Education: School History Issues

Short term gain, long term pain?

In 2012, school history proves to be as controversial as ever. Recent contributions by heavyweight celebrity historians throw a dubious light on what is or should be happening – David Cannadine, David Starkey and Simon Shama. The immediate focus given the increasing number of voices calling for compulsion, is on David Cannadine and his detailed research supporting this case.

David Cannadine

Like Simon Shama, Cannadine is now based in the USA (Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University). Unlike Shama, his recently published research and comments on English developments are not based on discussion with practioners. His (January 2012) article in History Today is at pains to make clear this was a well funded academic project (the Linbury Trust) which was in part aimed at “making reccomendations”, pointed at the Secretary of State. However while the two year project, based at the IHR employed two research fellows, had clear methods and took much data, there are key weaknesses.

Firstly, the study only looks at the past, focussing only on archival material and interviews with ‘former teachers and former pupils’. Current practitioners, some of whom will have been teaching for up to 40 years, were discounted. The study, published in book form as The Right Kind of History (Palgrave MacMillan 2011) seeks to influence current policy but is not sufficiently focussed on recent developments post Mary Price’s seminal History article of 1966.

Secondly, the study only focussed on state schools, and the independent sector has always been strong on history.* Taking the state sector alone may allow for the major objective to be to influence the secretary of state, but the overall health of the subject is not assessable by such a limited focus. 14% of A Level students are in the independent sector, though it is not easy to break down the figures further. The study could have thrown light on the contribution of this sector (especially the Hitler/Henries contention) but failed to do so.

Thirdly, the most important developments have been in the last forty years. It is welcome to read Cannadine confirming that there is no golden age, and that the subject has never been compulsory beyond 14, but his argument that there has always been a dispute over the health of the subject is misleading. There was a major debate in the 1960s which led to vital changes, principally away from 1066 and All That**.

Fourthly, the lack of awareness of the developments in more recent times, underlined by Cannadine’s reference to “the reports of His (latterly Her) Majesty’s inspectors of Schools” is curious given that while the HMI still exist, for nearly twenty years it has been OFSTED inspectors who have made the subject reports. This is vital, since the reports have shown that History is in the main well taught.

There is no crisis in school history. Indeed, History is in relatively good shape in education and in the wider culture. It is very popular at A Level, where it is the most popular “optional” subject – ie, not compulsory at GCSE level – and at university. Universities in England have strong history provision and the subject is well featured in television and in publications. There is a problem with the numbers at GCSE Level, but this is a function of league tables driving heads to remove the subject from option groups at 14 plus to steer pupils to easier subjects. Massive changes including the English Baccalaureate and making the subject compulsory, which Cannadine favours, are not needed.

Indeed, Cannadine’s favoured solution of compulsory history 14-16, which he believes should be decreed by the carreer politician at Westminster, would be disasterous. There is no tradition of this in the UK, as he rightly notes. Yet the subject is in robust shape. Forcing students to do the subject would alienate them at GCSE level, creating disruption, and would not automatically lead to more students beyond 16. Indeed, given thast the National Curriculum working party reccomended an increase in compulsory subjects to be taught to GCSE level, university history could gain nothing from increasing numbers.  A transfer of drop out from 14 to 16 could harm A Level numbers as if the bulk of the student population does not want to study history, compulsion is counter productive. Teachers seem to want more bodies, giving a short term advantage. The long term impact of bored and disruptive students would make classroom teaching a nightmare.

Teachers should beward of short term gains which produce long term pain.

It is particularly short sighted to ask favours from politicians, who have their own agendas. Cannadine rightly argues that Kenneth Baker, Thatcher’s last Education Secretary, wished to make GCSE history compulsory. He failed. Moreover, no other minister since him, till current Education Secretary Michael Gove, has emulated him. Primary history, which Baker did make compulsory, did not survive David Blunkett’s literacy and numeracy hours. No minister has yet reintroduced primary history.

The danger of school history becoming a political football is real and growing. Michael Gove told the Tory Party conference in 2010 that he wanted to make the Island Story – 1066 and All That – compulsory. This may play well to the Tory faithful, but is plays very badly elsewhere. Keeping politicians out of the classroom and resisting small cliques with the ear of the minister is vital. In this regard recent pronouncements by David Starkey and the more mainstream comments by Simon Shama point in different directions, but also proceed from a basically university and heirarchical view of the educational process.

Trevor Fisher

24th January 2012

*Indeed it is often argued that the complaint – one of many unfocussed gripes which any serious study needs to assess – that school history is a matter of Hitler and the Henries, (ie Modern World History and the Tudors). This is often seen as a split between state and independent history at GCSE level, but a focus on state schools alone cannot determine this. More importantly, the argument that school history at GCSE level is unduly polarised between these two options is not sufficiently well assessed. The fate of Social and Economic History and the rise of School Council History and whether these were a function of developments in state schools alone – with the Schools Council History blamed for the emergence of a skills function, hardly likely to have been responsible for the emergence of compulsory documents in 1983 – is seen by some on the right as an almost marxist infiltration of school history by illigitimate concepts often seen as overthrowing a 1066 and All That approach. The decline of chronology is likewise a major issue which is seen as ideological. But did it not affect the independent sector? And what happened to the influence of University (academic) History? State schools do not operate in a vaccuum. (See Niall Ferguson and Sean Lang on the impact of SHF)

** 1066 and All That, Sellers and Yeatman’s brilliant lampoon on the incoherent and unstructured patchwork that seemed to arise from traditional narrative history, was published in 1930. It was still popular half a century later, indeed my copy, issued as the centenary Methuen edition, was published in 1989, 59 years later and when the book had gone through 36 editions. It still had resonance. When this ceased to be the case is still unclear.

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