Monday, October 25, 2010


The Strange Death of Primary History

I submitted an article to the Historical Association's 'Primary History' magazine. Thanks, but no thanks. It wasn't printed. They don't really want to articulate or organise outright opposition to the marginalisation of history. 'Let's wait. If we oppose everything they won't listen to us'.

I understand their logic, but I fundamentally disagree. What have years of 'compromise' and 'negotiations' achieved? According to a survey in 2006 history accounted for only 4% of teaching time in primary schools. That led to the shabby compromise in the Rose Review where history, geography and RE were subsumed into 'Humanities'

Now Michael Gove is proposing a return to 'our island story', the chanting of Kings and Queens and the mnemonic learning of dates.

There is a time to resist and speak out. Historical examples? Martin Luther King was opposed by the majority of black preachers who refused to join public protests against segregation. 'Deal with it through the courts, you'll only provoke the white backlash'. In his letter from Birmingham Prison in 1963 Martin Luther King noted that, 'This 'Wait' has almost always meant 'Never''.

The Article

Primary History? Before the General Election the Conservative Education Minister Michael Gove outlined his vision for primary history teaching, ‘most parents would rather their children had a traditional education, with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England’. Eton Old Boy David Cameron commented, ‘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.’

What is the current state of primary history teaching, is there a crisis, are the barbarians at the gates? In 2006 research by Manchester University revealed that only 4% of curriculum time was devoted to teaching history, whereas English consumed 26.7%, Maths 21.9% and Science 9.7% and with ICT now a core subject they will account for the majority of teaching time. Then you have to factor in that MFL will become compulsory in Key Stage 2 by 2014 and there is an expectation that children will receive at least two hours of ‘quality PE teaching’ every week.

The primary curriculum has been straining to squeeze the proverbial imperial quart into a pint pot. Over the past few years a consensus has emerged that change is necessary. The government’s response was to commission Jim Rose to review the primary curriculum. One golden rule for any official inquiry is to choose a pliable chairman or investigator (see the Hutton Inquiry for more details) and as the quintessential ‘safe pair of hands’ government trusty Jim Rose fitted the bill. Second golden rule is to frame the terms of reference so tightly that nothing controversial will emerge. The Rose Review of the curriculum didn’t consider the effect of the National Strategies on curriculum time, or pressure from testing or league tables. In other words the elephant wedged in the classroom blocking out every ray of sunlight was ignored, Wittgenstein would have been proud.

The Cambridge Primary Review team conducted a far more authoritative and thorough inquiry, they concluded after interviewing hundreds of teachers, parents and children that the primary curriculum was narrower than in Victorian times. Sadly the national debate was confined to one week, the government set the tone by immediately rubbishing the findings within hours of its publication, this from a government minister who admitted that he hadn’t even read the full report.

The Rose Review was forced to concede that topic based teaching would have to replace the subject discrete curriculum. Humanities would encompass history, geography and religious education. Despite the fact that curriculum reform was excluded from the Education Bill in the parliamentary ‘wash out’ (all contentious issues were withdrawn) some primary schools are already experimenting with a creative curriculum.

My fear is that if the domination of maths and English are not contested, if the testing regime remains then history will continue to be marginalized. Is there also a danger that Humanities will be taught inadequately, without any thoroughness or rigour? Will it be squeezed in at the end of an afternoon? What training, if any, will teachers receive on topic-based teaching? Is this destined to be another ‘initiative’ that fails because teachers are chained down by assessment, marking and target setting?

Primary history teaching is not on the endangered species list – yet. You can’t say the same about history in secondary schools. There was the sobering and altogether alarming research by the Historical Association –

* Last year only 30% of students took GCSE history, down from 40% in 1995

* In 2006 1,479 out of 3,500 state secondary schools didn’t enter a single candidate for GCSE history

*97% of independent and 94% of grammar schools taught history as a discrete subject compared to 72% of comprehensives and only 59% of academies.

How will this lack of basic knowledge, of historical ignorance and cultural relativism manifest itself? This may be purely anecdotal and unscientific, but I believe it is part of a worrying trend, I’ve observed it at first hand, because over the past year I’ve taught history to trainee primary teachers. One exercise with the first years is to ask them to put different eras in chronological order, so who invaded first – the Romans or the Vikings? Only a gap of eight centuries. The Celts, who were they? Dates or key events, Magna Carta, the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War? Blank faces all round.

I’m not suggesting a return to Michael Gove’s rote learning of dates and kings and queens (although an overall sense of chronology does need to be taught). That method of teaching was dull, stodgy and boring, the patrician view of history, elitist and patriarchal. Where there is time teachers use evidence as a teaching tool, contrasts between rich and poor are studied, students question different interpretations and investigate cause and effect.

So how to address trainee teachers’ lack of subject knowledge? Where I teach subjects are split into two hour sessions, in Year 1 there are three for history, the second year two and three in Year 3. It ticks the box in the Teaching Development Agency’s huge list of competencies but little else. Does it really prepare them in any way shape or form to teach the subject? Or is it a case for being grateful for small mercies? On some PGCE courses training consists of one afternoon on Humanities. I’m also aware, however, that Initial Teacher Training has also been standardised, monitored, scrutinised, homogenised and has to conform to the National Strategies, Ofsted inspections and death by targets.

Does my university have a History Department? There is a cupboard with some outdated resources, but the lecturers don’t meet, revise material, make links with schools and conduct research and I’d be interested to compare with other institutions, are they also dependent on part time, casual, untrained staff?

So once our students make it into schools and metamorphose into teachers what fate awaits them? In the days of the old Local Education Authorities (LEAs) there were subject advisers who arranged courses, visited schools and organised resources in teachers’ centres. History teachers from schools actually met together and produced resources, reports and there are yellowing copies of books with collections of essays on the shelves of university libraries. About fifteen years ago as the pressure from league tables intensified the post of subject adviser became redundant. School Improvement Officers replaced them with their monotheism – there is but one God, test results.

If local authorities became a scorched earth zone in some schools the last of the true believers maintained the faith and pockets of good practise and inspiring teaching remained. They were the old history co-ordinators who encouraged new teachers, fought for their subject and tried to protect it from the ravages of testing, targets and levelling. Under the terms of the ‘Workforce Remodelling Agreement’ the post of co-ordinator was scrapped in its place the ‘Subject Leader’, where the aim was ‘driving up standards’, a managerial role involving observations of other teachers and target setting. Theoretically this new post carries with it a Teaching and Learning Responsibility (TLR) payment. In the real world of primary teaching most schools don’t have the money for TLRs, therefore in many schools teachers refuse to shoulder the burden of ‘Subject Leader’ and senior managers are forced to oversee the entire curriculum.

Is this just superficial, anecdotal? Undoubtedly there are still outstanding examples of history teaching, but is it in any way consistent, widespread or extensive? Maybe a dose of realism is better than starry-eyed Panglossian optimism. I don’t want to diminish or traduce the role that ‘Primary History’ has played; it has kept the eternal flame burning. But to what extent is the Editorial Committee talking to the Editorial Committee? The last four issues contained sixty-six articles – only twelve were by primary teachers.

Crisis is an overused word, but if you examine history teaching and its status in teacher training institutions, local authorities and schools it is apposite. History leads this underground existence in education, tolerated but not celebrated, frequently ignored and marginalized. Are the barbarians at the gates? No, they’ve broken in and sacked the library.


Hi Mr Read,

I've tried to find a contact email address, but Blogger seems to be intentionally confusing me/not allowing me to get that information.

I have some questions regarding history teaching in the English primary schools, and would be much obliged if you could send me an email?

Kind regards,

Btw. The Romans invaded first, then the Vikings. The Celts - well, I always have problems explaining that as we use the word different in Dutch. For us, these were the people, so let us just say that is everybody who spoke Celtish? ;) Magna Carta is 1215, as for the other, which of the many Civil Wars in Europe do you mean? ;)
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