I have not commented yet on the new national curriculum that has been proposed by the DfE for primary and secondary education in England. Partly this has been lethargy, but partly it has been an awareness that a fast response, ill-considered as much journalistic response has to be, will not honour the effort that has gone into it. Parts of it have been with us since last year – English, Maths and science – and these have not changed. However, other parts have attracted huge critical concern, especially history (flurries of letters in the Times, provoked by a letter by David Starkey, Niall Ferguson and other historians leaning to the right, and an excellent article in response by David Aaronovitch). For the uninitiated, or bored, the new history curriculum consists of, from the beginning of Key Stage 2 onwards, a long catalogue of chronologically arranged events from the earliest times to the end of the 20th Century, with a little gap just after the demise of James II (the so-called Glorious Revolution – not glorious for James, it wasn’t) so that children can transfer to secondary school and start all over again….deep breath, kids, and dive back in: here comes Bonnie Prince Charlie!
Some initial teaching principles and observations of experience will help us here:
- To have a general overview of the chronological direction of one’s own history is no bad thing. It gives shape and structure to your thinking and highlights gaps of understanding.
- History is a beautiful and interesting area of study, much abused by historians. A healthy revisionism, setting the view of, say Norman Davies (in The Isles) needs to be set against the more traditional “Whig” historians, influenced by such as GM Trevelyan.
- The younger a child is, the closer to the present is their historical understanding (grandparents and their grandparents’ parents). Older children can, in general, cope with more distant periods better
- History used as a social tool, to meld citizens into a particular way of thinking, is an enslavement – think Serbians and the loss of the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, or Russia and their “view” of the Great Patriotic War.
- History is all about perspective – both in what is regarded as important and what view you take of what is regarded as important. The skills you need to address these are as important to children as the content itself. Those skills are fairly well established in the current primary curriculum.
- No school has yet managed to teach the whole of the national curriculum. The thing is too big, so any attempt to teach the whole of the prescribed curriculum content is both doomed and an invitation to pick the really interesting bits. Me, I like the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy and the Celtic saints and couldn’t care less about the Magna Carta. Take your pick.
- Any decent attempt to bring a world view to English students needs a respectful historical view of both our own and another country’s history. Any curriculum worth its salt would include some comparative understanding of different cultures.
- There are some strong social concepts that are international, and need to be understood – in this respect, Rome and Greece are important to how Britain sees itself. Ancient Egypt, as fascinating as it might be to some, is less important.
- Local history for children is vital,and roots them in a strong sense of place – loyalty to locality first, nation later.
So, take a step back and think about what is really good about the current curriculum and provision, and retain that. Yes, there are boring bits in the history curriculum. I really don’t care that Henry had 6 wives, and yet teachers bang on about this, for some reason. But the new curriculum, for all its apparent “definition”, does nothing to help children to understand the “why” of British history, why we went to war against our own people in Northern Ireland for 30 years in the 1970s, why there is a desire in Scotland and Wales to be seen as separate, why we have a strong tradition of immigration to this country and why that is contested, why we had an empire and why we lost it and why we have the longest history of belligerence of any country in history. This stuff would be worth exploring, and the questions that history opens are far more important than the content that supplies the answers that it might provide.
I have been thinking about all this because on Monday I am going to Wroxham School to meet with officials of the DfE as part of their “consultation” on the new curriculum – history is sure to be on the agenda and I will need to get my thinking in order over the weekend. I shall report on what was said later next week.