Reflections on the Curriculum in History
On Friday, Niall Ferguson referred to an article of mine in the Guardian. Whilst defending Gove’s proposed history curriculum, he kindly wrote “If you want to understand what’s really wrong with history in English schools, read schoolteacher Matthew Hunter’s excellent essay in the latest issue of Standpoint.”
In general, I try to avoid conversations about ‘what’ history should be taught in schools. The choice between dead white men on the one hand and Mary Seacole on the other cannot help but be politically contentious. It raises tempers like little else, and few who enter the debate are likely to emerge unscathed. In my Standpoint piece, I argued that it is not so much the content that it is at fault in today’s history lessons, but the ‘progressive’ or ‘child-centred’ ways in which the subject is taught. With that in mind, I stated at the end of the Standpoint article that the new national curriculum “is not the answer”.
However, it does have much to recommend it. The bonkers reaction of so many Gove critics has been a salient reminder of this fact. Overall, the history curriculum (still only a consultation document) is a step in the right direction, but not without fault. Here, in no particular order, are a collection of thoughts and concerns.
1. We should be thankful that it is knowledge based.
The most important difference between Gove’s curriculum, and its 2007 predecessor, is it does not conceptualise history as a skills based subject. Obviously, critical thinking skills are a vital part of school history. However, they cannot be practiced without being preceded by a firm knowledge of the subject matter. The 2007 curriculum begins with a list of six ‘key concepts’, such as ‘change and continuity’, and ‘chronological understanding’, which ‘underpin’ the study of history. This is followed by three equally woolly ‘key processes’. Only then do we get an unspecific sketch of what should actually be studied. Such a conceptualisation encourages a style of teaching in which skills take precedence, and knowledge is relegated to being a vehicle for their development. This leads to the sort of lessons where pupils are shown a picture of a Guillotine and a sans-culottes and asked to infer whether the French Revolution was a success. The result is that pupils do not learn much knowledge, and do not have enough knowledge to develop any skills either. Such teaching fails on both fronts. The stuff of history, the people, stories, ideas and changes are what make it a wonderful subject. This curriculum should allow them to come to the fore.
2. It is an improvement.
Yes, there are some misguided aspects, but this national curriculum is an improvement on its woolly and unteachable predecessor. This is the most important point that Ferguson makes against R. J. Evans and David Priestland. Evans (the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge) and Priestland (a lecturer at the Oxford) attacked the curriculum in the Financial Times and Guardian respectively. In their attacks, they showed no knowledge of the document it is replacing, or more broadly the troubled state of history teaching in our schools. Evans even praised the current curriculum for “breadth and ambition of coverage, critical method and historical debate”. If he really believes this is an accurate description of the status quo in history teaching, he is quite simply living in a dreamland, or more likely an ivory tower. This is typical of our cloistered academics, sallying forth under the misleading title of experts. Their expertise on British schools is minimal. As Ferguson writes, such attacks suggest “an almost wilful ignorance of – or indifference to – the parlous state of historical knowledge among young Britons.”
3. Some topics are not right for their age groups.
Those who claim certain topics are too hard for young children to study are normally, in my view, the enemy. However, this curriculum swings too far in the other direction. The teachability of certain topics is questionable. Whilst primary school children should certainly learn about the Civil War, whether they can appreciate the significance of the Levellers and Diggers is another question. Similarly, labouring over the ‘Heptarchy’ in Key Stage 2 could do more damage than good. This is one of the most important criticisms made by Steven Mastin, the head of history at a Cambridge school and a former Gove advisor. I have never taught primary school history, but my instinct would be that some of this is too conceptual for such pupils.
4. It expects too much of primary schools.
On a similar note, we should remember that history is very rarely taught by subject specialists at primary schools. History teachers are immeasurably better at their job when they know what they are talking about, and have an existing interest in the topic. This national curriculum would require primary school teacher to spend their holidays boning up on Llwelyn and Dafydd ap Gruffydd, or Wycliffe’s Bible – not an entirely realistic prospect. Perhaps this points to a deeper problem. The curriculum spreads the whole span of British history across six or seven years and three Key Stages. Whilst chronological consistency is important, I don’t think it needs to be taken to this level. Perhaps it would be sensible to be less prescriptive at Key Stages 1 and 2, and leave the chronological sweep of British history for the three years of Key Stage 3.
5. There are no resources with which to teach it.
Now we get to the nitty-gritty of implementation. In his Guardian piece, Ferguson writes that he fears this new curriculum may encourage “an official history textbook (even if its written by Simon Schama).” In fact, this is precisely what the curriculum needs. In classrooms across the country, there are textbooks and resources designed to teach history as a skills based subject. Source analysis is paramount, narrative is vague, and information is light. If from 2014 onwards secondary school teachers are expected to teach about the Congress of Vienna, or Chamberlain and Salisbury, they will be hard pushed to find a single school resource dealing with such topics. I will be the first to celebrate when today’s tawdry history textbooks become redundant, but finding replacements will not happen overnight. The academics of this country could make a truly constructive contribution to the new curriculum by turning their learned pens towards writing rigorous history resources, posted for free on the Internet, for the use of our schools.
6. It is too anglocentric.
This has been the most common complaint, and it is something that has to change. The idea of school history as a six-year trawl starting with the Roman invasion and ending with Margaret Thatcher is not a heartening prospect even to the most traditionalist history teacher. However, the hysterical opposition this has received needs to be qualified. Firstly, the 2007 curriculum also places a strong emphasis on British history. Secondly, surveys frequently show that most British people want British history to be at the heart of a national curriculum. In my view, the best model is one in which British history forms the foundation of a pupils’ chronological understanding, onto which some European and World history studies (chosen by individual schools) can be pegged. This is similar to what Kenneth Baker’s 1988 National Curriculum laid out, and I think it established a good balance.
7. It probably won’t make any difference.
The historian Nicola Sheldon is the co-author of an excellent history of how history has been taught in British schools. She makes a bathetic, but important point. Historically, “a politician’s pronouncement in Westminster does not automatically lead to change in the classroom. Teachers are the arbiters of the curriculum and, if they are not on board, the outcomes are usually rather different to those the minister intended.” This is the most likely outcome of the new curriculum. It will be passed, teachers will make a few token adjustments to existing schemes of work, and there will be little that can be done to enforce it. In any case, academies (now the majority of secondary schools) are exempt from having to follow the national curriculum anyway. Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this whole debate not therefore a bit of a waste of time?
The best that can be said about the proposed history curriculum is that it will help herald a move to narrative, knowledge based history teaching. It is a cliché to say that ‘skills versus knowledge’ is a false dichotomy, and good history teaching includes both. Skills can only be developed through knowledge, a principle the cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham has done much to establish. A corrective shift towards greater emphasis on knowledge is vital. Reflecting on his experiences teaching history from primary school classrooms to New York University, Tony Judt (hardly a reactionary) wrote, “It is universally true that young people who don’t yet know history prefer it to be taught in the most conventional and straightforward way.” Lets hope this guides our thinking in the years to come.