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Back to the past for the school history curriculum?

by Nicola Sheldon

Michael Gove's explicit intention has been to 'slim down' the national curriculum. His new history curriculum has clearly 'slimmed' the scope of the curriculum, not the content in it. School history (apart from a cursory glance at Ancient Greece and the Russian, French and American revolutions) will be about one state only: Britain. Although the preamble refers to 'outlines of European and world history', international affairs are viewed through a British lens. It is 'Our Island Story', for the twenty-first century child.

The preamble recalls the first National Curriculum for History published in 1991, stating that in history, pupils learn to 'think critically, weigh evidence, sift arguments, and develop perspective and judgement'. The aims acknowledge the key concepts we have come to recognise as fundamental to the 'thinking' study of history in schools: 'continuity and change, cause and consequence, similarity, difference and significance'. So far so good, but is this compatible with a curriculum stuffed with a litany of (mainly political) events, each requiring considerable classroom time for children to come to any real understanding of them? It strikes me as implausible that any primary or secondary school teacher could do justice to these grand and laudable aims and still cover all the events in Mr Gove's curriculum in ninety minutes per week, which research by the Historical Association reveals schools typically allocate to history.

Chronology is obviously high on Mr Gove's priorities, and reasonably so, since the squeeze on history teaching time over the past decade has led to 'period hopping' in many schools. Reconciling the need to offer students the 'big picture' of the past, while enabling them to dig into the detail and understand key events has been a conundrum for history teachers ever since the National Curriculum was introduced. The sequential approach to chronology that the curriculum envisages is a return to the approach from 1900 to the 1970s, when the study of outline courses died out - because children found them boring and history was fast being overtaken in popularity by social science subjects and even geography! Since then, history has 'reinvented itself' as a subject about 'mysteries' and problem-solving. 'Did Richard III really murder the princes in the tower?' was one of the evidence-based puzzles which introduced thousands of students to the Schools History Project course in the 1970s and 80s. The 1991 National Curriculum restored a sequential approach overall, but allowed teachers choice and included in-depth topics , such as 'Black Peoples of the Americas' as a balance to the British history core.

Mr Gove's curriculum has none of these subtleties. Despite the preamble, primary school children need only study a huge list of 'key dates, events and significant individuals', covering prehistoric man to the Glorious Revolution in just four years. This will be impossible in the time allocated in most primary schools, but in any case, the vast majority of primary school teachers are not prepared for teaching it. Even those who gamely took on the first National Curriculum for History, whose introduction was backed up with specialised training and new publications, only had to get up to the Normans, dipping into the Victorians en route. Can under-twelves really digest the controversies of the English Civil War (Levellers and Diggers included), never mind the significance of the Glorious Revolution? This looks like 'Ladybird book' history - engaging introduction at best, superficial and simplistic at worst. Of course, there are primary school teachers with a real passion for history and the ability to tell a great story, but this will not happen in every classroom. The outcome will be a generation of children with a patchy understanding of history before 1700, skated over by a teacher pressed for time and lacking in enthusiasm.

The new curriculum, however, leaves a lot of room for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries at Key Stage 3 (age 11 to 14). The industrial revolution, the emancipation of women and the two world wars are already on the curriculum, but with the addition of topics unlikely to engage teenage students, such as Gladstone and Disraeli, the Second and Third Reform Acts, the battle for Home Rule and Chamberlain and Salisbury. Having got through the repeal of the Corn Laws, does anyone fancy teaching tariff reform to 13 year olds? Currently history is very popular in secondary schools, because the topics are seen as relevant and exciting, as well as ably taught. Whilst Equiano and Seacole now remain and twentieth-century immigration to Britain has been introduced, the curriculum is otherwise Anglo-centric. One British-Asian teacher newly entering the profession told me, ' the recommendations risk disengaging an entire generation - the current government means to tell me that my own heritage is unimportant, has little to offer to the national discourse and would have been better left at the harbour from which my ancestors first set sail to reach these shores.' The Head of History at one London school, which recently became an academy, told me, 'I won't be adopting the curriculum. It is my duty to meet the learning and cultural needs of the community I serve'.

Several questions surface after reading this new history curriculum. Where will the support materials come from? There's a big market for GCSE textbooks but they are going out of fashion for Key Stage 3 and few publishers provide for history teaching in primary schools. Moreover, how on earth can primary school teachers be trained to deliver this? If children are not going to be tested, will they bother with anything more than a 'pick and mix' approach - just what Mr Gove doesn't want. It is also unclear whether the academies and free schools, fast becoming the majority of state schools, will teach it at all, as they can diverge from the National Curriculum, and might well do so when confronted with such a weighty, but narrow, list of content. This will undermine the rationale behind the National Curriculum.

The baton now lies with the Department for Education and especially with Mr Gove to provide the training and materials to make the curriculum effective and to persuade school managers that it's worth the lesson time. Researching the development of history teaching in England over the past 100 years, my co-authors and I found that a politician's pronouncement in Westminster does not automatically lead to change in the classroom. Ultimately teachers are the arbiters of the curriculum and if they are not on board, the outcomes are usually rather different to those the Minister intended.

Over to you, Mr Gove.

February 2013

About the author

Dr Nicola Sheldon is co-author, with David Cannadine and Jenny Keating, of The Right Kind of History: teaching the past in twentieth-century England (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), which resulted from the History in Education project at the Institute of Historical Research. Dr Sheldon now works for the Institute of Education, training teachers on the Teach First Programme. N.Sheldon@ioe.ac.uk

See also Tackling truancy: why have the millions invested not paid off? by Nicola Sheldon (February 2009)

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