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The Politics of History Teaching in England and France during the 1980s
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Many British historians and educationists have examined the rise of the ‘new’ history in English schools in the 1960s and 1970s, and the debates and criticisms this provoked in the 1980s.1 The introduction of the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) in 1986, and the moves towards the National Curriculum at the end of the decade, spurred the thorough politicization of the aims, content and methodology of school history. Yet British historians have thus far neglected to remark upon a near-identical, near-simultaneous debate in France, where politicians and the press were equally concerned that school history was no longer passing on a unifying sense of national identity to pupils. I therefore intend in this article to go beyond strictly insular descriptions of the school history debates in England. Instead, I shall juxtapose the processes of reform in 1980s England and France to explain why the ‘traditionalist’ reaction in France, carried out by the Ministère de l’Education nationale (MEN) under Education Ministers Alain Savary, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, René Monory and Lionel Jospin, was so successful, while reform in England was accompanied by profound conflict and difficult negotiations. In doing so I shall use the school history debates as a means of treating wider themes in the recent history of England and France: the perceived relationship between school history and national identity, and the respective roles of government, bureaucracy, academic historians and the teaching profession in maintaining or challenging this perception.

I have chosen to compare England, rather than Great Britain, with France, despite the fact that ‘British’ identity was more often the object of Conservative rhetoric in the 1980s. The National Curriculum, promulgated by the 1988 Education Reform Act to come into force in 1991, applied only to England and Wales. Furthermore, in an official recognition of the historical and cultural differences between England and Wales, separate committees – the History Working Group (HWG) in England, and the National Curriculum History Committee for Wales (HCW) – were appointed to devise distinct history curricula. Any unitary treatment of school history in Great Britain in this period would therefore be misleading and inaccurate. Though Wales had its own healthy debate in the run-up to its first official history curriculum of the twentieth century, only the English ‘great history debate’, by its intensity and publicity, was comparable to that which took place in 1980s France.2

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Fig. 1. 

‘Vercingétorix jetant ses armes aux pieds de César’ (Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of [Julius] Caesar), oil painting, Lionel Royer, 1899, Le Puy-en-Velay, Musée Crozatier. From 1984, all French primary school pupils had to learn chronological national history, beginning with the Roman conquest and the defeat in 52 BC at Alésia of Vercingétorix, ‘symbol of the resistance’.

England: the Party Politics of History Teaching?

The 1980s school history debates in England were inspired by fears that ‘new’ history had in the two preceding decades superseded ‘traditional’ history in schools, thereby threatening the transmission of a strong sense of national identity to children. The fact that these fears were widely associated with the Conservative Party, and in particular the Thatcherite ‘new right’, meant that the school history debates became inextricably linked with the two dominant political parties.

‘New’ history, which from the 1960s gained widespread support among teachers and within the Department for Education and Science (DES), including Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI), was based on teachers’ and educationists’ concerns that ‘traditional’ history – chronological, anglocentric and narrative-based – merely taught pupils to memorize rather than to think. ‘New’ history involved a range of fresh approaches; more recent history, more non-British history, and ‘history from below’ replaced the emphasis on national high politics and battles. Research into children’s learning methods, notably that of Jean Piaget, had translated into history teaching as claims that that children and even adolescents had only a ‘patchy’ grasp of temporal continuity, rendering it ‘entirely unrealistic’ to teach history chronologically.3 In-depth studies of particular historical moments were considered more appropriate. The centrality of rote learning was replaced by an emphasis on the skills of using and interpreting historical sources. Finally, the...

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