Humanities - Keep it in the family

30th September 2011 at 01:00
Snaps close to home can be used to study wider social changes

The National curriculum for history requires teachers to strike a balance between local (including personal and family), national, European and world history, which many find difficult to do. Yet it is perfectly possible to explore change and continuity over the past 60 years or so from just a couple of family photographs.

When my nana, Christobel Thuburn, received her 100th birthday congratulations from the Queen, it set me thinking about all the changes she had seen in her lifetime and how I might use them to explore the 20th century.

I used two wedding photographs - big family occasions. Both brides are wearing white and both have bridesmaids and flowers.

But at my mum and dad's wedding in 1950, everyone in the photograph lived within about a mile of each other and all worked in the coal mining industry. No one had any formal qualifications and all had left school at the minimum school-leaving age. Few family members were missing. The first time my dad was away from home was in 1948 when he did his national service. It was a very close-knit family group and all the youngsters met up every Sunday evening to play cards.

By 2009, at the second wedding, the family is far-flung. Family members have come from Canada and Mauritius, as well as from all over England. Some based in Australia, the United States and many parts of Europe are missing, an idea that can lead into teaching about migration and discussions of how family members can spread across the globe. Another huge change is in education. At least six present at the modern wedding have a first degree or masters qualification, and many of the others have A-levels.

You can teach many aspects of economic change using the photographs - there are no longer coal mines in Durham, for example. When my parents were married, they considered themselves lucky to get a flat above a billiard hall, with one coal fire and one cold tap. The toilet was outside - at the bottom of the yard and down a flight of concrete stairs. How different it is today.

There are difficulties in using personal and family history in the classroom - you need to be sensitive to pupils' specific circumstances. But by using your own family history you can avoid those pitfalls. With a little thought, it is possible to link the personal and local to the big themes of the 20th century - globalisation, greater social mobility and economic change.

Alf Wilkinson is CPD manager for the Historical Association

What else?

Local and family history

What was it like to live here in the past? Take a look at a resource from jucoop to help with an investigation.

Resources available at


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