History and the National Curriculum: it’s time for us all to calm down

I have been (un)fortunate enough to have had some involvement in the discussions over the development of the new National Curriculum for history, and I have written already on my views on the process. When the draft curriculum was released in February there was near universal criticism of the document; even those historians and history teachers who had supported Mr Gove most ardently found it difficult to offer anything more than qualified support. The recent release of the updated draft in July has seen those who spoke out against the curriculum sing out in unison that it is now much improved; those looking to score political points have accused Mr Gove of a u-turn.

I think, however, that a little more perspective is needed here. There can be no doubt that the February draft had issues, and the main two of these were that all pre-18th-century history would be covered by a (probable) non-specialist in primary school, and that the curriculum was almost entirely focused on British (for which read English) history. By focussing on the list of content, however, critics have tended to overlook the ‘Aims’ section of the curriculum. In the last twenty-four hours I have read two commentators who argued that the July draft has re-introduced ‘historical skills’ that had been removed from the February draft. Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, slipped this into an otherwise astonishingly good piece in the Guardian. On the blog Imaginative Enquiry Tim Taylor stated that the Gradgrindian approach to history from February had been ditched and, in its place, pupils could focus more on historical enquiry. It is true that the introductory paragraph to Key Stage 2 has had this sentence added, but both Evans and Taylor seem not to have read the ‘Aims’ section from the February draft which states that all pupils

‘understand how evidence is used rigorously to make historical claims, and discern how and why contrasting arguments and interpretations of the past have been constructed’

and that they should use historical concepts (such as cause and consequence) to

‘make connections, draw contrasts, analyse trends, frame historically-valid questions and create their own structured accounts, including written narratives and analyses.’

Undoubtedly there have been some subtle shifts in emphasis in the July draft, but in terms of the ‘processes’ or ‘skills’ (bearing in mind that these terms tend to be used in a rather sloppy fashion) there is little to distinguish the July draft from the February or, for that matter, from the 2007 or any earlier version of the National Curriculum. The more I read what people write about the National Curriculum, the more I think that they have not actually read it in its entirety. I challenged a misreading of the 2007 curriculum in my blog post, and I think a number of people have done the same with the July draft.

So if the emphasis on historical ‘processes’ and conceptual knowledge has not shifted in any meaningful way, then what has changed? It is, of course, the bit that everyone cares about: the list of propositional knowledge contained in ‘Subject Content’ outlining who and what is in and out. Here there have been significant changes from the February draft, with an increased focus on studying broad periods rather than particular events, with nearly all particulars being listed as optional. This draft is more specific than the 2007 National Curriculum, but far less specific than the February draft. Teachers of a certain age (of which I am not one!) will, however, have felt a sense of familiarity in reading the July draft, and I heard a number of teachers mutter the year ‘1995’ under their breath. Indeed, if one compares the July draft with that of the 1995 National Curriculum, there are indeed a number of similarities in terms of how the past is divided. The July draft is not identical to 1995, but the two are remarkably similar in many ways. Plus ça change…

This does make me feel uneasy. History teaching in England is internationally recognised as being strong; I am informed that civil servants in Singapore are currently reading and engaging with publications from the back-catalogue of Teaching History. It has not, however, been perfect. The primary issues of time and subject-specialist teaching are perennial problems, and there have been plenty of schools who have been allowed to ignore the knowledge-rich demands of the 2007 curriculum. Strong history departments (of which there are many) will take the new National Curriculum and they will make it good, just like they always have done. I see little in the July draft, however, that convinces me that weaker departments, where history has suffered, will be driven to become better. A good example of this is the Key Stage 2 / 3 chronological divide. The February draft was ridiculous in placing this in the 18th century, but there is little to suggest that 1066 is any better other than that this is what most schools currently do. A later medieval divide (say the Black Death) would have freed up some much-needed time in Key Stage 3, and it is a shame that a silly idea (an 1700 divide) distracted from a rather sensible idea (to move the chronological break forward).

What it comes down to, however, is that, in the final analysis, the curriculum is simply not that important: it’s pedagogy and assessment that count. Winston Churchill was listed on the February draft, but as a teacher I could interpret that as ‘tell the kids how great Churchill was in 1940’, ‘tell the kids about his military incompetence in the First and Second World Wars’ or ‘go and colour in a picture of Churchill’. Writing a curriculum is, frankly, easy. I reckon I could sit down at 2am in the morning and write a half-decent history curriculum. Writing textbooks and designing resources is harder, but is still relatively straightforward. Designing a pedagogical approach and an assessment framework that ensures that pupils leave school with a good knowledge of the past and history is a task more difficult by orders of magnitude. One has only to read through the pages of Teaching History, or to attend conferences organised by groups such as the Prince’s Teaching Institute, the Historical Association or the Schools History Project, to realise that history teachers have been attempting to achieve the aims of the February and July drafts of the National Curriculum for years. If we have learnt anything about education over the last decade or so then, surely, it is that there is no such thing as ‘the quick fix’: beware the snake-oil sales-men and women who tell you otherwise.

So we all need to calm down. We (nearly) have a new curriculum, it’s not dissimilar to older versions (whether that be 1995 or 2007) and history teachers can once again concentrate on the things that really matter. If one thing has been demonstrated by the recent round of history wars, then it is that, as a profession, history teachers are more than capable of driving the debate, as John Blake has recently argued. This, if nothing else, leaves me optimistic about the future of history teaching in this country.

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