Goodbye to old hat

Harvey McGavin on the new spirit of dynamism at the Historical Association

History matters - that's the message and the title of the Historical Association's annual get together in Manchester next week. The three-day conference, expanded to include a day of primary workshops for the first time, is expecting around 550 participants, an increase of 100 on last year's event.

Improved attendance is just one symptom of a reversal in the association's fortunes. Two years ago it found itself in the doldrums, stuck with an old-fashioned image and a cumbersome management structure. Unusually for a subject association, it welcomed lay members. But despite casting its net wide, the association found its membership dwindling.

"There was a growing awareness that we weren't making the most of our multiple constituency profile," explains Christine Counsell, recently retired chair of the association's education committee.

Some revision was needed and the association called in management consultants Coopers and Lybrand. Their report recommended streamlining the management, restyling their publications and trying to attract new members and conference delegates.

"It started with a gradual but alarming decline in membership during the mid 1980s," explains honorary secretary Sean Lang. Everyday decisions had to be referred to the association's honorary officers. His morning mail would often include papers to be signed and rubberstamped.

Concentrating decision-making at the association's London headquarters speeded up the process of change, he says. "It was a bit like perestroika. We desperately needed publicity and marketing expertise to convert interest into membership. Much of what we have to do is advertise what we do much better. "

Membership, which dipped below 7,000 in the 1980s, leapt to almost 9,000 after the introduction of the national curriculum but then fell steadily. But this year non-renewal rates are down, and there are nearly 1,000 new members.

"We are turning the corner," says Mr Lang. "We have become more professional but we haven't finished yet."

He agrees that in the competition for consumers, history has a problem - its brand name is distinctly passe. To bring it up to date, the association has adopted a new logo and revamped its publications, Teaching History and Primary History to include news and advice on resources in a "briefing" section, and special offers on group visits. "It's an attempt to make them more practical and classroom-oriented," says communications officer Becky Sullivan.

Publicity designed to increase its appeal to children includes posters carrying the catchphrase "You're history". The emphasis, that tomorrow's history textbooks depend on today's current affairs and our part in them, is on improving take-up rates at 14 and beyond.

But new faces aren't just needed in the classroom, says Ms Counsell. Conference-goers should notice a fresh influx of speakers armed with examples of good practice. "We have to break down the barriers between theoretical and practical," she says. "We want to make sure conference workshops are not dominated by chief examiners and well known faces."

The association is entering a new era and plans to become a more proactive, lobbying organisation, arguing the case for history to have an enhanced role in the curriculum, possibly encompassing "education for citizenship".

"What is the point in introducing that through the back door when history is delivering it in spades?" asks Ms Counsell. "The association should be a forum for vigorous debate involving all teachers of history. It's vital to develop a culture of interest and excitement."

History students do much more than chronicle the facts of days gone by, she says. They also learn to write well and to debate and argue effectively.

"We want to see a much stronger emphasis on cultural education. Education is bigger than just getting people ready for work."

History Matters, the Historical Association's Education Conference with more than 60 workshops and a major exhibition of books and resources, runs from September 11-13 at UMIST, Manchester. To book tel:0161 200 4068 Historical Association, tel: 0171 735 3901

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