History National Curriculum: Where’s the Venomous Bead?

The much-gossiped about new draft national curriculum for history has finally been published. It’s only six-and-a-half pages and is simply a list of stuff that’s happened in English history. Rightly, prominent historians have condemned it for its ‘little England’, facts-over-context character. Unlike some, I have no problem with the idea that history is about ‘citizenship’, and I agree with the basic claim of the national curriculum that a sense of the ‘national’ past is an important part of that. But ‘citizenship’ is also – or should also – be  part of a broad ‘humanist’ education. History should develop a sense of the development of mankind across the world, the interactions among cultures, national groups, the clashes of economic and political interest and the scientific and social developments that have shaped human history. That’s what all humanities education should do. These things cannot adequately be taught through the lens of the history of England – or, even through the history of England and its (selective) interactions with other countries. It is painfully easy to satirise Mr Gove’s new curriculum as a comic return to the 1066 And All That style of history. Reading Mr Gove’s list of Important People Who Have To Be Included, its quite a surprise not to find the Venomous Bead.

But in any case, developing a sense of ‘citizenship’ is not the only purpose of studying history, even in the broader sense of becoming aware of the complexity of humanity. History is also a discipline that teaches important academic skills – critical reading, the ability to evaluate evidence, literacy, and, above all, scepticism. These functions of history are acknowledged in the introduction to the History section of the national curriculum, but not embedded in the curriculum itself, as they are in the existing framework.

For all, this, though, I don’t think we should despair. Firstly, this new national curriculum is being brought in just at the time when the government is pushing every school to become an academy and among the ‘freedoms’ that academies have is… not having to follow the national curriculum. The specs of the Key Stage 4 exams — whatever form they eventually take – will in practice probably be more influential in shaping history teaching, even at Key Stage 3. And, secondly, I have enough confidence in history teachers and governing bodies to think that in practice history teaching in schools – even in those that don’t opt out of the national curriculum – will not, in practice, be reduced to a 1066 And All That parody. After all, the curriculum is only a few pages long. A good teacher can mention Mr Gladstone before moving on to get children to think about what it was like to be a child in a Victorian factory. Knowing a few key ‘facts’ is not in itself a bad thing and not inherently incompatible with the ‘skills-based’ approach to history teaching that has been prominent in the last two or three decades. Mr Gove is reportedly a devotee of E. D. Hirsch, the American educationalist who emphasises the importance of Gradgrind-ish facts as a basis for knowledge. This is easy to mock as the dullard educational thinking of the Right, but I think there is something to be said for schools giving pupils a basic framework of knowledge about the world, especially those who won’t hear about the battle of Bosworth or the Factory Acts while sitting round the dinner table at home (does anyone?). But such things should of course be the beginning of historical knowledge and understanding, they should never be mistaken for history itself. Good teachers with supportive Heads should have no trouble in conveying the importance and excitement of studying the past to their pupils, whatever the national curriculum says.

Which brings us to the most important issue of all. With the demise of LEA subject advisers and with even exam boards prevented from offering CPD, it’s now increasingly difficult to provide the kind of intellectual support for teachers that we need. And teacher training in history is being cut back. If Mr Gove really wants to improve history teaching and to bring history to all, as he says, it is support for teachers, and developing the next generation of them, that he should really be focusing on.

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