The response to the latest proposals for the National Curriculum in History (February 2013) can justifiably be described as historic (or should that be histrionic?). Since the first national curriculum was established in 1988 by the Conservative education secretary Kenneth Baker, the reaction to any changes has tended to be reasonably muted, occasionally even warm. Never before has there been such a vehement opposition comparable to that being engendered by current Conservative education secretary, Michael Gove. A recent poll from the Historical Association (1) showed responses that would force most politicians screeching towards a U-turn; 96% felt that the proposed history curriculum ‘was a negative change’; 96% felt that the curriculum did not provide an effective route for progression in history from Key Stages 1-3; the most positive element that could be gleaned from the survey was that 12% agreed with the overall aims of the new curriculum.
One of the key features of the proposed history curriculum is to ‘know and understand British history as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the story of the first settlers in these islands to the development of the institutions which govern our lives today’ (2). There has been some concern in recent years that the trend in the history classroom has been away from a traditional chronological approach towards ‘broad “”themes” ” covering issues such as the role of women and social, cultural, religious and ethnic diversity (where students) are jumping around in time’ (3). This curriculum is intended to tackle this issue head on; students will start their learning of history in Year Three at the Stone Age and progress chronologically through to the fall of the Berlin Wall by the end of Year Nine. Along this Whiggish trip through great individuals, events and achievements will be highlights such as the Saxon Heptarchy (4) (yes, I didn’t know it, either), Warwick the Kingmaker, the Congress of Vienna and ‘the Great Game’ (5) (another topic that passed me by in the last 20 years of teaching schools history).
There has been much consternation about the implications of teaching this narrative ‘story of these islands’ particularly for primary schools, with a huge amount of content expected now to be taught, by non-specialists, with a very restricted timetable. Secondary history teachers are lamenting the loss of topics that have been taught for many, many years including both medieval and Tudor history and are scrambling around to find ways of making topics such as the ‘Enlightenment in England’ and the Corn Laws accessible and interesting to future Year Sevens. Academic historians must shudder at the thought of history being reduced to a ‘story’: even Herodotus recognised it was more than that! . Publishers must be wondering about what to do with their soon-to-be redundant back catalogue of textbooks.
Closely linked to the debates about chronology has been the contentious issue of what content should be included in the new proposals. In the run up to the publication of this curriculum there was a lot of discussion about the removal of individuals such as Mary Seacole (6) and Olaudah Equiano, with campaigns being led by organisations such as Operation Black Vote to reinstate them (7). It was even reported that the deputy prime minister would ‘fight’ to retain Seacole on the curriculum (8). However what was seen as a great result by some (Operation Black Vote claimed ‘We’ve won!’ and Rasta poet Benjamin Zephaniah tweeted the same) is arguably a pyrrhic victory. The new proposals represent a dramatic reversal of the hard fought gains that were achieved in the 2007 national curriculum, which for the first time explicitly recognised the contributions made by people of African and Asian heritage (amongst others) to this country. The design of the 2007 curriculum, with its focus on key concepts, processes as well as content ensured that ‘diversity’ was an integral part of students learning of history. This was embedded in the assessment criteria of the national curriculum levels, where students were encouraged to:
‘pursue enquiries about historical change and continuity, diversity and causation … (to) analyse links between events and developments that took place in different countries and in different periods’ (History programme of study for Key Stage 3) (9)
One of the most significant aspects of this curriculum was the awareness of the importance of teaching the history of the slave trade, resistance and abolition, in its widest context:
Recognition should also be given to the cultures, beliefs and achievements of some of the societies prior to European colonisation, such as the West African kingdoms. The study of the slave trade should include resistance, the abolition of slavery and the work of people such as Olaudah Equiano and William Wilberforce (Ibid)
In its current form the proposed new curriculum makes no such acknowledgement. The first time that a student will even come across any individuals of African descent will be when they are taught about slavery. Assistant Professor of History and History Education at Kennesaw State University, Kay Traille, wrote of the dangers of this approach, in her article ‘You should be proud about your history. They make you feel ‘ashamed’:
If we only pay lip service to diversity in the history curriculum, if we alienate through ignorance or disenfranchise through our teaching, if we ignore and remain silent through indifference or fear of causing disharmony, then it should not surprise us when the history have-nots take what they have not been given and create historical narratives that clash with the ideals of democratic societies (10).
The fact that there has been a settled African community in this country for at least 500 years (as well as evidence of a presence dating back to Roman times) is not at all recognised in this curriculum. Apart from the concerns raised about racism by omission, there is also a missed opportunity for some fascinating forays into the way in which Britain has emerged as one of the most multicultural countries in the world. Even if one was to maintain the Whig approach to history, gone are the chances to explore Elizabeth I’s failed attempts at expelling the ‘Blackamoors’ in the later years of her reign (11) or discover the connection between Francis Drake and the Cimaroons of Panama to foil the Spanish in the Caribbean (12). No longer will students be able to explore the role of William Cuffay, the Chartist, whom the Times newspaper described as ‘the black man and his party’ (13), or discover the role of William Davidson in the Cato Street conspiracy in 1820 (14). And what pleasures will be lost when students can’t listen to the works of Samuel Taylor -Coleridge’s Hiawatha, or read the letters of Ignatius Sancho or admire the contribution of Ira Aldridge to British theatre? How will students of all backgrounds be inspired by the double pioneer Walter Tull (the first Black black outfield professional footballer in England and the first black officer in the British Army to take command of white soldiers) if they are rushing through the endless list of events and don’t have a chance to discover the personal stories that bring the past to life?
History is a subject that has been consistently recognised by Ofsted as one which is very well taught (15) and the subject associations, including the Historical Association and the Schools History Project, continue to make outstanding contributions to teacher training, hosting rigorous debates and engaging the profession in dialogue about effective pedagogy. The tragedy of the proposed curriculum is that, unprecedented in the history of the history national curriculum, there has been no transparency about the process involved in drawing up the history curriculum and no consultation with the key stakeholders. The backlash has only just begun but the momentum is certain to grow.
10. Teaching History, Vol. 127, pp. 31-37, Historical Association, June 2007