Royal Historical Society Responds to TEF Review

First introduced by the government in England in 2017, and open to all UK higher education providers, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) is designed to:

  • better inform students’ choices about what and where to study;
  • raise esteem for teaching;
  • recognise and reward excellent teaching;
  • better meet the needs of employers, business, industry and the professions.

Section 26 of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) provided for an independent review of the TEF.  The Secretary of State for Education appointed Dame Shirley Pearce of the LSE to conduct this review, supported by an advisory group, and she issued a Call for Views on 18 January 2019, with a closing date of 1 March 2019. The Royal Historical Society submitted a response, and this is now available in full on our website.

As our response to the review (and indeed our own commitment to rewarding excellent teaching within the history profession) makes clear, the Royal Historical Society welcomes initiatives which raise the status of teaching and reward teaching excellence. However, we remain unconvinced that TEF  should be used to inform students’ choices or that, as it is presently configured, it is best suited to enhance teaching and learning provision.

In particular we have concerns about:

  • whether Subject-Level TEF will provide meaningful information to prospective history students;
  • the absence of any engagement with “learning gain” acquired by students studying history at university;
  • the use of NSS core metrics which, by indicating student views on teaching rather than assessing teaching itself, are inadequate proxies to assess ‘teaching excellence’, particularly in the light of studies that identify substantial levels of bias in student evaluations;
  • the bunching of History with other disciplines (such as Archaeology) which have their own disciplinary norms in terms of teaching, underpinning premises and conceptual framework. To conflate these disciplines will not provide accurate information for potential students, a central purpose of TEF;
  • the impression of competition in the same ‘race’ implied by the award of Gold, Silver and Bronze evaluations, notwithstanding the use of benchmarking in TEF evaluations (which mean that institutions are not ‘competing’ on the same ground);
  • statistical flaws in TEF as identified by the Royal Statistical Society.

As ever, we welcome feedback from our members and the wider historical community on this response and any other policy issues.

New Camden Volume on Elizabethan Family

Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz describes the extraordinary insights into an Elizabethan family provided in her new volume in our Camden Series of edited primary sources, and how she has used its material in undergraduate teaching and for training graduate students.

morancruzMy new Camden volume, An Account of an Elizabethan Family: The Willoughbys of Wollaton by Cassandra Willoughby (1670–1735), opens a window on Elizabethan marriage, gender and patriarchal expectations. Through an edition of surviving sixteenth-century copies and original letters and accounts from the Middleton family archives, we view intimate details of the marriage of Elizabeth and Francis Willoughby. The marriage was, not to put too fine a point on it, difficult, tempestuous and, in the end, destructive. Among the indignities that Elizabeth Littleton Willoughby suffered were imprisonment in her own home (to be guarded by the servants), an impecunious banishment from her family, ongoing demands for obedience from her husband, and enduring undermining by her sister-in-law. With her reputation at stake, Elizabeth sought support from Queen Elizabeth and stood on the strength of her Littleton family heritage, arguing with her husband that her first allegiance was to the Crown rather than to him. As the introduction concludes, however independent-minded Elizabeth Willoughby tried to be, she could not afford to forego the support of her father, brothers, husband, sons-in-law, or male friends of the family. Her struggles through twelve pregnancies, resulting in six surviving daughters, left her sick in body and ill in spirit. While this edition also continues with details of Francis Willoughby’s hurried and financially disastrous second marriage, as well as with details from the lives of their six daughters, it is Elizabeth Willoughby who steals the show.

The edition tells the Willoughby family story through the pen of a descendant, Cassandra Willoughby, who, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, copied down, synthesized and described letters and accounts of the family from the 1540s forward. The cache of materials from which Cassandra drew her Account was mostly located at Wollaton Hall outside Nottingham, one of the principal residences of the family. The text provides an intimate portrait of a family that was, at times, and perhaps particularly for the women, an unhappy one. Within a patriarchal society, Elizabeth Willoughby, married at age eighteen, essentially failed to flourish, and her six daughters, who often seem to have been as strong-willed as their mother, were left, together with their husbands, to pick up the pieces.

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Wollaton Hall (Wikicommons)

Years back I chanced upon a 1911 Historical Manuscripts Commission volume containing a description of the privately-owned Middleton family archives, which are now kept in the University of Nottingham’s Manuscripts and Special Collections. My initial interest in the Middleton material focused on what the surviving documents could tell us about education in the Tudor period; the surviving materials offer details with regard to books, music, schooling and literacy. Beginning with accounts for primers and other elementary books, Cassandra’s manuscript, together with surviving account books and other materials in the Middleton archives, provide evidence for schooling, the reading interests of the family, the library that they built up, and a culture in which correspondence played a pivotal role. But further exploration of this archive of letters, deeds, marriage settlements, wills, inventories, and other personal and administrative documents, suggested that it would be worthwhile to go beyond these interests to a larger exploration of the family.

The letters in particular, whether written by household staff, corrected by staff, written in the hands of family members or received by them, are fascinating to read and certainly captured the attention of Cassandra Willoughby when, at age 17, she moved into the imposing but neglected family residence of Wollaton Hall. Cassandra’s compilation or Account is written in a clear late seventeenth-century/early eighteenth-century hand, unlike the original letters from the sixteenth century, which she clearly had some difficulty reading. As a consequence, the manuscript itself (or a good copy of it) is an excellent place for scholars to start with the archives and for students to start with a paleographical project. It gives students an initial experience reading a handwritten primary text. Various of the graduate students I have worked with have tried their hand at editing aspects of the material, and this has been valuable training for their own research careers.

I have used the text both at the undergraduate and graduate level where it has been much discussed by undergraduates and has been a mine of information for graduate students who are interested in the experience of women in Elizabethan culture. Undergraduates have read the Account in a course on Women in Medieval and Early Modern England, and also in an undergraduate course on Women and Power in Europe, 800-1600. They read it within a larger contextual understanding of the role of women in late medieval and early modern culture. They may also read it from the perspective of the life of members of the upper-gentry in Elizabethan England. It is a perfect vehicle for teaching undergraduate students about the richness of archival work, the inherent human interest of history, the values of an upper-class Elizabethan family, and specifics with regard to the material life of the time – clothing, travel, food, entertainment, and houses.

Both undergraduate and graduate students are intrigued by the personalities of the writers, the varieties of marriages described in the text, the way wives and daughters were treated and sometimes abused, the agency of the women, the role of Queen Elizabeth and much more. Not only does the text provide insight into the Willoughbys, but it also includes remarks on other family members and neighbours and their marriages. The text is rich in information on the role of servants within the household, including orders for the household staff, wages, personal correspondence, rivalries, gossip, intrigue, and social status. Most recently a graduate student has become interested in the culture of correspondence and has been engaged with the correspondence surrounding the 1587 marriage of Dorothy Willoughby and Henry Hastings. The manuscript tells us something about the religious leanings of particular families and individuals and how they negotiated the boundaries between Catholics and Protestants of various persuasions. It provides extensive examples of land sales, loans and indebtedness (particularly as a consequence of the construction of the new Wollaton Hall) to the point that some members of the family spent time in debtors’ prison. Correspondence with the royal court, particularly with Lord Burghley, and issues rising to a national level, as well as the politics of local authorities and rivalries are embedded in the text.

For those who might want to examine an expanded chronological perspective, the introduction to this volume provides information and sources to explore. For family letters prior to the 1540s, Mary A. Welsh has published Willoughby letters from the first half of the sixteenth century in the Transactions for the Thoroton Society, vol. 24 (1967): 1-98, while A.C. Wood published, in 1958, The Continuation of the History of the Willoughby Family by Cassandra Duchess of Chandos which is the second volume of Cassandra’s Account and takes her family story into the 1690s. Perhaps the best secondary source, that provides an entrée into the family dynamics as well as an in-depth study of the renovation of Wollaton Hall, is Alice Friedman, House and Household in Elizabethan England: Wollaton Hall and the Willoughby Family (Chicago, 1989).

Published with the permission of the present Lord Middleton, this volume makes accessible to a wider audience Casandra Willoughby’s account of her ancestors. It provides not only invaluable insights into the day to day life and tribulations of a prominent Elizabethan family, it also reveals the exceptional character, spirit and misfortunes of Elizabeth Willoughby.


Dr Jo Ann Hoeppner Moran Cruz is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University.

Global History for Schools

October is Black History Month, and following on from our Global History Symposium this summer, Prof. Miles Larmer introduces the Oxford History Faculty’s new range of resources for schools, designed to help them offer a more diverse curriculum.

How do we create a curriculum in schools and universities that best reflects the histories of our current students and future citizens? As Britain has become a more diverse society, and as a result become increasingly aware of its diverse past, the need to ensure that is reflected in what we teach and research is a question of growing importance, educationally and politically. At the University of Oxford, we have launched a new undergraduate curriculum better designed to ensure global history is more prominent in the experience of all our students, though delivering teaching that adequately reflects the history of all parts of the world remains a work in progress.

In schools, many complain that a curriculum that often focuses on key events such as the War of the Roses or the Second World War fails to reflect Britain’s deep history of migration and imperialism, in which what it meant to be ‘British’ changed radically over time. New undergraduates taking my African history courses at Oxford often arrive with little or no experience of studying the continent, either its great empires and kingdoms, or its distinct history of global connectedness.

In late 2016, having read yet another newspaper op-ed bemoaning the inadequacies of school teaching in addressing these areas, I chanced on a new GCSE course entitled ‘Migration, Empires and People’, a British history option that emphasised the long history (starting in 970 AD) of British inter-connectedness with the wider world: the textbook’s front cover shows Kwame Nkrumah, the first leader of independent Ghana, meeting the then decolonising British military leadership. This was, I thought, exactly the kind of history course I wanted my future students to be taking.

Enthused, I recommended the course to my partner, who is head of history in what is euphemistically described as a ‘challenging’ state school: more than half its students speak English as a second language and nearly half receive free school meals. Surely, I thought, this was an ideal course for such a school. She immediately punctured my naïve enthusiasm: the problem was that teachers delivering such a new and innovative course wouldn’t have access to appropriate resources. Such resources are the lifeblood of school history lessons: for existing courses, online banks of resources are available for teachers to deploy in classrooms – as one example, the Wellcome Trust provides fantastic materials supporting the teaching of the history of science and medicine.

If resources were going to be a fundamental problem, why not get Oxford historians to write those resources? Our research expertise could be put at the service of the new GCSE option and, indeed, other school history courses. I contacted the authors of the course textbook, Robin Whitburn and Abdul Mohamud of UCL Institute of Education, and we met up in January 2017. They were delighted at the suggestion and, having discussed the proposal internally, we got the go-ahead. The Faculty sees the project as an opportunity to share its research outside traditional academic circles, particularly in state schools that have historically sent very few or no students to Oxford: it also indicates Oxford’s own increasing engagement with non-western and global history, their centrality to British history and to the interests and experiences of our increasingly diverse undergraduate student intake.

IMG_4386.JPGIn May 2017 we organised a workshop that brought together interested Oxford researchers – professors, college tutors, post-doctoral and doctoral researchers – with Whitburn and Mohamud and a set of schoolteachers who were delivering the new option for the first time in the 2017/18 academic year. This was an inspiring event, in which teachers were able to explain to academics how they deliver complex historical concepts, methods and debates to 15 and 16 year olds, and together develop their shared understanding of how innovative resources could bring to life key questions of Britain’s changing global role and national identity and the role of migration and imperialism in shaping these histories.

Over summer 2017 a first set of resources was developed and uploaded to our ‘resources for schools’ webpage. Most of these focus on a key individual or event as a way of illustrating a much broader set of issues: they have been designed to be delivered in a classroom setting, so use visual imagery and clear language to communicate their arguments. Although the resources were designed with a specific option course in mind, they are publicly available to all teachers for any class they deem relevant and the project has the potential to be rolled out to other under-resourced option courses in the future.

A launch event for the project was held at one of the schools running the new course, St. Michael’s College, Bermondsey in south London in September 2017: I had the positive if slightly nerve-wracking experience of presenting some of the new resources to the teachers present. There was great appreciation of what we have achieved so far, and there is clearly demand for many more resources of this type.

The project is still very much a work in progress, but our efforts were rewarded this year by the university’s award for promoting equality and diversity in learning and teaching. We have secured university funding for the next phase of the project, which will run during the 2018–19 academic year, and there are plans to expand our schools outreach work in various ways. There is clearly much more to be done to develop resources of this type, and to provide school and university curricula that reflect the diverse experiences of Britain, its school students and Oxford’s present and future students. We hope this project provides a modest step in the right direction.


Dr Miles Larmer is Professor of African History at St Antony’s College, Oxford.


Top image: Detail from John Singleton Copley, ‘The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781’, (1783), The Tate. Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND.