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Should we thank Mr Gove for giving us more history?

by Robert Guyver

It was tempting to view the leaked versions of the new history curriculum for England as 'gruel' for undeserving schools - those not deemed clever or suitable enough to gain for themselves the coveted 'free' or 'academy' status, with its accompanying liberty to write and enjoy their own curricula.

However, the national curriculum consultation document for history at Key Stages (KS) 1 to 3, announced in Parliament by Education Secretary Michael Gove today, is much more refined and in many ways more promising and sophisticated than the appalling document presented by The Daily Mail on 29th December 2012. The Mail portrayed the forthcoming curriculum as a triumph of patriotic, militarised, xenophobic chauvinism, conquering Labour's 2007 left-wing programme, celebrating a narrative of social reform. The truth is far more subtle.

The narrative of course is still there. It is, in the Secretary of State's own words a story of 'progress' peopled by 'heroes and heroines'. The consultation document includes a number of women, and indeed some men, whose demise the Daily Mail had eagerly announced. They're back: Wilberforce, Equiano, Seacole and Nightingale. But the new curriculum is a very English story, and quite a political one, with social and economic developments in supportive, not starring roles. It is not right to present it all as 'progress', and indeed a counter-argument might be that sometimes a transfer of power to others can be seen as a form of progress.

The changes are quite radical. KS1 history remains more or less the same, although the bar is raised for the understanding of historical vocabulary expected of six and seven year olds. The four casualties in KS2 (ages 8-11), are local history (as a separate unit), ancient histories (apart from Greece and Rome), the Victorians, and Britain since 1930. But Mr Gove believes schools should have time and flexibility to add their own material to the curriculum. Teachers may disagree.

Nonetheless, in a major departure from previous versions, the Middle Ages, a point of controversy in the curriculum debates of the 1989-1990 National Curriculum History Working Group, of which I was a member, have been inserted into KS2 to plug the old gap between the Vikings and the Tudors. While the Stuarts, dropped under the Dearing reforms of 1994-5, have returned. There is now a framework for a continuous narrative from the Celts (yes, they have been added) to beyond the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9. Teachers may mourn the demise of the later periods and the chance to teach a non-European 'ancient' society (like Egypt, once much-loved). But they will have plenty of other material to use, through the addition of the 1066-1485 and 1603-1714 eras. In fact they will now be able to teach the very topical Richard III and the Normans. The Stuart period also includes old favourites like the Great Fire of London and Samuel Pepys. Significantly though, the iconic 'Whig' events of Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution are now to be studied in primary school.

The narrative gauntlet is taken up again at KS3, which allows for coverage from the Seven Years War to the end of the Cold War. There were considerable concerns about the leaked version of this, which excluded the internal history of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and its strange treatment of other countries, especially France, viewed only through the lens of war.

It is a relief to see that Wales, Scotland and Ireland are accorded their own histories, although the heroes are military ones (William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Llywelyn and Dafydd ap Gruffydd). 'The plantation of Ireland' features at KS2, as do the 19th century and the 20th century developments towards Home Rule. It is understandable that a curriculum for England will focus mainly on English history, but Anglocentric does not have to mean eccentric, and - because of this - historiographically problematic. Conrad Russell, Keith Robbins, J.G.A. Pocock and J.C.D. Clark have all written in the transnational genre of multiple kingdoms, stressing the importance of interweaving the mutual histories of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland (pre- and post-1922) to explain both developments and conflicts. J. H. Elliott in his perceptive and semi-autobiographical History in the Making has shown just how much the Anglophone and Spanish Atlantic empires had in common. Yet Spain, like France is seen only through conflict. How many teachers and students will realise that England was part of a 'composite' monarchy in the 16th and 17th centuries, just like Spain and other parts of the Hapsburg Empire?

The document needs more work to contextualise the nation regionally and globally and this would reflect not only current historiographical concerns, but also how to frame a national curriculum for history. The almost exclusive focus on England, or 'Britain' when it is being powerful overseas, in a compulsory programme is not necessarily the best way to prepare students for a more rounded understanding of the contemporary world. The narrative needs to be widened to include the possibility of seeing the histories of some other countries (or even the histories of other parts of the UK) from the inside, not just through English eyes; and particularly countries such as China, now powerful in their own right and whom school children would benefit from understanding as they make their way into the adult world.

The core national narrative, as an interpretation, clearly should not be the property of any governing political party. It also requires sensitive teaching, allowing for inquiry, interrogation and debate (as is suggested in the list of aims at the outset of the proposals). There needs to be a continuing balance between political, economic and social history. Going alongside all of this there should be opportunities for local and transnational comparative depth studies, to put flesh on any generalisations, and to consider perspectives outside that of the embattled and embattling British nation.

February 2013

About the author

Robert Guyver was Senior Lecturer and Teaching Fellow at University College Plymouth St Mark and St John. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. After teaching in primary schools for 21 years, he was an advisory teacher in Essex, and has since worked in teacher education. He was a member of the Department for Education and Science National Curriculum History Working Group (1989-1990). He has recently co-edited History Wars and the Classroom: Global Perspectives (IAP 2012) with Associate Professor Tony Taylor of Monash University, Melbourne, who took a leading part in framing the Australian curriculum. rguyver@btinternet.com

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