The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

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Heedful Histories: The contemporary curriculum

26th April 2013

Construct a history curriculum which can inspire as well as instruct, argues ResPublica's Stephen Lock

It is admirable that the Secretary of State for Education wants to place history back at the centre of the national curriculum. It is similarly admirable that he wants to see it taught in a coherent and where possible chronological way which can reflect how events and topics meaningfully interrelate, rather than leaving the student unprepared in the face of an imposing and confusing compendium of mismatched material. Getting the curriculum right could re-energise interest, cultivate a more genuine appreciation of diversity and actually enhance interest and participation in society and politics among our students.

Unravelling the chronology of historical developments (whether it’s so-called ‘British’ history or any other sort) can be an endless source of fascination and intellectual enjoyment. When presented with the full spectrum of historical studies, the young student can begin to identify for themselves which events they think are the most interesting, and which are the most important.

Whether they’re more interested in Hadrian or Saladin, Emmeline Pankhurst or Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the opportunity to locate individuals and events in a greater historical context opens doors not only to a better appreciation of their significance, but also to an awareness of enthralling topics which necessarily lie beyond the practical reach of a school curriculum. In this sense, I can see that the current proposals are ambitious and do represent a golden opportunity as groups like Curriculum for Cohesion and politicians like Chris Skidmore MP have described.

On the other hand, much of the criticism and concern that has been raised is well-deserved. Firstly, as is immediately apparent to an observer of history, politicians are far from best-placed to be deciding what should go in a history curriculum. Concerns about politicians interfering with (and imposing their own agenda on) the subject are certainly to be considered seriously. The possibility, or even the perceived possibility, that this could result in a dangerous prejudice in favour of one notion of British political history at the expense of other branches, or perhaps even in a bundle of blinkered ‘patriotic stocking-fillers’, marks out heavy political involvement as unacceptable, despite any sincere motive on the proponent’s part.

There is a second fundamental complaint that can (and has) been made: the inadequacy of rote-learning. Teaching students to be able to recite the dates and names of past figures and events in an exam is firstly a very poor test of their historical interest and capability, and secondly actually subverts the benefits of the present ‘golden opportunity’. Far from encouraging a meaningful appreciation and exploration of existing ideas about how events and topics meaningfully interrelate, this approach gives students an overly simple and one-dimensional false impression of what history (and, by extension, cultural identity) is, and condemns them to learning a discrete set of tiresome information.

If you think I would favour a curriculum which promotes a fuller appreciation of the chronology and broadness of historical studies, but does not expect people to regurgitate it in an exam, then you are absolutely right. It will help to explain this further by laying out what principles I believe should underlie our approach to revamping the curriculum.

Firstly, we do need to teach people history which they are interested in. If that means updating the curriculum to reflect more modern tastes then we should be receptive to this. History should be an enjoyable subject, and students will respond better to vivid accounts that they can relate to or that intrigue them. If, for example, this means making more forays into less traditional but nevertheless highly gripping and informative source material like biographies, great speeches, film or music, then there is no question that this should be encouraged.

Secondly, we do need to teach people history that will help them hone their academic skills, and we need to do so in a way which facilitates this. Deliberately selecting topics which have accessible source material but have also produced starkly divided opinions is an excellent way of doing this. This should be the toughest and most time-consuming part of the curriculum at any age, and ultimately it is this development of analytical skills rather than memory which must be examined across students.

But finally – and to my mind this represents the shiniest element of the present golden opportunity – we need to construct and then leave open a window for further inspiration and broader interest which is not constantly subject to examination. A focus purely on results negates the whole effect. This is where teaching students chronology and expanding their horizons of historical study is of incomparable value. I would not expect most students to remember all the details at the end of the year, but I would expect most of them to discover much that interests, excites and inspires them, perhaps even to further study or a lifelong passion.

Using class time to lay the groundwork, and then augmenting interest through the great programmes that are already being pursued (but could yet be expanded) outside the classroom, is essential. The former will add significant background awareness to the latter, making more insightful the museum trips, the talks, visits to historic sites, independent projects and practical and fun things which so much energy is invested in. Trust the subject matter itself to be sufficient to inspire people when they are given a proper chance to appreciate it. All else aside, such an approach embraces a far greater diversity of interests and backgrounds than any overly-prescriptive course ever could.

Giving people the opportunities and the requisite tools to identify themselves and their interests in our cultural landscape is fundamental to getting them to engage with the nation’s present, helping in time to build interest, trust and participation in social and political institutions. Therefore putting history back at the centre of school study can and should be encouraged to succeed, but it does depend on using the new curriculum to inspire, inform and instruct the next generation of students. All the correct elements are now on the table, but success still depends on assembling them in the right way.

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