Teaching History in the Primary School

The National Curriculum

Historical background

The 1960s and 1970s saw many changes in primary schools. The Plowden Report (1967) had established that the child was 'a lamp to be lit, not a vessel to be filled'. In a developing world knowledge was seen as much less important than the ability to learn new skills. Teaching methods needed to change in order to stimulate childrens' interests and encourage them to work more independently.

There was also widespread agreement that children from poorer backgrounds suffered from disadvantages when they entered the education system, disadvantages which the system merely reinforced (Newsom Report, 1961). Talent was being wasted and inequality perpetuated. It wasn't enough to have 'equality of opportunity' if many children were unable to grasp the opportunities on offer.

As a result primary school classrooms were transformed. Desks in rows disappeared. Children worked in groups or on their own for much of the day. Teachers tried to devise situations in which children could find out answers for themselves. In place of a timetable divided into subjects there were projects. Creative activity of one sort or another tended to occupy the greater part of the school day. The Devon film 'One Summer Term' (1970) presents a portrait of primary schools in this phase.

At the same time there was a growing emphasis upon education as a way of achieving greater social justice. Teachers as a profession seemed to become liberal if not left-wing in their outlook. The public, led by newspapers like the Daily Mail, began to suspect that extremists were infiltrating the system ('reds under the bed'). The most dangerous criticisms however came from industry. Despite the emphasis on skill and understanding, especially in subjects like Maths, children were still leaving school poorly equipped to take jobs. Schools run by 'permissive' heads were targeted: Risinghill and William Tyndale were two famous examples.

What became known as the great curriculum debate was initiated by a Labour prime-minister, James Callaghan in 1977. He said that schools appeared to be letting down their pupils and called on educationalists to review their principles. To the Opposition however, the real enemy were 'loony left-wing' LEA's pouring money into the teaching of subjects like 'peace studies' whilst neglecting basic skills. Mrs Thatcher saw parents as her natural allies in a campaign to bring the loonies to heel. When they came into power in 1979 the Conservatives increased the number of parents on governing bodies (1981) whilst gradually assuming a much greater degree of control over the ways LEA's spent their money, especially in relation to in-service training - one of the main ways in which LEA advisers influenced what happened in schools.

The most radical reforms came in 1988. In that year a ten subject National Curriculum was introduced alongside a national system of testing (SATs) and inspection (OFSTED). Schools were now to have control over most of their budgets but would be funded on the basis of their ability to attract pupils (known as Local Financial Management). The government expected parents to choose schools with the best test results thus forcing 'bad' schools to improve or die.

For each of the ten subjects working parties were set up whose reports formed the basis of statutory orders directing schools what to teach. Most working parties took an 'all-inclusive' view of their subject. The result was a curriculum far too large for the time available to teach it. The teacher unions forced a reduction on the Major government by threatening to withdraw co-operation with the SATs (Dearing review, 1991) but the overload on teachers remained. More significantly childrens' achievements in Maths and English continued to lag behind those in Europe so the present Labour government suspended some of the requirements of the National Curriculum prior to the introduction of new literacy and numeracy hours in 1999. However these requirements were restored in the latest review of the National Curriculum, known as 'Curriculum 2000'.

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History in the National Curriculum

The 1988 Working Party Report tried to reconcile a more modern, global, view of history, including social, economic and cultural aspects, with the traditional teaching wanted by the Tories.The result was an open agenda at Key Stage 1 with an emphasis upon stories and a general requirement that children become aware of the past through changes around them. At Key Stage 2 a number of specific periods had to be taught including several relating to British history. Ancient Greece was the most controversial of the non-British study units as there were few resources then available to teach it. In subsequent revisions the content has been slightly reduced but there remain five key skills which children must develop throughout the learning of history. These are: Chronology, Historical Understanding, Interpretation, Enquiry and Organisation. They form the agenda for this course.

Comment: the introduction of the National Curriculum took away teachers' responsibility for deciding what children needed to learn, but its effects were not all bad:

  • it gave history an established place in the curriculum, defined its key skills and reduced repetition. OFSTED reports have stuck firmly to the quality rather than quantity line, emphasising that 'doing' history is more important than learning dates.
  • gave us a clear agenda for training. 'Manuals' are available for non-specialists eg QCA guide.
  • stimulated the production of books & resource materials.

On the minus side: it is still mainly British, largely ignores prehistory and archaeology, doesn't require visits, reflects the old Whig interpretation of history i.e. that history is about the achievement of parliamentary democracy and that historical characters are significant on the basis of their contribution to this process. This makes it difficult to teach:

  • because you need to know the whole story before you can see why someone is considered important ('why are we learning about Elizabeth I, miss?')
  • because it may make people's actions harder to understand (see below)
  • because it ignores the influence of 'non-political' factors such as climate, human nature etc.

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The historian Christine Carpenter has written: No account of the past will ever be free of anachronism unless the historian can himself enter into the mindset of the main participants.

To do what she says, without departing from the truth, requires you to know your society, to find resources that open windows into it for children, ask the kind of questions that lead to real understanding and find enjoyable activities that make use of that understanding. It also requires you to know what the children need to know, not just in terms of curriculum requirements but in terms of their own lives. What you will find is that this comes down to relationships: how people behave towards one another and how different circumstances lead to different behaviours.

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