Monday, 4 March 2013

England's proposed History curriculum: should it really be a political football?


The controversy over Michael Gove's new History curriculum up to the end of Key Stage 3 - for children, roughly, up to the age of 14 - is generating more heat than light.

Everything my colleagues say about these proposals is true, up to a point. It's too political, and there's not enough cultural history in particular provided for. Starting at 'the beginning' of British history may be a bit rich for five- and six-year-olds, who get understandably muddled up all the time. It may seem irrelevant to lots of Britons - especially younger ones. Its implied nostalgia for Britain's 'greatness' carries the distinct whiff of decadence and decline. Its focus on politics may exclude women from the picture.

But it's important to maintain some sense of balance on this one. Everyone and their father is wading in here, including historians who really want to back Mr Gove and his intentions. It's clearly not that objectionable to want a more joined-up curriculum up to the end of KS3. It has become too episodic; it does light too much on particular incidents, periods and people. And it could do with an overhaul that joins the dots a bit more, set against the backdrop of passing time - otherwise it's not History.

And consider the text of the actual proposals (PDF - scroll down to page 165) is much less objectionable. Forgive me the massive chunk of text, but it's important to be clear that both sides of this 'debate' can take comfort from the National Curriculum proposals:-
The National Curriculum for history aims to ensure that all pupils: know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world; know and understand British history as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the story of the first settlers in these islands to the development of the institutions which govern our lives today; know and understand the broad outlines of European and world history: the growth and decline of ancient civilisations; the expansion and dissolution of empires; the achievements and follies of mankind; gain and deploy a historically grounded understanding of abstract terms such as ‘empire’, ‘civilisation’, ‘parliament’ and ‘peasantry’ understand historical concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance, and use them to make connections, draw contrasts, analyse trends, frame historically valid questions and create their own structured accounts, including written narratives and analyses.
So yes, the 'island story' is there at the start, in a way I personally don't find very helpful. But the rest of the aims are not exactly excuses for manning the barricades. 'The achievements and folliles of mankind' is an absurd phrase - where exactly did they get that? From a neo-conservative journalist who used to work on The Times, perhaps? And I'd pick some other terms: 'peasantry'? 'Civilisation'? The latter's not bad - though the former's a weird non sequitur. Still. On the other hand analysis is specifically mentioned there as coming along at one and the same time as 'the facts'. It's not going to be all rote learning.

But it's still all pretty far from Mr Gove's red-rag-to-a-bull statement in the House of Commons, in which he referred to 'a clear narrative of British progress with a proper emphasis on heroes and heroines from our past'. If that was there on its own, I'd be the first one throwing the argumentative bricks.

No. The real objections to these proposals should be filed under 'technical' - something that politically-inclined commentators, paid to be pugilistic, ignore at their peril. You know what? I've been a secondary school teacher, and I care about how these things actually work. Rather than how they work on paper. This is part of the reason for my laid-backness. In reality, teachers interpret these rules, and they're going to teach this stuff the way they want - which is to say, as usual, with humanity, saneness and sheer hard work. But they'll be incensed that the Education Secretary, of all people, has ignored the consultations he himself launched - and basically written the text himself. It's a text that expects primary schools to tackle Bible controversies and Anglo-Saxon governance, without any extra cash to re-equip the whole system. And to focus on British history to the exclusion of much of the rest of the world. Is this possible or desirable? Hmm... No.

Only one thing is sure: if all this is right, and our History curriculum really has become a political football, it's Mr Gove (above), his incendiary rhetoric - and his lack of consultation - that have made it so.

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