by Greg Jenner
We would like to encourage readers to comment on the UK Government’s proposed changes to the National Curriculum. We are particularly interested in your views on how the nineteenth century is going to be taught. You can comment in the ‘Leave a Reply’ box at the end of the post. The proposed National Curriculum can be downloaded here.
Michael Gove’s proposed history curriculum has lately been the subject of intense discussion amongst teachers and historians, and with good cause, for it represents an ideological shift back towards the moral didacticism of yesteryear. Reacting to accusations that children were leaving school with no understanding of historical chronology, and a worrying paucity of broader factual knowledge, the Secretary of State for Education has sought edifying solace in what he perceives as the halcyon scholastic traditions of the past. While we’re all avid fans of the 19th century here, I’m glad I’m not a Victorian, and don’t particular want my future children to be raised in their restrictive education system.Indeed, Mr Gove’s plans worry me on both philosophical and pragmatic lines, as I’ll attempt to lay out here.
The first line in the section entitled Aims is that pupils will be able to ‘know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world.’ Perhaps I’m being oversensitive, but it is striking how such phraseology posits Britain as an axiomatic force in world history. While such a claim is indeed valid – at points, the sun never set on the vast British Empire –the gilded age of colonialism is long since over, and yet there is just a hint of celebratory pride about the construction of that sentence.However, I am willing to forgive this opening gambit, because the other strategic aims seem fairer,with their emphasis on:
- The chronology of British history, and its modern consequences
- Broad outlines of European and world history: the rise and fall of ancient civilizations; the achievements and follies of mankind
- Understanding abstract terms such as ‘empire’, ‘civilization’, ‘parliament’
- Understanding concepts such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, to analyse trends
- Understanding how evidence is used to create different interpretations
- Gaining historical perspective by placing their growing knowledge into different contexts
It’s hard to argue with these sensible and worthy objectives, but what I find more troubling is the way in which the curriculum seems poorly tailored to the children it’s designed to instruct.
Now, I’m neither a teacher nor a developmental psychologist, but I do provide historical research to Horrible Histories (a factually-accurate comedy sketch show aimed at children between the ages of 7-12) and I know that many children younger than 7 tune in to watch. Based on limited anecdotal reportage, it seems these younger kids enjoy the high energy and the rude scatology, and some have sponge-like brains which allow them to rattle off any number of historical facts; but when quizzed more closely, it turns out their talents appear to be more a form of sophisticated mimicry, rather than accomplished comprehension.
Yet, in Mr Gove’s proposals, it is during Key Stage 1 – when kids are only between 5-7 years old – that pupils are expected to develop an understanding of such arcane concepts as nationality, civilization, monarchy, democracy and war. I can unashamedly tell you that these are supremely difficult intellectual constructs which intellectually challenge many adults, including me, so I really doubt that small children will embrace them easily. Meanwhile, these young pupils are also expected to learn about the scientific contributions of such luminaries as Michael Faraday, Florence Nightingale, Isaac Newton and William Harvey, despite not yet having any knowledge of historical chronology, or science for that matter. So, all in all, KS1 seems overly-ambitious… but that’s just the start.
The linear chronology only gets underway in KS2, between the ages of 7-11, when kids are expected to grasp a huge swathe of history, beginning with the Greeks and Romans (though I see no mention of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese or Indus Valley peoples), and then bomb emphatically through British history’s trajectory, from Stonehenge to the Glorious Revolution, via all the headline history that a 1950s textbook might include. This produces some rather unfortunate outcomes, most obviously being that no child will study ancient civilizations after the age of 7, unless they do GCSE History, and that – due to the British Isles’ insularity during the Middle Ages – it seems the rest of the world almost vanishes entirely, including anything to do with the Islamic contribution to science and learning.
By the start of KS3, kids are 11. When I was that age, I distinctly remember making a project book about mummification and tombs in Ancient Egypt – one which I found creative and thrilling – but our youngsters will instead hurtle headlong into Clive of India and the Age of Revolution. Soon after, they will be grappling with the US Constitution and Enlightenment philosophy, where they’ll study Isaac Newton for the second time in their short lives. Midway through KS3, perhaps aged 12 or 13, the Victorians will finally get a look in, and it seems Mary Seacole has managed to cling on, after a justified public outcry; but the emphasis on the Industrial Revolution, Corn Laws, Education Reform, and the gunboat diplomacy of Empire, will be extraordinarily hard-going for children in their very early teens. Indeed, by the time they come to choosing GCSE options, they’ll have seen two world wars, global economic recession, the Berlin Wall going up, and the Iron Curtain coming down… all of which is rather grim.
While I welcome the idea of teaching linear narrative, this proposed curriculum is extraordinarily dense and dry, to the point that even I am exhausted by reading it! But not being a teacher, I wanted to know if I was in the minority, and so I sought a few out on Twitter, and their response was much like mine: universal despair at the idea of wading through this treacly tapestry of Proper History, stuffed to the brim with key dates, famous men, dull politics, difficult technological evolutions, and the ceaseless, triumphal march of Whiggish Progress.
Teachers will no doubt endeavour to enliven their lessons, but with such a curriculum they will struggle to captivate the imaginations of their young pupils, and that will be a fatal tragedy for the subject of history. The Horrible Histories books were a reaction to this proscriptive, joyless form of pedagogy, and having reached more than 50% of all the kids in Britain with the TV spin-off, it genuinely alarms me to contemplate all that recently-inspired historical passion that I have witnessed being threatened with a dreary top-down regression to the educational mores of a bygone age. I sincerely hope Mr Gove listens to those at the sharp end, and addresses the manifest problems in this document, or we will see generations of adults for whom reading history is a terrifying or tedious chore, rather than a joyous journey of discovery.