SHP: last plenary

Peter Mandler on History, National Life and the Curriculum

Peter is a university lecturer at Cambridge. He admits he knows very little about history in schools, because he says there are too many people whose voices join the debate when they have no connection with it, perhaps because it seems to touch their sense of self more than other subjects. There is responsibility attached to this too, though, to make sure it will work under your grand design. You can’t just extrapolate from your own experience. He doesn’t feel very well qualified to talk about the national curriculum, something he explains in a lengthy, self-deprecating, interesting speech.

Before the NC, there was considerable autonomy in the history classroom, unless you we’re sitting a public exam – school certificate, o level – when you had to study what the exam board said. Entry to the professions was achieved by apprenticeship rather than exam qualification. Only a few careers required a university degree – most graduates became teachers – so the focus was not on the exams. “The position of a teacher in an English school is a happy one….history teaching should not be put into a strait jacket.”

The DfE promote the idea that before the NC, it couldn’t work because teachers refused to be told what to teach, but this ignores the history of government intervention in schools in the twentieth century. There was a resistance to central control due to the liberalism in education and elsewhere, which increased funding but not control. Arm’s length government was the name of the game in the early twentieth century, and it was fiercely defended. There were arguments about schools being forced to fly the British flag or celebrate Empire Day. This went for arts, universities, the print media…more power was confided to the state but freedom of individual expression was jealously defended.

This ethos continued to be applied in education for a long time after the war. There was a push for science and technology over arts and humanities, but the will to tell teachers what to teach was simply not there. In the end, the choice stayed with students, and they voted with their feet. Science and technology actually lost ground at A level in spite of the promotion. This led to more on the job training in those subjects, because there was no intention among the government to dictate to schools.

So why did we get a NC? Thatcher wasn’t that interested at the start of her premiership, but over the cours of the eighties that changed. Key people in the government started to argue that it was important for social mobility and poor education was holding Britain back. This led to the GCSE and an expansion of sixth form places to promote university attendance – which has risen from about 14% to nearly half of school leavers.

The first NC was remarkably uncontroversial. There was quite a widespread consensus that here should be a NC although there was an equal consensus that such an abrogation of liberalism required a focus on consensus building. (That’s a lot of consensus in one sentence and I haven’t spelled it correctly first time yet…)

The drafts produced quite a lot of academic debate and consensus was built up, so that what was ratified was very similar to what was proposed by the working groups. Celebrity academics were wheeled out and the media printed hyperbolic headlines but there were focus groups etc and the civil servants, of whom there were more, better resourced, mediated between the groups and the ministers.

This time, there is no independent body to consider all the sides which has impoverished public debate. Expert groups are ignored, as are the opinions of key academics. So we’ve ended up with what the minister has drafted, without assistance. It has inadequacies which indicate more about the problems of the process than what we’ll be teaching. We’ll worry about it when it’s published.

He’s not sure that the government wants a NC. So many academies! This is true 1950s style that the Secretary of State knows best, coupled with 1980s style that teachers and parents know best…on alternate weeks.

The draft is a politicians’ curriculum, thinking the main focus of the history NC is to tell the story of the political mechanisms of the world, eg the development of democracy (my current year 9 unit…). So there is plenty in there about acts, etc – politicians are the heroes and the fulcrum around which all other events dance.

At this point I went to Twitter to respond to an MFL teacher who said yesterday that he feels the history curriculum is reducing uptake in his subject by not teaching enough about our place in Europe, finally fired up enough by what Peter is saying about the bias imposed by various people to think of what I wanted to say. So I missed a bit. But I think this suggests the lecture had its intended impact.

We need to safeguard the integrity of the subject and an NC will do this, but it mustn’t be focused on what any one person or group of people think. It should not be taught for either national or international political ends. We haven’t managed that this time but perhaps we can learn from history next time.

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