logo PGCE History at UEA
Learning to Teach History in the Secondary School



PGCE History Home
Student Teacher
Exam Classes
Class management
Inclusion and Diversity

The purposes of school history

The importance of making connections from the past to the present and the possibilities of the future

I think that this is a particularly important point. As Carmel Gallagher (2002) noted, ‘there are those who feel comfortable about teaching history as long as it remains firmly about the past’. Remember Kenneth Clarke’s ’20 years’ rule; that school history should stop 20 years before the present day (‘History should end in the mid sixties, teachers are told’, Daily Telegraph, January 1991). Clarke actually wanted school history to ‘end’ in 1945 (Graham, 1993, Phillips, 1998).

My own view is that this attempt to ‘pull up the drawbridge’, separating past and present, or making no links between them, seriously weakens school history. Many of the pupils we interviewed as part of  the QCA review felt that history was not useful because it was just about the past, and the past was gone, so what was the point in studying it.

These quotes provide you with a clear WARRANT for relating the past to the present. It goes without saying that it also places a big responsibility on your integrity as a history teacher, not to abuse your position in this respect. My own view is that it is better that young people should develop their political literacy through history teachers than from politicians, newspapers, television or the internet.

Quotations that provide a warrant for history teachers to make connections between the past and the present

Is there any issue, question or problem into which more understanding and insight can not be gained by looking at what has gone before? Kenneth Clarke’s ’20 year rule’ is dead and gone; it is now accepted, and ‘official policy’ that history should contribute to the development of pupils’ political literacy, and that history teachers need to make connections between past and present so that pupils can make sense of the study of the past, ‘see the point’ of history, and derive maximum benefit from studying history as a school subject. As examples of ‘official documentation’ that support the idea that history should contribute to pupils’ political literacy, see, for example, The Crick Report on citizenship education in schools, the citizenship national curriculum, the general aims and values of the National Curriculum (see pages 11-13), Ofsted (2007) History in the balance. At a very pragmatic level, there is evidence to suggest that unless teachers can persuade pupils that history is relevant to the present and the future, they cannot see the point of it and think it is a waste of time (see Pupil perceptions of history at KS3, QCA, 2005, http://www.qca.org.uk/qca_6391.aspx).   

The following quotations, in one way or another, provide a rationale, justification and warrant for making connections between the past and the present.

‘History is about human activity with particular reference to the whole dimension of time – past present and future.’

Aldrich, R. (1997) The end of history and the beginning of education, London, Institute of Education, University of London: 3.

‘History is not “what happened in the past”, rather it is the act of selecting, analysing and writing about the past. It is something that is done, that is constructed, rather than an inert body of data that lies scattered through the archives.’

West Davidson, J. (1982) After the fact: the art of historical detection, New York, Knopf: xvii.

‘The wise history teacher will realise that it is his responsibility to ensure that his pupils do not leave school uninformed about contemporary problems in the society in which they will live their lives.’

A.M.A. (1975) The teaching of history in secondary schools: 5.

‘History must be seen as a kind of preliminary to the present, and there’s no point pulling up the drawbridge just when the other side is in sight. No ‘O’ level pupil can bridge the gap between 1939-45  and the present on his own. They can’t even bridge the gap from 1960. This is the only type of course which could enable even the most gifted pupil to make the historical comparisons which illuminate our present condition; to sense the relationship between Louis XV!, Napoleon and De Gaulle, for instance, and their contribution to the ethos of modern France.’

Kenyon, J. (1984) ‘The lessons of history’, Observer, 4 March.

‘The divorce between current affairs and history, so that they are regarded as two different subjects, gravely weakens both. It accentuates the natural tendency of children to regard history as something remote and irrelevant instead of something which has formed the world around them and which is continuously being formed by that world. And, it accentuates equally the tendency to look at contemporary questions as though they had no context in time, no parallels or precedents.’

Ministry of Education (1952) Teaching History, pamphlet No. 23, London, HMSO: 32.


‘What’s the point about learning about the past… why can’t we do current affairs instead like we sometimes do in RE?’

‘Yes, things that are in the newspapers.’

‘Last week we had a special lesson  in RE about the London bombings that was really interesting… a lot of people contributed who don’t usually say anything.’

From pupil focus group interviews, (QCA, 2005) Pupil perceptions of history at KS3.


‘There is no evidence that school pupils translate their knowledge of the past into an understanding of the present unless the past is explicitly related to current circumstances.’

Slater, J., (1995) Teaching History in the New Europe, p. 146.


‘School history  provides a framework for pupils to discuss polemical and contentious issues within academic canons of reliability, explanation and justification.’

Husbands, C. (1996) What is history teaching?, Buckingham, Open University Press.


‘The segregation which kills the vitality of history is divorce from present modes and concerns of social life. The past as past is no longer our affair. If it were wholly gone, there would only one reasonable attitude toward it. Let the dead bury their dead. But knowledge of the past is the key to understanding the present. History deals with the past, but this past is the history of the present. An intelligent study of the discovery, exporations, colonisation of America, of the pioneer movement westward, of immigration, etc, should be a study of the US as it is today: of the country we now live in. Studying it in process of formation makes much that is too complex to be directly grasped open to comprehension… The way to get some insight into any complex product is to trace the process of its making. The present social state cannot be separated from its past… past events cannot be separated from the living present and retain meaning. The true starting point of history is always some present situation with its problems.’

Dewey, J. (1916) Democracy and Education, Chapter 16, The significance  of geography and history,  http://www.ilt.columbia.edu/

Publications/Projects/digitexts/ dewey/d_e/chapter16.html


‘The past is not dead; it is not even past.’

William Faulkner.

‘History, well taught, is the demythologising of the past… Take any important issue of our time – Northern Ireland, Nuclear Disarmament, Race, The Welfare State, South Africa – and it becomes impossible to seriously confront any of them without understanding their historical background.’

Lord Bullock, quoted in Historical Association (1989) History in the National Curriculum: submission to the working party on the National Curriculum, February.

‘Learning about the concept of kingship frequently involves two sets of simultaneous learning: learning about power and its distribution in past societies, and learning about power and its distribution in modern society. The former cannot be given any real meaning until pupils have some more contemporary knowledge against which to calibrate their historical understandings.’

Husbands, C. (1996) What is history teaching?, Buckingham, Open University Press: 34.

‘History being defined as a disciplined approach to the study of human events with particular reference to the dimension of time. The task of the historian is twofold. First, to provide as accurately as possible a representation and analysis of the past: second, to provide as accurately as possible an explanation between that past, the present and the future.’

Aldrich, R. (1997) Unpublished lecture, Institute of Education, University of London, 27 September.

‘History shouldn’t be a thing of the past. It can help us to understand why things are going wrong.’

Bakewell, J. (2004) Guardian, 22 October.

‘It is time to re-establish the coalition of those who believe in history as a rational enquiry into the course of human transformations against those who distort history for political reasons.’

Hobsbawn, E. (2005) ‘In defence of history’, Guardian, 15 January.

‘We know that we cannot understand a situation in life without some perception of where it fits into a continuing process or whether it has happened before…. Our sense of what is practicable on the future is formed by an awareness of what has happened  - or not happened - in the past.’

Tosh, J. (1984) The pursuit of history, London, Longman: 1.

‘Historical knowledge provides the basis not for categorical predictions but for projection into the future of social, political and economic trends which provide a vital insight into the conditions in which future action will unfold.’

Tosh, J. (1984) The pursuit of history, London, Longman: 18.


Back to purposes of school history

Back to historypgce


logo University of East Anglia Norwich NR4 7TJ UK
Telephone: (+44) (0) 1603 456161
Fax: (+44) (0) 1603 458553