Debate on the History Curriculum at the IOE: The cracks in the common ground?

I spent a really enjoyable evening last night at the IOE, listening to a debate about the future of history education.  The chair was David Cannadine whose  (occasionally a little sharp) wit kept the debate at the IOE moving at cracking pace. I made a short (and perhaps over adrenalized) point of my own which made Lord Baker look at his watch, we learned that there is a lot of common ground across the history teaching profession, and I learned that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover.  The evening was a search for common ground, and I think plenty was found, though there were also some cracks emerging.

The thing that really stuck out for me was the high level of support for the broad framework approach of the current National Curriculum.  Every member of the panel (with the exception of Lord Baker, who didn’t really have much to say on point) praised the approach of the current NC, and warned against a NC for history that was too prescriptive.   The audience was receptive to the use of multicultural history not merely to cater for students’ individual needs, but as an education for all students about the history of the world and of the people in it.    There was no appetite for massive reform of the history curriculum, even and especially from the member of the panel from whom one might expect a call for change.

Steve Mastin (History teacher and Tory parliamentary candidate) emerged as a thoughtful, engaging and committed history teacher, and was a lesson for those of us too keen to judge a book by its political cover.    His frank comments that it was obvious that Mr N. Ferguson had been in very few history classrooms recently, and his (Mastin’s) impassioned defence of the history teaching profession  to Lord Baker (after the latter used a hoary old example of a dreadful ‘imagine you’re in the middle of the black death’ lesson that he’d observed in the 80s as a reason for doubting the quality of history teaching) were heartfelt and welcome.   Mastin has Gove’s ear, we are told.  Hopefully Gove will start to listen to him before tearing down the history curriculum.

The risk to school history indeed seemed not to come (directly at least, and more on this below) from central government, but from Senior Management Teams, themselves under pressure from a culture of league table comparisons.  This pressure causes Key Stage Three curricula to be squished into two years, rather than three.  It also causes students to be herded into ‘pathways’ that restrict their choices at KS4 (and forbid many students who are not predicted to get a C or above from even attempting the exam).    A cycle is formed in some schools where specialist staff are not recruited as GCSE numbers are too low, meaning that non-specialists teach KS3, which in turn further reduces the quality of history that such students experience, with an effect on attainment at KS3 and 4 and take up of GCSE. Once again I’m glad to head a department in a school in which history has been a very popular and influential subject, I realise with a growing sense of responsibility that this must not change on my watch.

There are some cracks emerging however.  The most worrying difference in the hall was that between those who tend to think that sources should play less of a part in history education and those, like Chris Husbands argue that we have a  duty to teach history in an intellectually respectable way, and that history cannot be divorced from the evidential base upon which it is built.  Katharine Burn recognised that using sources, and asking students to form judgements based on sources and on their own knowledge of a period is hard, but went on to argue, alongside Chris Husbands that it is our job to teach hard things.

This leads me to my final crack in the consensus, and the reason why I’m still worried about the approach the coalition will take to history education.  The talk online about sources (and to an extent in the hall last night) tends to use examples and anecdotes from several years ago.  Last night Lord Baker gave an example of a dreadful (crass was the word Steve Mastin used) empathy lesson from the 80’s.  In the press and in online debates we still hear about the battle of skills v content that thinking history teachers put to rest ages ago.  We heard last night how Mr Ferguson was as surprised as others to be invited to help write the history curriculum for England at the Hay on Wye festival.  Nick Gibb uses the example of Dewey (!) and bemoans ‘discovery learning’ as the reasons for falling standards in schools.   My fear is that the attack on schools and on school history in particular will be so ad-hoc, unfocused, anecdotal, and yet so furious that; firstly teachers will not know what they are arguing about, for or against; and secondly that the prescriptions will be ill thought through, ideologically driven and dreadful for history as a subject.

There was some evidence from the floor that this might be the case if the academies programme is expanded without protection for subjects such as history.  The work of the Historical Association into the place of school history in academies shows that it is increasingly marginalised in terms of timetable and monetary resources, and that many students in academies are barred from taking history at KS4.  My fear is that increasing diversity in the school system without a rigorously enforced entitlement for history education will lead to ‘types’ of schools in which ‘types’ of students get the education others think they deserve, rather than the start in life and the knowledge of the world (and of how it works) which is their birthright as human beings.