History's master narratives
Considering how low down on the academic agenda history tends to be in our schools (well behind English and Mathematics, and these days a poor relation too of Science and ICT), it perhaps should surprise us more than it does how much of a fuss is made of proposed changes to the National History Curriculum. Earlier this month, the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, published his consultation document on the whole National Curriculum, and although there has been some discussion of various parts of it (Sir James Dyson, the knight errant of vacuum cleaning and inventor of that savage hand drier, didn't much like the prospects for Design and Technology), it is History that has twisted the most knickers. Perhaps that's because, encouragingly, we all feel we have a continuing stake in history, whereas other areas of the National Curriculum tend to devolve, after we leave school, to others' specialisations.
The objections to the new proposals centre on the idea that the picture presented is a barely updated version of Our Island Story, or 1066 and All That played straight. Critics have included trustworthy historians (and contributors to the TLS, which I hope is the same thing) such as Peter Mandler and Richard Evans, while another TLS stalwart, Niall Ferguson, has defended the outlines. When you look at what is proposed, however, it is hard to avoid the sense that this is a set of ideas taken from the backs of a lot of envelopes. The overall vision of the current curriculum, to allow children to "investigate Britain's relationships with the wider world", while finding out in turn about "the history of their community, Britain, Europe and the world", has been replaced by the altogether more Gradgrindian prospect of being "equipped", to "think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments and develop perspective and judgement". Of course, one hopes that history teaching would result in both, but the rather chilly initial position doesn't leave much room for the prospect that it might be a bit of a thrill to learn about the past too.
But it is the outline itself that reads like someone wrote down a DfE brainstorming session. How do you do history? Well, from the Year Dot to the Present Day, of course. And by history, we mean us. So pupils will (apparently) start with the Stone Age, and move on through Celts (who they?), Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, Plantagenets and so on. The periods are broken down into headings, such as Heptarchy under Anglo-Saxons, a concept that bears little relation to reality and smacks of a view of English history that is Georgian at the latest. Other interpolations are similarly arbitrary. When it comes to "the later Middle Ages and the early modern period", there is Caxton and the Wars of the Roses -- and Warwick the Kingmaker, which, again, is not a name by which Richard Neville was actually ever known, and which hints, again, at the idea that this is a document drawn up by people who don't actually teach or read history today, but remember a bit about it.
There's nothing at all wrong with learning about the indviduals the document names, merely that it immediately makes you think of all the individuals it doesn't. Why Christina Rossetti under "creative geniuses"? Is she really a more important poet than Keats or Shelley? What merits more of a challenge, however, is the assumption that this is the way to do it. Start kids off with the Stone Age, and take them step by step up to the present day. Why? Are eight-year-olds peculiarly attuned to the world view of Stone Age man? Do nine-year-olds have a natural affinity for the Anglo-Saxons (you would have thought the difficult spellings alone might be enough to put some off)?
I take the point that picking and choosing periods can result in a very fractured view of history -- Victorians one term, Ancient Egyptians the next -- but might it be worth doing both? That is, children could learn about the broad outlines of British (and world) history in a year, perhaps in the middle of primary school, and then teachers could have some choice about which bits to focus on next. And while it's important to learn about the country you live in, the idea that you should learn about the Stone Age only from its intersection with Britain (among "early Britons and settlers") seems almost wilfully insular.
What all this ignores, however, is how much relation it bears to reality in classrooms. In primary schools, history is often lumped in with other "topics" -- science, religion, geography -- to be covered in the interstices of the blanket focus on the endless tested Maths and Literacy. No wonder it is reduced to a dab of empathy and never mind the facts, and secondary school history has to start all over again. Even then, to judge by one disgruntled history teacher's account, the learning remains "play-centred", and lofty pronouncements from the top won't change that unless teachers are on board too. Children deserve to be offered something a bit better considered, both in terms of the proposed curriculum, and the time allocated to teach it.