Revealed: what today's history teachers share with the Victorians

1880s lessons took a surprisingly unstuffy approach, claims research

Kerra Maddern

Modern-day history teachers have more in common with their Victorian counterparts than they might think, a new research project has claimed.

Far from forcing children to learn by rote and recite names of kings and queens, those working in schools more than a century ago were asked to make the subject anything but staid and stuffy by a government aware it might not appeal to the first generation of children being educated by the state.

There were visits to art galleries, famous landmarks and the use of drama. Official guidance of the day said pupils needed to be engaged if they were to become interested in the subject.

The major research project shows an unexpected view of the subject and chronicles what it claims are the more recent attempts to manipulate it for political purposes.

The History in Education project charts the birth, growth and then decline of the subject in state schools from the 1880s to the present day, using government guidance, school inspection reports and memories from former pupils.

Jenny Keating, a researcher on the project, said modern-day teachers would be surprisingly familiar with the classes.

"This was a time when most children left school at 14, so it's clear the government is aware teachers need to make the subject as relevant as possible for them," she said. "It's clear most Victorian history lessons involved teachers telling stories, particularly for younger children. They were expected to show how the British nation grew."

The study has found that in later generations teachers did not follow the guidance to be as innovative as possible - especially after a more formal curriculum was introduced. The responses to surveys sent out as part of the project show that many children educated in the 1930s, '40s and '50s found history boring.

"We heard from one man whose teacher used four blackboards to write down dates. If you weren't quick enough before he rubbed the information off you were unlucky," said Nicola Sheldon, also a researcher on the project.

"Another had to learn 100 dates off by heart and was beaten if he could not remember them. But before history was examined, teachers were able to be more creative and most didn't think their job was to cram children with information. Most took a great pride in making their own resources."

Past it? A subject and its battles

By 1905 - after Britain's defeat in the Boer War - teachers were being asked to avoid teaching only about battles and instead to feature the lives of different kinds of people.

In the 1920s, when the first Labour government was in power, children were taught about social history and the growth of industry.

After the end of First World War in 1918, it was thought that an awareness of other countries could prevent future conflict. World history was put on the curriculum.

The introduction of O-levels in 1951 and CSEs in 1965 meant teachers now had to follow a set history syllabus for the first time and pupils had to complete coursework.

The introduction of the photocopier and other new technology from the 1970s gave children access to more and more original material. The start of GCSEs in 1988 meant pupils were examined on their interpretation of sources for the first time. By the 1970s the government saw history as a vehicle for teaching skills rather than just content - a debate that continues today.

Now, the growth of citizenship and the view of history as part of humanities, together with an increasingly packed curriculum, means history struggles to complete with other subjects.

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Kerra Maddern

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