work very effectively for subjects like history. Of course, this had been devised originally for science by Professor Paul Black, and for maths. … That doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as progression in history, but the idea of just moving up through a series of levels was a very difficult concept.51


Historical knowledge would be the medium for the tests but the marks would be awarded for the demonstration of skills in history, such as ‘acquiring and evaluating historical information’ (AT3) and ‘organising and communicating the results of historical study’ (AT4).52 The HWG tried to bridge the gap between the ‘facts versus skills’ debate by arguing that the one was dependent on the other and the argument was therefore redundant since the knowledge to be taught was set out in the programmes of study, some of which were mandatory.53
Teachers’ reactions to the National Curriculum
One of the Government’s responses to the (in their view) objectionable aspects of the HWG’s Interim and Final Reports was to insist on additional consultation, perhaps in the hope that a public preference for ‘traditional’ history would manifest itself or at least to give the PM and Secretary of State time to agree the changes they wanted in the history National Curriculum.54 History generated more public attention and professional interest than any other National Curriculum subject, even though English had also been controversial. Over 1,000 responses were received to the Interim Report, mainly from groups of teachers in schools and local authority advisers.55 Their concerns were overwhelmingly practical ones – the unfamiliar subject knowledge expected for some of the study units (e.g. Moghul India and Classical China), the quantity of time assumed to be available to teach them and the ‘waste’ of resources which had been bought to support GCSE courses which would now have to be scrapped under the Key Stage 4 (age 14-16) proposals.56 Yet many of the respondents commended the proposals for the attainment targets, in particular the decision not to specify particular historical factual knowledge which would be tested. The Historical Association organised a series of regional conferences following both reports and their outcomes were passed on to the Government.57 Objections ranged from particular issues such as the need to include a study unit on the Second World War (it had been omitted from the programmes of study in the Interim Report) to the broad philosophical objection to the restrictions the National Curriculum imposed on the autonomy of teachers to develop the curriculum they thought appropriate.58 Although ‘school designed’ topics were allowed, they were marginal to the core studies in the new curriculum.59 Concern was also expressed about the amount of content in each study unit, the costs of providing new materials and also about whether some units were just too boring.60
Directory: history-in-education -> sites -> history-in-education -> files -> attachments
attachments -> Primary School Memories Pupils born in the 1950s gg/P50/HiE99 Primary + Grammar, Nottingham
attachments -> From new history to the gcse 1960s-1988
attachments -> Summary of Teacher Interviews Chronology and the National Curriculum
attachments -> In the classroom – textbooks 1900 – 1950s
attachments -> Technology and the History Classroom 1960s to the present day
attachments -> Government policy towards education and history teaching 1945 – early 1960s Government policy towards education after the 1944 Education Act
attachments -> Notes on Teacher Training 1960s to present day Teacher Training in the 1940s and ‘50s
attachments -> Primary school memories 1910s pupils jg/P18/HiE54
attachments -> Ideas and advice about history teaching 1900-1950s
attachments -> Secondary school memories exam courses


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