An open letter to the President of the Historical Association
The following is in response to a letter written by Professor Jackie Eales published in this month’s issue of Standpoint magazine, which can be read here. In it, she criticises an article I wrote for Standpoint about history teaching, which can be read here.
Dear Professor Eales
When I criticise progressive education, I tend to find that apologists for the status quo respond in one of two ways. Either they defend the value of progressive education, or they deny that progressive ideas are really that widespread. In your letter to Standpoint criticising my article, you take the later approach.
You write that my “analysis of what is wrong is based largely on personal experience”, and imply that the only evidence I use is “a single anecdotal source”. Here I must disagree. I quote from the Schools History Project (SHP) publication A New Look at History, the 2007 National Curriculum, a report by Professor Robert Tombs, and a national survey into the level of historical knowledge amongst 11 to 18-year olds. You may believe this is “insufficient reference to the facts”, but it would be difficult to fit more into a magazine article. Had I had more space, the following evidence could have been marshalled to further my case.
- OFSTED (dubbed the ‘Child-Centred Inquisition’ by a fellow teacher blogger) repeatedly endorses progressive teaching methods at the expense of traditional teaching. The 2011 report History for all described ineffective history lessons as those where pupils are “expected to listen to the teacher for too long” and lessons are “too focused on content”. Throughout, it promoted skills-based history teaching, concluding the best lessons were those that “developed pupils’ skills in research, analysis, evaluation and communication”.
- GCSE examinations are strongly swayed towards assessing historical skills. Knowledge and understanding have become relatively unimportant. The OCR History A GCSE, for example, has a whole paper dedicated to source investigation, making up 25% of the pupils’ final grade. Knowledge and understanding are so unimportant in this paper that ‘Background Information” is given in the exam for the pupils to use.
- Perhaps the most popular website for accessing history resources, activehistory.co.uk, hosts countless history lessons of the type I describe. To give a flavour, one suggestion is to teach year 11 pupils about the rise of Hitler by reimagining Hitler, Hindeburg and Goering as Mr Men characters.
I refuse to accept that my experiences are some sort of aberration from the generally quite sensible teaching of history in British schools.
In your letter, you defend the SHP from my criticisms. You write that the organisation advocates “a synthesis of historical knowledge and understanding”. Whilst the SHP have moderated their position on the skills/knowledge debate since the 1970s, much of the time they simply pay lip service to the importance of knowledge. Their textbooks, examinations, and training all betray a marked preference for skills over knowledge. To quote from their website, “The Schools History Project believes that historical enquiry, the analysis of evidence and creative forms of communication should form the bedrock of the school history curriculum.”
Lastly, you accuse me of “attacking the work of thousands of [my] colleagues”. This is unfair. I do not attack my colleagues, I attack the ideas they are made to subscribe to. The dedication and industry of Britain’s history teachers is undeniable, and in my short time as a teacher I have encountered some inspiring professional role models. However, they do well despite the bad ideas they are given about how to teach history, not because of them.
As you are President of the Historical Association, my rudimentary skills of source analysis tell me you are probably biased towards the status quo. My experiences are real and, much as you deny it, so is the wider situation I describe. All is not well in the state of British history teaching. Complacency and denial are not helpful.