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.

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

  1. Hi Ed
    I too was at the debate, and think you’ve really captured the essence well. But I’d add a further ‘crack’ that was less obvious, unless we stand back from the hall itself in which we all sat last night. As I looked around the hall, what was clear was that there were many, many familiar faces… having just come back from the SHP Conference and seen many of those same faces, it made me begin to ponder: what of those 100s of history teachers who are untouched by these important debates and CPD opportunities? As a historian, I am able to appreciate that individuals can play a major role in affecting change (particularly of ideas), but the familiar individuals in the hall last night are also many of those who blog, tweet and write for TH, to name but a few of the communications that are harnessed. BUT, if we are going to protect history and all that’s good it in, and continue to push it forwards as a pillar of great education, what of the 100s of history teachers who do NOT attend such debates, CPD events, read TH or people’s blogs? What happens in their classrooms? What do they do when the door closes, and each becomes ‘king of their castle’, [partly] responsible for and moulding the minds of the future? Even the ground-breaking and insightful results of the HA survey – which, surely, every department has a vested interest in responding to – does not get responses from every department. Where are these teachers? What informs their thinking, planning, doing and reflection? Of course, I’m not trying to claim that these teachers are in some way ogres. Rather, there are 100s of history teachers out there (including primary teachers, the non-specialists, and those having to teach in project-based curriculums) and our bigger concern should be how we draw in these ‘unknowns’ to create a united, community of teaching professionals, who are nationally, regionally and locally engaged in debate: NOT just the familiar faces. Until we do this, our debates and reflections are at risk of preaching to the converted, and not reaching the whole community that we need to bring in if we are to really protect all that is good about history.

    All the best,

    • I think you make a powerful argument here Esther, and my short answer is ‘I dont’ know’ where those teachers are.
      I think we can take heart from Ofsted’s findings about history, and from the 30% of youngsters who choose history from a crowded market at GCSE. These things seem to suggest that, actually the quality of teaching from the unknown history teachers out there is high, and there is a level of engagement that doesn’t hit the national headlines. For instance, there are regional events and organisations (the West Berkshire History Forum is an active example) that fight history’s corner and strive to improve its teaching.
      However, I think there is indeed a risk of us falling into a conversation in an engaged bubble that has little impact on the outside world. I would guess that the current uncertainty and criticism of history teaching and teachers is more likely to cause withdrawl and resentment than it is engagement.
      My gut instinct is to follow the idea of McIntyre, and say that what teachers need is suggestions for practice, ideas played out in the classroom, which they can engage with on a professional level and yet which offer them immediate things to do and to try in their busy working day. My plan as a new HOD is to do this with my own department (I’ll let you know!)

  2. I like your point about Ofsted – it’s compelling and reassuring! And, you’re right, regional history ‘hubs’ are indeed active, which further reassures me.

    I’m most intrigued by your comment that “uncertainty and criticism of history teaching and teachers is more likely to cause withdrawl and resentment than it is engagement”… I’d actually started writing something about this in my first post and thought it would be rude to witter on for too long (!), so I’m really glad you’ve brought it up. Working with PGCEs and NQTs, and when I reflect on my own practice, I am sometimes worried by the amount of criticism we levy at ourselves. I totally am in favour in self doubt (I really liked your post about this earlier this month), although if we add the dimension of self doubt PLUS criticism from the outside, it is too much! As some of the most intelligent graduates, capable of amazing critical review and soul-searching, I wonder if I’m being over worried / paranoid to fear that debates like the one at present can serve to disenfranchise people from our profession. To illustrate, our brand new NQT, who literally started last week, joined me at the debate last night. She is a brilliant, bright, light of the future – and yet she left the debate feeling scared for the future. As her mentor, I want to encourage, feed and nuture her – not have her startled and straggled before she’s even begun. Healthy debate is crucial – it’s one of the central features of civilised society (particularly liked Husband’s point on history’s purpose in this), but when does healthy debate become unhealthy? In the case of my NQT, should I protect her – or let her experience those harsh realities now so that she is weathered for future (likely) storms? I like your reference to McIntyre as a way forward, but having used this approach with my Dept – and indeed reaped the benefits – we’re now in a position where we feel bold enough to think about some big, big questions (WHY are teaching it in this way, WHY have we included this topic in our KS3 programme), and our thoughts to these kinds of questions are really being influenced by the big debates we saw last night and being played out in the media at present. The risk is that, as you say, we disengage and withdraw – just as we’re dipping our toes in the water (in the case of my dept), we get frightened off and retreat back… Coming out again could take a long time.

    • Esther – you would never witter!

      I really like the way that you say you now feel ‘bold’ as a team. It’s the boldness that’s important, it give us the confidence to improve and to notice what needs improvement. I’m in danger of breaking my ‘no-politics’ rule on this blog, but I don’t think its an accident that much of what we hear from central government has the effect of making us more timid.

  3. I think the ‘preaching to the converted’ comment by Esther is particularly apt. I understand that there are regional networks out there doing good work beyond the ‘usual suspects’, but we must try to work together and bring in all who teach history. There is a danger of small groups of the ‘elect’ believing that all that matters is their purity while the rest of the world burns around them.
    Not that I want to be too pessimistic…

    • I agree, Barbara, and I don’t think this is just a question of discovering the excellent practice that is already out there. I think excellent practice grows out of dialogue, and the more we find ourselves sheltering in our own classrooms the less likely we are to either question our own practice constructively (as opposed to merely fearing we’ll be found out when the head / ofsted / PGCE students observe us), or to learn from others.

      You’re also right in that HOW we encourage this professional growth in community is really difficult. I might make a humble suggestion that sites such as this one, Dave Stacey’s blog, or by Simon Ross have a part to play. Teaching History and the HA, also play such a role.

      I was perhaps the only teacher not dancing in the streets when Gove’s iconoclasmic sweep took out the GTC. I believe in the professionalisation of teaching, (as opposed to merely focusing on the ‘craftsmanship’ of practice as Gibb and Gove would have us do). I think that the GTC had the potential to help us to look straight at ourselves in the mirror as a profession that was aware of its duty to improve, but also ready to celebrate the gains, the skills and the knowledge that we already had.

      I’m at risk of rambling. Professionals develop their practice, craftsmen put into practice that which has been passed down to them. We need to encourage teachers to see themselves as autonomous, responsible and empowered professionals.

  4. Pingback: David Cameron and historical learning -

  5. Keeping off topic, the concept GTC was always unnecessary. It had no output and really, no input – simply costs. Jobs for da ladz. There is a difference between employment and achievement.

    GTC had plenty of time to achieve something. They didn’t. RIP.

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