The Future of History under Gove

So, as is now the established formal process, the next elements of the National Curriculum have been announced in the Mail and the Sunday Times. Not for this Secretary of State anything so quaint and old fashioned as an announcement in Parliament or even a press conference where anyone might dare to ask questions.

The announcement was mainly about the history curriculum. The focus is apparently to be on 200 key figures and events which shaped Britain. The existing curriculum will be scrapped because it is too “politically correct”. We are not told whether we will now have one that is politically (or any other way) incorrect! Quite by coincidence the hard-working investigative journalists who got this scoop both headlined the article “Gove brings back 1066 and all that”. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that bringing back 1066 is seen as a positive thing – even though it was designed as a satire on simplistic and old-fashioned teaching in 1930!

This leak raises a number of quite exceptionally serious issues about how this government is dealing with the school curriculum.

It would seem clear from this “announcement” that the very detailed prescription seen in the draft programmes of study for primary English, maths and science will be seen too in other subjects. It would seem clear that the scope for teachers to design a curriculum they find suited to their pupils and their communities will be radically reduced.

If these leaks are to be believed, the government is adopting an approach to history which will sell pupils seriously short. It seems to take us back to the “great man” (and most will certainly be men) approach to history which takes no account of deeper economic, social and cultural issues or of the lives of the great majority of people. It’s an approach to history that was abandoned by serious students of the subject many decades ago.

It also seems likely to focus entirely on content rather than historical skills. The current curriculum has a good balance of the two. It understands that one reason for studying history is to understand how to gather and assess evidence, identify bias and assess cause and effect. But this is balanced with both the development of a broad understanding of chronology and the study of periods of history in depth. This, it would seem, is what is dismissed by ministers as “political correctness”.

History is a subject which is fundamental to our understanding of our society and its place in the world. What we know and believe about the past has a big influence on how we view the present. Choosing what knowledge is to be taught and what is not to be taught is a profoundly ideological and political activity – the idea that there is one right answer to what young people should know in a subject like history is fundamentally false.

And it is why no government – indeed no one at all – should seek to prescribe the history curriculum in such detail and with such little consultation. The only way of preventing this kind of dangerous centralisation is to enable schools to make their own decisions – salvation lies in pluralism not in ministerial prescription.

Just as an afterthought, it seems the Citizenship curriculum will be reduced to one page! King Alfred and King Athelstan are clearly more important than enabling young people to become active and engaged citizens.

 

Advertisements

6 Comments on “The Future of History under Gove”

  1. David Pavett says:

    John says that “The focus is apparently to be on 200 key figures and events which shaped Britain”.

    This could well represent the narrow “great man” view of history as suggested. I guess that with Gove at the helm this is most likely. On the other hand, we should perhaps allow that knowing the names and dates of important figures (key or otherwise) can act as lynchpins for deeper knowledge. Another problem (one behind all the right-wing assaults on education) is that all is perhaps not well with the current state of history teaching and perhaps we need to reflect on that at the same time as rejecting Gove’s reforms.

    I have looked at a few A level history papers in recent years and I have been really struck by what appear to be a few narrow obsessions (which is not to deny the importance of the object of those obsessions). Most English people haven’t got a clue about history after they have left school. That, in my view, is sufficient reason to ask questions about what we do at present, Gove or no Gove. I am not a history teacher. I teach/taught maths and science – but I could say the same thing about them. A socialist critique of education surely has to go beyond the critique of institutions and consider the content of education.

    I would be pleased if everyone new the significance of the coming of the Normans in 1066 for the development of a relatively pure form of feudalism. I would be please similarly if everyone had some idea about Europe’s reawakening from the 12th century, the great intellectual debates of the middle, the significance of the Tudors, the English Civil War period and much more beyond that. If people were helped to recall this stuff by means of the names of Kings and Queens and political leaders that would not worry me too much.

    “This leak raises a number of quite exceptionally serious issues about how this government is dealing with the school curriculum.”

    I would like to suggest that the real problem is not so much how this government is dealing with the curriculum but that it is government that is dealing with curriculum. The solution is not simply to replace a Conservative educational dictator with a Labour one. The solution is to take the determination of educational content out of the hands of government and place it in the hands of broadly based democratic institutions.

    John says later on

    “…no government – indeed no one at all – should seek to prescribe the history curriculum in such detail and with such little consultation. The only way of preventing this kind of dangerous centralisation is to enable schools to make their own decisions..”.

    This may or may not be the way to prevent such dangerous centralisation but surely it is clearly that it is not the “only” way. Is John suggesting that we dump any idea of a national curriculum or at least a national curriculum framework?

    “It also seems likely to focus entirely on content rather than historical skills.”

    “The current curriculum has a good balance of the two. It understands that one reason for studying history is to understand how to gather and assess evidence, identify bias and assess cause and effect. But this is balanced with both the development of a broad understanding of chronology and the study of periods of history in depth.”

    This all sounds marvellous but what is the reality behind it? I cannot say that my dealings with science sixth formers in recent years, many of whom had a history GCSE, produced much in the way of evidence for this.

    P.S. One of the great benefits of Internet discussion is the ability to give links to the evidence for one’s claims. It would be helpful if claims about what is announced in this or that newspaper (for example) were habitually accompanied by an appropriate link. It really does save time and most of us cannot do all the research required by ourselves.

    • johnebolt says:

      Hi David

      Thuis is the link to the Mail article. I can’t give you the Times one as it’s behind the paywall and I don’t propose to help fund Mr Murdoch!.
      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2217547/Pupils-learn-200-key-British-figures-Anglo-Saxons-Winston-Churchill-politically-correct-national-curriculum-history-scrapped.html?ito=feeds-newsxml

      I’m not for a moment saying there should be no National Curriculum. What we have now I think is a pretty good model leaving plenty of scope for local detail and interpretation.I agree that the national curriculum should be developed at arms length from government. I’m not sure what “broadly based democratic institutions” would look like. I would not give any institution however democratic the kind of power that Gove is taking to himself – I remain of the view that the pluralism that comes from letting individual schools and communities find their own way is the only safeguard against a politically driven “correct” point of view.I would though have a rule that stopped people doing the Nazis at just about every key stage up to A level.

      John Bolt

      • David Pavett says:

        Hello John, thanks for the response

        I followed the link (so thanks for that) and, like you, I find the Daily Mail stuff pretty frightening.

        I see that it is the old right-wing stuff “Under new plans school children will learn a narrative about British history” i.e. they will learn our “Island story” etc., etc.

        Just as horrific is “The current version of citizenship, which includes topics such as identities and diversity and how to negotiate, plan and take action has been cut back from 29 pages to one for 11 to 14-year-olds.”

        And “The new syllabus will focus on the British monarchy and parliamentary democracy as well as theories on liberty and rights.”

        I think that broad-based institutions would be umbrella organisations for education involving all interested parties: government, local authorities, political parties, unions, industry and commerce, parents organisations and all other bona fide representative organisations. We need an education system and a curriculum that can convince them all. Opposing Gove is not enough. We must have a clearly specified alternative (which is not to say an inflexible one). So far things do not look good on that front but as the opposition to Gove mounts I hope that this will start to emerge.

        We are agreed, I think, that a national curriculum of some sort is required. So I am puzzled by your view that “letting individual schools and communities find their own way” is the only way to avoid a politically driven ‘correct’ view. I want to avoid that to but I have to say that I have worked in schools where I definitely would not want to leave the decisions to the teachers and I have little idea what “communities” means in this context. Does it mean the few parents who turn up for PTAs? Or does it mean something else (that’s a genuine question, I really don’t know what it means).

  2. trevor fisher says:

    I agree with much of what is said here, but I suspect that while we assume that a national curriculum of some kind is needed, and it would be good to see the assumption put into a meaningful form, the politics are starting to become very dubious indeed. Both Labour and Tory behave as though the national curriculum is their project – not what was promised in 1988 – and the idea of replacing a Tory Dictator with a Labour dictator is wrong, and we should say so, there is a bigger issue here.

    The Mail and S TImes stories indicate that the history and citizenship curriculums are to be shaped to fit Tory prejudice. This is wrong, as is the failure to put the proposals before parliament but to leak them. However while both Labour and Tory right behave as though the nat curriculum can be a political tool – Labour made moves which the Tories can now cite as precedents – there is another reality. Academies. (and free schools etc)

    None of these have to follow the national curriculum, and the tories want all schools to become academies. So the game plan must be to abolish the national curriculum. This was suggested in a TES article on June 29th from memory. Gove is in fact behaving in ways suggesting that he wants the NC to vanish. He stated in the Commons on December 19th last year that there would be a new timetable for NC reform in the New Year. It is now October 22nd. No timetable, a dribble of leaks, and the growth of academy numbers. The President of the Historical Association wrote in the Autumn edition of the Historian that “Ministerial pronouncements, which undermine confidence in… teaching abound… yet no meaningful timetables for curriculum review or changes to the public examination system in schools have been offered”. And much else, all very true.

    On the NC we have a dangerous situation where the new systems are in theory coming in during Sep 2013 (for core subjects) and Sep 2014 (for the rest). Yet I would not be amazed to find that the government simply abandons the NC if it gets the majority of schools academised.

    So this would suggest that the leaks are not serious. They are designed to get the Tory right on board, for a project which in the end will ditch them. 1066 AND ALL THAT… sounds good to the UKIP brigade. But not so good if before the next general election is becomes an empty space.

    Gove is if he is serious about his core project, academisation, destroying the NC. But in the meanwhile a few leaks suggesting to his right wing that they will get the old systems back do not go amiss. However it is a high stakes policy, since in the end if he gets abolition the right wing get nothing, nor do anyone else. It simply becomes anarchy in the school system.

    The leaks may be correct as far as they go, though the DFE deny everything. But the sensible approach would be to campaign (a) that there should be a national curriculum not designed by politicians and (b) This should apply to all schools, including academies etc. The subsequent debate would expose Gove and his supporters. It would also put Labour on the spot. How the NC is to operate would be part of the debate. But for the moment, suspend the review which is now clearly totally incoherent and manipulated, campaign for (a) AND (b) and (c) the maintenance of the current NC till a new not manipulated system can be agreed and put Gove on the spot.

    As things are now, he is destroying the NC by academisation by appeasing his right wing by leaks suggesting they will get their way. Robbing Peter to Pay Paul with monopoly money.

    Let’s not take the leaks at face value. Designed to appease the right, they too are being sold short. The Academy/Adonis lobby don’t want a National curriculum. But in the short term, they can use it to split the opposition to free market chaos. Let’s work to build a united front against a national curriculum – for all schools.

    TREVOR FISHER.