The Pub Quiz Curriculum, whose facts, whose dates?

First published April 2013

This post is cross-posted from Left Midfield.

Michael Gove the Secretary of State for Education came in office promising to shake up the teaching establishment.  From the moment he took office, he has implemented a programme of whirlwind change, as the academies programme was accelerated, and he introduced ‘free schools.’ But he also had a burning ambition to do something about the curriculum, and history in particular seems to have been a target.
As a history teacher myself, I was naturally interested when the new curriculum proposals were published. However, I also felt it was important to get Mr. Gove’s view, so I wrote to him as I felt it would be important to understand his thinking as he attempted to change history teaching.

I received a reply from Mr. Henry De Zoete a special adviser to the Secretary of State, for which I am grateful, even if he might not agree with my analysis of the new curriculum as proposed. He opened up explaining that the new curriculum would, ‘ensure that pupils are taught about Britain’s place in the world – and how its past influenced its present.’ Now this sounds reasonable, I think it’s important to clarify that I’m not against change, but it needs to be the right kind of change.

In fact, despite the the rhetoric coming from the Department for Education, and its supporters in the media about the radicalism of Mr. Gove’s reforms, they aren’t new even for the Conservatives. In 1992 the then Secretary of State, John Patten,also wanted to radically reform education by severely reduce the role of local education authorities, examining bodies were to be merged, the Secretary of State would have wide powers of intervention, and complained that they had been ‘education without grammar and spelling.’

This all sounds remarkably familiar to nearly three years ago when Mr. Gove walked into the, newly renamed, Department for Education, determined to return education back to its ‘glory days.’ Although as David Cannadine argues, this is a time that only exists in the minds of those who didn’t experience it.

But it is in the changes proposed to the curriculum that I see substantial echoes, with more Shakespeare for 14-year-olds in English, and for our purposes as history teachers, studies of the British Empire and more facts and dates.

At the start of Mr. De Zoete’s reply he says they would be seeking to, ‘(Teach) the subject chronologically – rather than as a series of disjointed topics – will mean pupils understand how key events and people link to and follow one another.’

As a starting point there’s not a problem here, it would be easier for pupils to pick up themes and links if topics are covered in a more linear fashion. However, history is more than a list of dates , it is also about acquiring skills for analysing events, causes and consequences.

The skills to properly engage with history at that level need to already be in place, they can’t suddenly be picked up adequately at that stage, without a firm grounding in analysis, source work, and constructing an argument as examples.

Learning history in school is as much about skills as content, and although the preamble rightly outlines these in the aims; continuity and change, cause and consequence, analysing trends, differences and similarities, because the lessons would have to maintain a breakneck speed, the time for real investigation will not be there.

This is why the second sentence of the section does worry me greatly, ‘As well as increased rigour, there will be far less focus on the teaching of abstract concepts and processes in history.’ This means that by the end of key stage three, those who have decided to continue with history to GCSE level, will be severely lacking the analytical skills required to succeed at that level.

Nobody has a problem with rigour, in if it would be all encompassing and consistent, but in a classroom it can mean, ‘ instruction that requires students to construct meaning for themselves, impose structure on information, integrate individual skills into processes, operate within but at the outer edge of their abilities, and apply what they learn in more than one context and to unpredictable situations.’
However, because there will be less emphasis on historical skills teaching, the ability to make the judgements Robyn Jackson talks about in How to Plan Rigorous Instruction will be lacking.
Naturally the historical community is split, with the likes of Niall Ferguson, Simon Sebag-Montefiore and David Starkey in favour, and Richard Evans, Steve Mastin and Peter Mandler taking an opposite view.

In an article in the Guardian on 15th February Professor Ferguson claims that the current history teaching leaves young people’s knowledge in a ‘parlous state.’ He bases his claims on his own experience, in which he seems to have only ever met history teachers who think the same as he does, and an points to an essay by Matthew Hunter, a history teacher, in Standpoint magazine.

Matthew Hunter is, of course, entitled to his view, but I feel his point about the Napoleon portrait says more about him than the curriculum or the topic.. There are at least two ways he could of done this, the first being the way he did, though not deliberately, in which the pupils formed a view based on the picture, which he then followed by giving the pupils some context, which would have taught them that you can’t always infer from a source like this without some background knowledge.Getting angry with the pupils when they are only doing what he has asked them to do, is not going to encourage them to be confident in putting forward their opinions.


On the other hand, he could have taught them some background first, so that when they came to look at the portrait, they would have a context in which to put it, providing they were also aware that David was Napoleon’s official portraitist, and therefore the picture may well have been painted with an agenda of its own. This is what makes history teaching so wonderful, as pupils become aware of the many questions, answers and ways of investigating and understanding. I am not using this to criticise Matthew particularly, but really to demonstrate that there are different approaches which can be employed.

Professor Ferguson’s other main gripe seems to be that current curriculum is too ‘politically correct,’ and that the new proposals are still a model of that because of the inclusion of Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano, ‘hardly escapees from our island story,’ so has difficulty understanding why many historians, and teachers like myself, are unhappy with the new proposals. It’s as though he thinks offering us a sop is enough to keep us happy. The argument has always gone much deeper than who is in there, it’s about a politician deciding who is relevant and not historians.

On the other side of the argument is Professor David Cannadine who like Ferguson lectures at an American university, in this case Princeton and opposed to Harvard.Cannadine decided to undertake a research project into teaching in schools in order to get first hand knowledge,the results of which were published in 2011 under the title The Right Kind of History: Teaching the past in twentieth century England. 

Cannadine concludes that the vision of a ‘golden-age’ of history teaching, and wasn’t taught to anything but a small elite, and wasn’t a mainstream subject until after the Second World War. He believes the real issue isn’t the curriculum or the subjects it covers, but that there’s too much to teach, and not enough time to teach it in.

Indeed, Steve Mastin, head of history at a Cambridge school, points out that the trend has been towards teachers having more freedom, which Mr. Gove has insisted they need, hence academies and ‘free schools’ have more discretion when it comes to following the curriculum.

Ferguson also says he has taken an interest, and written ‘popular history’ books, so what we have here is two professors who both have some first hand knowledge, if not experience, and reaching different conclusions, which in many ways is what history is all about. Do the research, analyse the evidence, and reach a conclusion, using the evidence to back it up. Who is right is for the reader to decide, not for the teacher to direct.

At the foot of this blog is a debate between David Starkey and Richard Evans, both well-known historians (though I suspect Starkey is better known to any non-historians who read this because of his programmes on British monarchs), who take diametrically opposite views on history and how it should be taught.

Evans argues that the proposed new curriculum is overly prescriptive, a conclusion which both Ferguson and Mastin agree with, and as advisers had advised Mr. Gove against. If the pupils are only being taught a narrow curriculum designed to promote ‘Britishness’ will they also be allowed to question the validity? Is Oliver Cromwell a hero or a villain?

As historians, and teachers, we like to believe that the purpose of studying history is to cast light on events, and to help the readers to understand the chain of events that led to a particular outcome. But the problem with this narrow, parochial, ‘great men’ view of British history, is that it will present it as a series of myths, designed to promote an Anglo-centric view, in which our influence has been mostly positive.

As set, the curriculum would be ‘an island story’ in which pupils miss out on the wonders of the ancient civilisations of Greece and Egypt. They get Rome but that is it, it’s a ‘depressingly  narrow history syllabus,’ as David Priestland, an Oxford history lecturer said recently. The nearest the pupils will get to world history is ‘new world colonisation,’ conflict with Spain (the Armada basically), Clive of India, the American and French Revolutions. It is only really in their contact with, and effect on Britain that would be taught. As Mandler asks, if Clive is a hero, who is he a hero to?

One of the reasons the pupils will not be able to question these events could is the sheer scale of the proposed new curriculum which means that teachers just will not have the time to properly examine the positive and negative effects. This is a curriculum written by those who do not understand that in many schools, pupils get an hour a week on history, and in some the subject is split with geography, spending half a term studying it at a time.

There are also many issues with the Key stage one and two curriculums, not least of which is that teachers who are not specialists, will be expected to try and get their pupils to understand difficult concepts such as democracy, nation (and nationalism) and civilisation, when it is possible they may not understand themselves.

For instance, the rivalry between Henry II and Thomas Becket, the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt are currently taught at year 7, so during the first year of secondary education for most pupils. At this stage, the pupils can begin to really understand that events have multiple causes and consequences, short, medium and long term.

A crowded year 6 curriculum would not enable the different aspects to be covered adequately, and would be difficult for subject specialists to get across, let alone a primary teacher who might have an hour a week, or less, to explain something that they only understand vaguely themselves.

This is demonstrated starkly, as I said earlier, as the new curriculum would deal with less of the abstract, yet at Year 7, the pupils will be expected to try and understand ‘The Enlightenment’ in England, so they get Locke and Smith, but not Rousseau or Diderot. If you’re going to ask children to understand that period, they might as well get a sweep of ideas.

Richard Evans said in the Sunday Politics debate with David Starkey that the problem is, ‘it just teaches a chronicle, it doesn’t teach the kind of historical skills you need to analyse the past, to make up your mind, shoving facts down schoolchildren’s throats without giving them a chance to debate and make up their own minds.’

David Starkey on the other hand agrees with Niall Ferguson and  believes that there is ‘profound ignorance’ about historical events, and that the skills debate gets it the ‘wrong way round’ as you can’t debate without knowledge. Of course, Dr Starkey isn’t totally wrong in that argument, but teachers need to be given the space to teach both skills and knowledge.

Now very few doubt the Holocaust was other than truly terrible, but there have been other cases of genocides, Rwanda being an important recent example. In the 12th century Richard I also persecuted Jews, and indeed that is when the word holocausti was first used in relation, so persecution of the Jews isn’t unique in itself.

This takes us back to the issue of prescription, which even Ferguson concedes having advised Gove against making that error, and the job of a teacher (if not a politician) is to get the pupils to understand that history often has two sides to an argument.

In the new curriculum it is proposed to teach the Holocaust as a ‘unique evil.’  David Starkey asks Evans whether it should be taught as a ‘moral fact’ which is exactly the problem I’ve been outlining, is it the job of teachers to decide on the pupil’s behalf what is and isn’t ‘moral.’. The biggest problem with Starkey’s argument though is he believes the curriculum should change because it has a ‘left-wing skew’ brought in by a Labour government.

Now this could have been a valid argument, if he had been prepared to acknowledge the wrongness of the conservative bias in the proposed new curriculum. The two principle political figures that year 7′s are supposed to learn about are John Locke, one of the founding fathers of liberalism (in its classic sense) and conservatism, and Adam Smith the author of The Wealth of Nations,a classic liberal text and there is no space to balance these views later on,with a study of Marx, for instance, who also had a profound effect on thinking.

One of the odder aspects of the new proposals, is that the Boer War is brought in, not necessarily a bad thing, but the rise of China is removed. This seems a bizarre and incomprehensible decision as China is one of the new economic powers, and may well one day be the most important trading nation in the world, let alone the east. Ignoring a coming nation, or to be truthful, reinvigorated one for a short war that means little unless they are to study South Africa at GCSE seems very short-sighted.

So in seeking to return to what he believes is a ‘golden age,’ Michael Gove is also reviving subjects that schools stopped spending a lot of time on when I was there. Where are is the influence of the Mogul or Ottoman Empires? Where is the growth of the European Union? It is only Britain’s relations with the Commonwealth, Europe and the world that are the focus of this curriculum. Anyone would think looking at this, that not only is the growing influence of China missing, but that Japan hasn’t grown to be an economic superpower in the last fifty years. Yet there is space to learn about the election of Margaret Thatcher.

So what we have being presented to us is an overly prescriptive, as historians of all views agree, Anglo-centric, didactic curriculum, in which not only will the pupils have little space for questioning and analysis, they will be actively discouraged from doing so.

Change and renewal is not the issue, but it must be the right change. As Richard Evans and Steven Mastin remind us, Michael Gove eventually ignored all the advice he was getting, even from supporters like Ferguson, and practically wrote the curriculum based on a misunderstood version of history teaching from a time before he was even born.

So, I believe it would be better to go back to the drawing board, properly debate this with all sides, and come back with something that gives pupils a sound knowledge and the analytical skills required to do well not only in exams, but in the world beyond school and pub quizzes.

David Hough is a Labour Party member and history teacher
@Colchester1648

 

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