Monday, May 24, 2010


The Campaign for Real History

The campaign for ‘real’ history teaching in schools? The Education Minister Michael Gove believes that ‘most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England’.

Spotting a potential gap in the market, Stacey International have republished the 1937 editions of ‘A History of England’ by EH Carter, Chief Inspector of Schools and RAF Mears, who taught history at Warwick School between 1923 and 1933 (the Tudors and Stuarts are published in April 2010). The series has been edited and revised by David Evans, the former head of history at Eton College.

The publicity material promises a ‘straight-forward chronological narrative’ in ‘fast-paced muscular prose’. The series is aimed at, ‘everybody who seeks properly to understand our collective story and to look beyond the random selection and often contentious teaching that have long dominated the curricula’.

The blurb contains an approving quote from Eton Old Boy David Cameron, ‘It is a tragedy that we have swept away the teaching of narrative history and replaced it with a bite-sized disjointed approach to learning about historical events… [a] shift away from learning actual knowledge, such as facts and dates.’

History is undeniably a narrative and you need an awareness of chronology in order to arrange the story into some kind of order. I know from teaching young adults that many of them have a shocking inability to place different eras into order – Victorian, Stuart, Tudor, Viking, Norman, Saxon, Celtic and Roman. Is there a danger that we could become as dim as some American youngsters – ‘The Second World War started when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbour’?

Where might a lack of awareness about dates and chronology stem from? You could argue that history teaching; any history teaching would be an advantage.

Research conducted by Manchester University showed that only 4% of curriculum time in primary schools was devoted to teaching history. The dominant subjects were, unsurprisingly, Maths, English and Science – the subjects that are tested and therefore contribute to school league tables. According to research by Professor John MacBeath 98% of Ofsted gradings for schools directly correlate to their test scores.

In secondary schools the picture doesn’t improve. Last year only 30% of students took GCSE history, down from 40% in 1995. Is this because pupils don’t like history? A Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) report in 2007 quoted a survey of 1,700 children, two thirds of whom gave up history at 14, although half liked the subject and rated their teachers. Even Ofsted found that 70% of history lessons are good or outstanding.

One of the main reasons for the marginalisation of history GCSE is pressure from ‘easier’ vocational subjects like media or business studies and PE. Some schools force students to choose a ‘pathway’ at 14 – either vocational or academic. Even if a student wants to study history there will not be space in the timetable to accommodate them. Again there is the pressure for schools to get results, a vocational Btec is worth 4 GCSEs and will count towards that all important benchmark of 5 A-C GCSEs.

In 2006 1,479 out of 3,500 state secondary schools didn’t enter a single candidate for GCSE history. A survey by the Historical Association points to a wide disparity in history teaching – 97% of independent and 94% of grammar schools teach history as a discrete subject compared to 72% of comprehensives and only 59% of academies. Increasingly history is taught as part of humanities or in cross-curricular programmes.

This process is reflected in other subjects, in 2004 schools were allowed to drop the teaching of modern foreign languages (MFL) for pupils after the age of 14, this has subsequently lead to a precipitous fall in the numbers of GCSE candidates. Last year 60% of undergraduates on MFL courses were privately educated.

The campaign for ‘real’ history teaching chimes with the pressure for ‘tried and tested’ teaching methods, yes, those halcyon days of the 11 plus, expensive uniforms, children sitting in rows, rote learning, setting, streaming and ‘back to basics’. The exponents of this comfort blanket neglect to mention that half of children left school without any qualifications and that university education was restricted to a narrow elite. As for private schools there was the legacy of corporal punishment by prefects, compulsory games, rote learning of classics (to the exclusion of other subjects), bullying, cold showers and fagging.

Dates? You do need some knowledge to access the sweep of history – my key dates include the Peasants Revolt (‘serfs ye are and serfs ye will remain’) 1381; the Battle of Bosworth (‘my horse, my horse my kingdom for a horse) 1485; the Spanish Armada (‘I may have the body of a weak and feeble women, but I have the heart and stomach of a king’) 1588 and the ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688 that consolidated the Protestant succession. I can use those key events to navigate through the historical record. Many primary classrooms and all secondary school history classrooms will display timelines with key dates to support pupils’ knowledge.

However, what the traditionalists want is a return to those days of yore when didactic instructional teaching ruled in the classroom. In primary schools that took the form of rote learning, the memorising and testing of dates and kings and queens – a handy chart was on the wall next to that map of the Empire (British colonies in pink) on which the sun never set.

Predictably the main cheerleader for ‘real’ history teaching is Prince Charles, in pursuit of this aim he has organised summers schools for history teachers. I’ve never attended but his other projects have included lectures on reducing one’s carbon footprint (despite personal use of private jets and gas guzzling limousines). I have to confess that I’m at one with Tom Paine who protested against hereditary heads of state as archaic and irrelevant as hereditary artists, mathematicians, musicians or indeed historians.

Stacey International is obviously trying to ride the wave by republishing Carter and Mears’ ‘A History of Britain’. It might be of passing interest to dedicated historians, there is an in-depth analysis of the Treaty of Utrecht. However, in essence it is the Old Fogies view of history, the sort of little England ‘our island story’ that was taught in the 1920s, the viewpoint that inspired the newspaper headline, ‘Fog in the Channel – Continent Isolated’.

The book is an example of the ‘kings and queens’ method of teaching history, written in an ‘impartial’ style, so to shamelessly dumb down when it comes to the Civil War, Charles I was ineffectual but then the Puritans were strait-laced killjoys.

In modern history teaching children read accounts, diaries and letters from the time, which help them to understand and empathise with the protagonists. This might include studying events like the Putney Debates where issues like extending the voting franchise were discussed, or reading about different viewpoints and interpretations.

How did ordinary people live? What about the contrast between rich and poor? You won’t really find it in Carter and Mears. As for the role of women in society, the ‘muscular prose’ doesn’t really extend beyond the six wives of Henry VIII, ‘Bloody’ Mary and Good Queen Bess.

The books are outmoded, outdated and antediluvian. Sadly if Michael Gove has his way this type of dry, stodgy, elitist history teaching will become the norm.

Where teachers are allowed the time history is taught through skills and enquiry, processes, concepts and interpretations. Students will be challenged to compare and contrast, sift conflicting evidence and question it for reliability and bias. They will be expected to analyses causes and consequences and try to empathise with people, form all sections of society, who lived in the past.

Another strength of history in primary schools is teaching about ancient civilisations – Greece, Rome, Egypt, the Incas, Benin and in secondary schools English-centric teaching has been replaced by a wider awareness of international events, although there has been an over emphasis on Hitler and the Nazis.

In a multi-racial, multi-cultural society a move back to ‘real’ history teaching would be reactionary and regressive. The Carter Mears series belong on the shelves of second hand bookshops to be viewed as historical curiosities. ‘Real’ history teaching? It was usually delivered by those older male teachers wearing chalk-dusted corduroy jackets with patches sewn on the elbow, droning on in stuffy classrooms as children laboured away for hours, taking notes at hurricane speed, in dread of the inevitable test at the end of the week.


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