Let me be clear from the start, I am not against reform. Indeed some of the key changes to the History GCSE are long overdue and in some cases I am frustrated that reforms have not gone far enough. Yet the revised History curriculum offers little in the way of real reform, little to develop the historical profession and even less still to the students it aims to educate. I had been genuinely excited by the prospect of a greater role for History in the National Curriculum. Back when creating departmental documents in 2010 I noted, “This is an exciting time to be a History teacher and an historian. It is clear that History is set to play a much larger role in school curricula than it has done over the last 10 years of Labour government.” How bitter then my disappointment with what we have been given. It transpires that there is at least one aspect of the new curriculum which will avoid criticism: second-order concepts remain. There, that’s it! The rest of the document appears to be the combined wet dreams of reactionary Tories, Daily Mail readers, Empire apologists and neo-liberal crusaders throughout Britain (or should I say this “Sceptred Isle?”)
“…curiosity and imagination, moving and inspiring them with the dilemmas, choices and beliefs of people in the past. It helps pupils develop their own identities through an understanding of history at personal, local, national and international levels. It helps them to ask and answer questions of the present by engaging with the past. Pupils find out about the history of their community, Britain, Europe and the world.”
The current History curriculum offers a vision of historical study in which all are welcome to take part, learn, discover and engage with the past. Importantly, this is not just a past of great men, or “important events”, it is a past populated by living, breathing, thinking human beings, many of them very ordinary, but all of them a part of our shared human history. The new proposals for the History curriculum for England seem to have set out to destroy all of this. They strip away the humanity from History and cover it in a gloss of neo-liberal self-satisfaction and Whiggish notions of eternal progress towards a “Great Britain” (Should we be worried for example that Thatcher seems to be the end point of politics, or that the course ends when Capitalism defeats the Commies?). I, along with many other history teachers, strongly object to these new proposals on this and many other grounds, and it is on these that our battle for the heart and soul of our history must be fought.
The re-written History curriculum which has arrived this week has been the work of a selection of celebrity historians, David Cannadine, Simon Schama, and Niall Ferguson to name but three. The idea behind this was to bring historical “expertise” to bear on the new curriculum. It is somewhat ironic then that history teachers themselves were sidelined whilst groups such as the Historical Association and the Schools History Project were left out in the cold. Notably, both Cannadine and Schama fell quickly from grace, presumably as their ideas did not fit in well with Gove’s vision for a future past. The whole review was therefore completed in what Warwick Mansell has described a fantastically “un-transparent and bizarre process”. So disillusioned was Cannadine with the whole process, that the meddling of state in History education became a key part of the preface to his book “The Right Kind of History?” (Cannadine, 2011). What we have therefore ended up with is the distillation of Gove’s own vision for History, filtered through Schama’s hagiography and Ferguson’s insidiously triumphalist tales of the Empire’s sacrifices for mankind. A vicious, right-wing retelling of History with Britain at its centre and the rest of the world waiting like bit-part actors in the wings. As Chris Culpin made clear at the SHP Conference in 2012, “Gove is not offering a proper vision for what the curriculum should be. It is a surrogate for political vision.”
It is little surprise therefore that the aims of the new National Curriculum for History reflect this Govian political vision. And it is not just the nature of the aims (understanding British narratives) that cause problems, but the very wording of them. Students we are told, above all, must “know and understand the story of these islands: how the British people shaped this nation and how Britain influenced the world…” Already the political bent of the reforms are clear. British people are the centre, the story is of “these islands” and the focus will be on our “influence” – already loaded with positivesv overtones. I wonder what the effect would have been if the word “influenced” was replaced with “coerced”? (Maybe there is a lesson right there). Heavily romanticised terms such as “civilisation”, “democracy”, and “these islands” abound in the language used as the whole tale glows with a rosy hue. The idea of Britain’s influence spreading out across the world echoes Niall Ferguson’s own concepts of “Westerners and Resterners” which come from his apologist book “Empire”. Here again we can see the clear focus on why the West was better than the rest of the world. The primary aim of this new curriculum seems to be to tell the tale of the rise and dominance of liberal capitalism and its triumph over all other people, an Empire of Liberty to coin a phrase. The term nation also sees a resurgence and national identity seems to be key to much of the content. But whose identity are we aiming to build? What is a nation in these days of world wide communications and divided loyalties (don’t worry, Year 1 will be tacking that issue under the proposals)? And should the state be involved in inspiring such nationalistic
fervour? I feel the answer to the last question is an emphatic, no!
Sadly this is not even the worst of it. Students are also required to “know and understand British history as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the story of the first settlers in these islands to the development of the institutions which govern our lives today.” I am not even sure where to begin here. As a History professional, seven years into teaching, having studied History to degree level and with an extensive interest in the subject, I feel I have only just got an outline grasp of what happened in the British Isles over the last two millennia. Get that into the heads of fourteen year-olds who have only just begun to appreciate that they are mortal, and that there is such a thing as the past? Apparently no problem!?! Then we come to the Whiggish nature of this interpretation – the telling of a clear narrative from uncivilised barbarianism to the advent of enlightened, liberal democracy. The story of a self-regulating and self-improving political system. An uncontested, factual interpretation of the past in which events just were, and progress was inevitable (probably driven by some “killer apps” no doubt). Where is this History? The major problem with this document is it confuses the real and living discipline of History, the concept of a contested and interpreted past, with antiquarianism – a mindless trudge through dates and the biographies of great men. Small wonder that Cannadine and Schama left the reform project so quickly. What place is given in this story for other cultures and other influences? Certainly students have to look at the broad outlines of European and World History, but only where these might impact on our British story. What interest does this new curriculum have with the cultural fusion which is our modern society? To get into the mind-set of those most involved in this rewriting of History as a national narrative, one need look no further than the darling of the hard right, Niall Ferguson. Speaking in 2011 (during the consultation process), Ferguson summarises his reasons for a programme of historical study which focuses on the positive growth of Empire and the creation of liberal, capitalist democracy at the expense of the history of other cultures.
“I think it’s hard to make the case, which implicitly the left makes, that somehow the world would have been better off if the Europeans had stayed home. It certainly doesn’t work for north America, that’s for sure. I mean, I’m sure the Apache and the Navajo had all sorts of admirable traits. In the absence of literacy we don’t know what they were because they didn’t write them down. We do know they killed a hell of a lot of bison.”
It is this flippant disregard for the mass of ordinary humanity which permeates and perverts this curriculum, and makes it rotten to the core. It selects the story of one section of one society and projects it on the lives of a world-wide population, a chauvinistic nationalism which aims to drown out all other interpretations of the past. As one Year 10 student remarked to me this morning, “isn’t this a bit like what the Soviets and Nazis did?”
The second major point of contention in this revised curriculum is in terms of content. For a document of such length, it is amazing that it has been made so restrictive. Instead of broad areas of study, Key Stages 2 and 3 have become a madcap dash through two millennia of great men, royal actions and “turning points on the road to the present”. We are now presented with fifty-nine individual pieces of History which all students need to know by the end of the Key Stage. Fifty-nine, that’s one every 1 ½ weeks. Currently we look at eighteen broad issues through Years 7 to 9 covering Britain and the wider world. We go into significant depth in some, and significant breadth in others. As a department, we have used our professional judgment to carefully plan three years of historical study which give development, challenge, interest and relevance. We have selected topics which will prevent overlap at Key Stages 4 and 5. We have aimed to provide these students with an appreciation for the world of history which is out there. Another Year 10 student remarked to me, when shown the scope of the new consultation document, “It’ll be just like science – one week on this, one week on that but never understanding anything…. Nobody’s going to want to do GCSE after that!” These students were not prepped and they were not given my own view, this was just their initial reaction.
Beyond the issues of timing, taking the control of historical content away from History teachers is another step on the road to de-professionalising a group of people who have always cared passionately about pedagogy as well as content. If we let this happen we will be heading exactly the same way as Science and other select subjects, where proper study of the subject is left to universities and taken out of schools. History is one subject in the curriculum where the processes of the profession still drive its development. A century of “Teaching History” cmay as well be put to the flame if these reforms come through. I am sure that Gove would be more than happy to employ technicians to deliver his 59 point curriculum, but we must not let this happen. If Gove’s vision becomes a reality, History teaching will be nothing more than a cruel parody of Sellars’ and Yeatman’s vision of history education in “1066 and all that”. GCSE already contains enough of the “list of stuff to learn” mentality, Key Stage 3 cannot be lost to this as well.
Of course, I am not against the idea of students having an understanding of British history. Michael Wood recently produced the excellent “Great British Story” which looked at the story of Britain from the perspective of the ordinary people. What is interesting however, is that barely any of the “key” events or people from the new National Curriculum made it into the programme. A history of Britain was told, in which ordinary people mattered and were central to the story. National events ebbed and flowed but the people remained.
Colleagues in Primary schools are not left out either. Despite good research suggesting that students cannot really appreciate history until the age of eleven, Gove has seen fit to give already squeezed Primary teachers the task of showing how Britain developed from barbarism to constitutional monarchy. My wife is a Year 6 teacher, a History graduate, and a specialist in the Jacobite Rebellions, yet she too reacted with dismay at the idea of teaching this in a meaningful way to her ten-year-old charges. Where will this expertise come from? How will untrained Primary teachers grapple with concepts like historical interpretations when a large portion of Secondary teachers struggle to cover this concept successfully? And then there is Key Stage 1. The “concept of a nation” is in there to be taught to students as young as five. Five! Some of them don’t have a concept of tomorrow, let alone a nation. But of course it is difficult to see the glorious rise of Britain without the concept being embedded at an early age, so in it goes. I am sure the inhabitants of Israel, Gaza, the Basque country etc. would be fascinated to know what exactly constitutes a nation (possibly a future school trip?)
Finally, it is worth pointing out that the proposals are just fundamentally unworkable. In a year, History departments across England will be asked to throw away their schemes of work for Years 7, 8 and 9, along with thousands of pounds worth of resources that go with them. Where will all of these go? Who will be coming up with replacement resources? More importantly, who will be controlling the content of these? Will the government be producing an approved core text for historical study, with all the overtones thereby implied: “The story of Britain from primitive times to world power” or even “Britain from Ethelred to Thatcher – A Story of Improvement”? What worries me more, is that someone, somewhere probably is writing one of these, or something very similar. Again, we cannot let this be the factor which determines the historical diet of our children.
When my department were engaged with re-writing our Key Stage 3 schemes of work at the end of 2010, we spent a long time considering, and arguing heatedly over, the aims of History. Ultimately we concluded that History was about helping children to not just blindly accept the world for what it says it is but to always be questioning it. Gove’s new curriculum undermines this with its prescriptive diet of events which build a false sense of national pride. We decided that History should help to make children into better citizens by engaging them with a wide range of historical narratives, and encouraging them to appreciate their place in the broad sweep of humanity; recognising a common experience which goes beyond national and temporal boundaries. Gove’s curriculum dismantles this through its narrow focus on Britishness, a white, male Britishness, a divisive, insidious and reactionary Britishness with little focus on ordinary humanity. Finally we agreed that History provides freedom. Teachers and students, we said, have opportunities to pursue their own interests and ideas because it involves the whole of human experience. Again, Gove’s curriculum rips professional choice and student interest from the heart of the subject. It reduces it to a dry, dusty trudge through the lives and actions of a privileged class of people and the decisions they made. It is a curriculum devoid of freedom, with a suffocating range of content which stifles teachers and blinkers children to the real historical world around them. As Braudel famously said “The history of events [is merely the history of] surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs…”. Yet here is a curriculum which is all foam and no substance, surely we deserve better.
There seems to be a growing body of people criticising Gove’s educational reforms. Michael Riley for instance has provided an excellent response to the proposals on behalf of the Schools History Project, and Twitter is awash with people denouncing this narrowed, ideologically driven revision. The real challenge now will be to combine all of these battles and wage a real war against Gove’s neo-liberal education agenda. But where will the impetus come for this? For twenty years schooling has been turned into a game (Gunter, 2011) where leadership is about the promotion, and the implementation of national initiatives rather than the true leadership of education. Our “school leaders” have for too long been chosen on their ability to follow instructions and delegate rather than through engagement with the profession. So in the absence of resistance from the top, the profession itself must take up the vanguard. History teachers are some of those who have the most to lose under these reforms, not least in terms of our professional freedom. Because of this, we must be the front line in stopping Gove’s agenda moving any further. It is all too easy to decry the problems of the curriculum but do nothing. Now is the time to stand up and be counted. If nothing else, being a History teacher shows us the power of mass, unified action.
First and foremost we must respond in the strongest terms to the consultation which is now ongoing. Time is of the essence and Gove’s department will be monitoring reactions very closely now. @HistoryResource offers some excellent advice on writing a response here: shar.es/YhRuU which should be read before writing a response. Beyond this there needs to be a clear campaign of resistance against this attempt to control of our history. History is part of all our identities, it must not be a tool of political control, or a dog whistle to those on the right who want to see Britishness and nationalism as the only products of our schooling system. History teachers need to make a stand, we need to refuse to teach this perverse national narrative and resist attempts to de-professionalise us. History will always be part of the curriculum in England, the real question is, whose history do we want it to be?