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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

History Matters?

I see that David Dimbleby has joined the debate about the inadequate provision of History in schools, saying that programmes like his current BBC series on the Seven Ages of Britain help to fill the huge gaps in provision at secondary level. He's undoubtedly right, but only partly so. I recently blogged on the qualities of much of the history seen on TV, and 'Seven Ages' is undoubtedly better than much of what's out there; but it's still painfully superficial when compared to roughly equivalent series of the past (say, Kenneth Clarke's 'Civilisation') and still panders to the 'soundbite' school of history, and, indeed, of education in general, epitomised by the very same BBC's fatuous attempt to convince 16 year olds that GCSE revision can somehow be made 'bitesized'.

Now, many others far more august than myself (or David Dimbleby, come to that) have commented on the appalling neglect of History in British schools, and not so long ago the Historical Association ran a campaign called 'History Matters' which seemed to consist primarily of the distribution of nice little white badges bearing that slogan. It certainly used to be the case that only two countries in Europe did not retain History as a compulsory subject until the age of 16, but even Albania finally went down a more enlightened path, leaving the UK in splendid isolation (and I wonder how many of our current History students would be able to identify the historical origins of that term?). On the other hand, I know many History teachers who offer up thanks on a daily basis to the great god of option systems that they don't have to put up with the hordes of sullen refuseniks who are dragooned into the subjects that are compulsory. The issue is really more to do with the narrowness of the choice available to students. Take, for example, the new GCSEs that began to be taught last September. Looking at the three monolithic English exam boards alone - institutions which prove beyond doubt that Stalinism is alive and well and living in London, Cambridge and Manchester (indeed, the AQA headquarters used to be known as 'the Manchester Lubyanka') - we see that Edexcel offers one course focusing exclusively on 20th century history and another founded on the venerable Schools History Project, secondary education's equivalent of an ageing hippy, with its familiar old studies of the American West, Medicine Through Time and Britain 1815-51 (familiar because I was teaching them to the intellectual cream of north Cornwall thirty years ago). AQA, one of whose previous incarnations provided me with useful extra income for a decade, also offers a Schools History project track, albeit with the addition of a blatantly populist option on Media Through Time, but its other track is again exclusively 20th century. To be fair, OCR offers Ancient History - thanks only to an outcry against its proposed abolition - but then has nothing before the nineteenth century on its SHP track, while the other is, yet again, exclusively 20th century; and Edexcel offers a fascinating-sounding module on the history of warfare within its SHP option, which provides a last beleaguered refuge for medieval and 17th century topics at GCSE level. But otherwise, the 'Dark Ages', the Middle Ages, the Early Tudor period and the 17th and 18th centuries, not to mention the history of most of the world, need not have bothered taking place, for all the attention they currently receive in English classrooms. (And I do stress 'English' - Wales and Scotland have a broader outlook, but only just.)

The exam boards will tell you that they are driven by market demands and by what teachers are qualified to teach (or prepared to teach in competition with 'sexier'/easier options), but of course there is a vicious circle here: History teachers who have come out of this very system are often tempted to stay within their 'comfort zones' at university and thus have very little expertise outside the well-trodden paths of Hitler, Stalin, and maybe the odd tentative nod towards other periods. It's similar to the current alarm bells being rung in mathematical circles, i.e. that the Maths taught in secondary schools is now so chronically superficial that the next generation of Maths teachers will actually be incapable of teaching the more complex aspects of the subject, leading to even more dumbing down in the generations that succeed them in turn. Such, I'm afraid, is the logical conclusion of the relentless drive to make all subjects, History included, as 'accessible' (that legendary euphemism for 'easy') as possible so that politicians can achieve their insane holy grail of getting 50% of the population into universities. Ironically, salvation might come thanks to the recession; the numbers of men applying to be primary school teachers are already rocketing, and perhaps good History graduates are already realising that the worst abuse a Year 11 bottom set can inflict on them on a Friday afternoon is as nothing to the public opprobrium they'd receive if they became bankers.    

1 comment:

  1. Good piece and I wholly sympathise, especially with my family and academic background. I seem to remember, however, being forced to learn similar sounding topics when I took GCSEs, some 12 years ago. Are you saying the curriculum is actually getting narrower still?

    Oh, and splendid isolation - a description of 19th century British foreign policy.