Debates about the content and delivery of school history taught to young people have proved increasingly controversial across the United Kingdom in recent years. For example, proposals by the current Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, to overhaul the history curriculum continue to provoke ferocious public debate. This would suggest that the so-called ‘history wars’, evident in countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States, is now a persistent feature of British political life. The history wars have encouraged the politicized debate of curriculum content involving politicians, academics, educationalists and other public commentators, often revealing deep ideological divisions about how the national past in understood and taught in school classrooms.
However, closer examination of the latest installment of the British history wars reveals that the protagonists are focused on what is taught in English classrooms rather than across the UK more widely. This apparent myopia has been rarely acknowledged, thus overlooking the increasing national divergence in education policy and history curricula outside of England that has become increasingly pronounced in the wake of devolution since 1998. It was this disjuncture that prompted the University of Huddersfield’s academics, Dr Andrew Mycock and Dr Catherine McGlynn, to bring together researchers and educationalists for a one-day conference to examine issues of history, identity and citizenship across an increasingly divergent, multi-national UK state.
What do we mean by history wars? In his keynote address Mycock explored the term and identified the central battlefront on which ‘history wars’ are typically fought.
He noted that, for traditionalists, history lessons were about the dissemination of an agreed body of knowledge that encouraged patriotism and national cohesion, offering a positive view of a shared national past founded on a homogenous historical narrative. Their revisionist opponents alternatively argued that history education should encourage the development of critical-embedded analytical skills and the acknowledgement of plural histories (of which the nation is but one), thus allowing young people to develop their own understanding of their past. Mycock noted what brought both sides together was the implicit assumption that history was a powerful tool to shape young people’s identity, although there is a lack of an evidence base to support this.
Dr Peter Yeandle’s (University of Manchester) presentation highlighted that debates about school history are themselves founded on distortion of past practice.
He noted that the so-called ‘golden age’ of history teaching lauded by many traditionalists was actually only dominant for a brief period after the Second World War. Conversely, the origins of ‘New History’ of the 1960s with its emphasis on skills, emotion and critical thinking could be seen as a return to the approach espoused in the training of teachers recruited for the first wave of free and compulsory education during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
These contributions to the conference brought out some of the problematic assumptions that have plagued increasingly febrile public discussion of the role of school history across the UK. Other presenters highlighted another issue that is often overlooked, namely that those tasked with teaching sensitive areas of history did not necessarily have the confidence to deal with the tensions they could unleash. Dr Paul Bracey (University of Northampton) explored teachers’ perceptions and use of materials that he and others had put together as resource packs on behalf of the Northamptonshire Black History Association.
He found that teachers were often uncomfortable about articulating their understanding of diversity and consequently lacked confidence about finding ways of discussing it in lessons.
Outside the classroom, Donalea Scott (University of Westminster) examined slavery exhibitions and found that even with deliberate decisions to minimize the number of artefacts relating to the physical cruelty of the trade in favour of spectacle, the hostile reactions by some visitors to negative depictions of the empire demonstrated how difficult it is to encourage people to engage critically with the past and relate it to contemporary dynamics of power and exclusion.
Professor Terry Haydn (University of East Anglia) argued the proposed new ‘national’ curriculum in England had failed to achieve its own stated aim of using history to understand the challenges of our own times. He questioned the politicized mission to impose ‘Our Island Story’ on young people.
He argued such distortions required the creation of a single narrative that exacerbated the problem that ‘veracity is a forgotten aspect of school history’. In an age where young people were exposed to even more sources of information than ever before, such an aim was completely implausible.
This chimed in with work presented by McGlynn on recent research projects conducted at the University of Huddersfield that revealed the importance of banal factors in shaping young people’s understanding of the past and also the significance of family and locality in creating a sense of what was meaningful about history and identity. Once young people’s attitudes to history teaching were subjected to rigorous assessment, the assumption that it was possible to impose any kind of narrative upon them was highly questionable.
Bringing the experiences of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to the fore highlighted commonalities and divergence in debates about school history. Contributors from each nation highlighted that teachers enjoyed much greater autonomy than those in England and curricula were envisaged as guidelines rather than prescriptions. But an ‘invisible national curriculum’ was discernable in each case, thus replicating the narrow focus on national historical figures or events as evidenced in England. Dr Alan McCully (University of Ulster) observed a lack of diversification in Northern Ireland since a new curriculum was introduced in 2007, noting ‘they’ve been given total freedom, so they haven’t changed!’
He was however, largely positive about recent developments, lauding the continued commitment to engaging young people in discussing and seeking common understanding of the conflict in Northern Ireland. He also welcomed the introduction of Irish history for all pupils, especially as lessons would be designed to situate events in Ireland in a wider European context, and a mandate to discuss the long-term consequences of partition.
Another common theme was that public and political debate about school history elsewhere in the UK was not as prominent as in England. Despite devolution increasing the profile and political power of a number of nationalist parties, this has not prompted a public discussion of history as a vehicle for nationalism in the same way. Dr Elin Jones, who has recently led a review of Curriculum Cymreig for the Welsh Assembly, lamented the lack of interest in history education.
She recorded her frustration with Welsh media outlets who, when they did cover this area, would often ask her about reforms in England. However, she was confident that the publication of the review report would be positively received and also realize its aim to establish a curriculum with a strong Welsh national emphasis but which also encouraged young people to connect to local and global perspectives.
Neil McLennan, the president of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History, noted that developments in Scotland also had positive and negative aspects. Despite the name, the new Curriculum for Excellence focused on pedagogy rather than content. Although the history curriculum had retained an emphasis on Scottish, British and European/world history, it did carry the disadvantage of creating silos and minimising the chance for students to perceive the interconnectivity of historical events and figures. However, it also prevented swings towards one particular aspect of history. This was particularly important, he noted, given that since devolution one could detect a stronger focus on the prominence of the Scottish national context. For example, lessons were now being designed around Scotland and the Great War rather than the previous emphasis on the complex international roots of the conflict.
The conference succeeded in its aim of highlighting divergent approaches to history education across the devolved UK, thus moving beyond the Anglocentric assumptions evident in much of the Westminster-led debate and its associated media commentary. The conference was rounded off by Joke van der Leeuw-Roord, the executive director of Euroclio (the European Association of History Educators) who put UK-based discussions into a global context.
She noted that emotional attachment to history teaching, and concern about its content and purpose, was being articulated in public debate in numerous countries. This was despite (or because of) the reduction of time given over in the school day to history and the danger of its irrelevance in countries where it was no longer formally tested. She was pleased to note more research into what was going on in the classroom and how it impacted on young people meant an evidence base was finally being built to underpin discussion of the subject. However, this research was still largely conducted at the local or state level, leading to replication and a lack of communication. As the conference finished it became clear that the next challenge in research terms was to build transnational links to develop a truly comprehensive picture of this inherently controversial issue.
The authors would like to thank the Political Studies Association and the University of Huddersfield for all their support.