The future meets the past: 100 years of the Historical Association

17th February 2006 at 00:00
The Historical Association (HA) is 100 years old this year.

Throughout its lifetime, its primary aim has remained constant - to support and promote the study of history. But how far has its work with teachers evolved over a century?

By 1906, when the HA was founded, history as a discipline was still reeling from the more scientific, critical approach which emerged in the previous century. It was only in the early 1900s that history secured a strong foothold in universities, accompanied by a more critical examination of what was happening in schools. The main impetus for a historical association lay with teachers. In elementary schools, history was only just beginning to appear (as reading lessons). Even in the larger secondary or grammar schools, history was often taught by non-specialists. Dr Rachel Reid, a founder of the HA, explained that she taught in four schools where she had "literally no-one to consult about syllabus, choice of textbooks and methods".

In the first public proposal for the establishment of the HA, Reid's colleague, Miss Howard, argued that the teaching of this "new" subject merited greater attention, for reasons still recognisable today: "We should profit by meetings held... to discuss the special problems of history teaching... Such an association might do much to keep those who are working in schools in touch with the work which is being done at the universities.

It might call attention to books and articles on the teaching of history... (and) when needful bring pressure to bear on educational authorities and on examining bodies."

In 1911, the HA adopted a policy on school history. It argued "that in every school... there should be one teacher specially qualified to supervise history teaching" and proceeded to demand that British history should be made compulsory in examinations, embracing the growth of Empire. Substitute "growth of empire" with "significance of empire, good and bad" and this could be a headline today.

Therefore from the very beginning, the HA supported specialist history teachers, acted as a pressure group and involved itself in the curriculum.

Its early forays into professional development included a journal (History) which was in part an attempt to keep teachers up to date.

From a membership of barely 100 in 1906, the HA now boasts around 6,500 members, of which a majority are teachers. A crucial part of its work is the provision of professional development for teachers, and its publications remain an important part of this. There are dedicated professional journals for primary and secondary teachers (Primary History and Teaching History) which, as Ben Walsh, history teacher and author explains, "act as a clearing house for good practice". Such journals now focus as much on pedagogy as on pure content knowledge, although we have seen a bigger focus on the latter again in recent years.

The need for history-specific support for teachers remains as pressing as 100 years ago. Pressures on schools to focus on core subjects and whole-school priorities, coupled with the relative demise of the history advisor in local authorities, has diluted history-specific provision for teachers. As Alf Wilkinson, the HA's professional development manager, explains: "If we want a vibrant subject community, teachers need contact with other teachers... you cannot achieve everything online or through books."

Recent professional development weekends, based around themes such as ICT, assessment and interpretations, have proved to be immensely popular.

The HA also continues to lobby for history and to take an interest in curriculum matters. Rick Weights, the HA's primary committee chair, says:

"there's a lot of passion for history in schools, but there's no-one pushing history, especially in primary schools."

To celebrate the centenary, schools are being encouraged to hold "Centenary Challenge Days" (see page 22) and many other events are planned. The high point will be Centenary Day (May 19) at Banqueting House in London where special guests will include Antonia Fraser, Melvyn Bragg and David Starkey.

The programme includes the construction of a timeline covering the HA's 100 years of existence by primary children from five London schools - described by Heather Scott, HA chair, secondary committee, as "the future of the HA meeting the past". It is fitting that teachers and students are an integral part of the centenary celebrations and reflects how little HA priorities have changed during its lifetime.

* www.history.org.uk

Alison Kitson is a member of the HA's secondary committee

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