Spot the DifferenceApril 29, 2013
I think this is worth pointing out regarding my comments last time on Labour’s education team.
Here are the views of Tristram Hunt MP on the emphasis on British history in the new national curriculum before he became part of the shadow education team (from the Times):
For all the criticism levelled at the Secretary of State for Education’s new history curriculum he is passionate about the past. What is more, he is right to put British history at the forefront of teaching. The extraordinarily aggressive response by teachers and professionals to the Gove plans misreads history’s place in the education system. Unlike chemistry or English literature, teaching history involves not just traditional academic skills, but also difficult questions of identity and citizenship. This is the reason why its revision inspires such fury and why it is right for democratically elected politicians to be involved in framing the content.
At the heart of the controversy is the question of Britishness. Critics suggest that in a modern, globalised world, dominated by China and India, it is backward and wrong-headed to promote some updated version of “Our Island Story”. Surely, tomorrow’s citizens should study Benin and Bangladesh as much as Great Britain?
In fact, in a multicultural society where civic ties are weaker, it is more important than ever to put British history above other national narratives. And it is vital to do so within the classroom as the traditional levers for inculcating a sense of the past — extended families; churches and chapels; Cubs and Scouts; political parties — are atrophying. A cohesive society requires a sense of national identity developed through a sympathetic and reflexive account of the British past.
…For progressives, a focus on British history should be welcome. a sense of historical struggle — the line of march — was a traditional prerequisite for Labour pamphleteering. Michael Foot liked to recall how his Liberal father Isaac’s interweaving of past and present informed his political philosophy. “Historical figures and their modern counterparts melted into one,” Foot wrote. “Brewers, protectionists, papists, apologists for Lord North and the Chamberlain family; Spanish tyrants and Stuart kings; men of Munich and Suez; sons of Belial and Beelzebub, normally disguised as West Country Tories, an especially reprehensible branch of the species.”
I think Michael Foot might have welcomed a curriculum that includes the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Chartists and Annie Besant. Let’s hope the publicity surrounding the new syllabus might even help to address the criminal gap that still exists in access to history between middle and working-class communities. In Knowsley, near Liverpool, only 16.8 per cent of pupils are entered for history GCSE, in contrast to 45.4 per cent in Richmond upon Thames. Whole generations are denied a sense of national belonging — let alone the sheer richness of the past.
And here are his views expressed shortly after his promotion at a meeting of “Defend School History” a campaign group which, as far as I can tell, is organised by supporters of the Socialist Workers Party:
This is a highly political project by Michael Gove. We have education questions in parliament once every five weeks and, without fail, on that order paper, when Conservative backbenchers ask questions it will be about the teaching of British history. “Why isn’t there more teaching of British history?”; “What’s happened to the teaching of British history in our syllabus?” and it speaks to a deep, deep discomfort that the Conservative Party has with modern Britain and they are using the history syllabus as a sort of psychological tool for their levels of discomfort with the nature of modern Britain. And so behind this whole conversation is a sort of psychological journey on behalf of the Conservative Party. With that, Michael Gove knows that, from his own political stance, it’s a rather easy, cost-free way of appealing to this base and appealing to this politics, to have the kind of rhetoric that he’s employed about the nature of our past, and the teaching of our past, and how our teachers are all betraying our children and not teaching our wonderful island story.
So there is a political element to this; a psychological element to this, but also … an element of arrogance by Michael Gove. The way in which this syllabus developed and the conversations that were had, and the consultations that were had, and the sort of traditional ways in which things were just about being managed. And then it all came to a stop and it’s almost as if you can see that he took it away for the weekend and rewrote it himself. And those of us who are scholars of Michael Gove can see the turns of phrase; the reference points; the fact that as it were the end of hisotry ends with the fall of Margaret Thatcher; a Fukuyama kind of way. This language about the follies of mankind. it is a very sort of, on the one hand, Whiggish account of British history and then, as it were, a very sort of sceptical Tory account about [how] there is nothing to learn from the past, at the same time.
The other point about the nature of the syllabus, and why it was political, is that there isn’t much wrong it seems to me with key stages 3 and 4 in terms of the history syllabus and if… you were of a mind as a teacher to teach a certain narrative of the past in terms of the teaching of Britishness and British history you have the space within the syllabus to do that. And actually as every single report from Michael Madison has pointed out and the Ofsted reports show – he’s the history inspector for Ofsted; he’s in the schools week in week out – actually the syllabus is working fairly effectively. It gives quite a nice broad range. It allows you to specialise in local history; go international, teach British history. … If you are going to focus your energies somewhere as a minister that’s not necessarily where you would; that’s not the problem. It’s a problem for the Conservative Party because of their relationship with modern Britain but it’s not a problem in terms of the teaching of history and the nature of history in our schools.
So there you go, on the one hand, as told to the Times, a narrative version of history, concentrating on British history, is right in principle, meeting a genuine need. Objections are mistaken and it should be accepted by the left. On the other hand, as told to Defend School History, it is politically motivated, ideologically biased to both Whiggery and Toryism and completely unnecessary because the curriculum is fine as it is.
It would be great to think that Tristram Hunt had ended up at the Defend School History meeting because his predecessor had agreed to attend, and that his seeming contradictions were down to carelessness and desperation at needing to please a potentially hostile crowd.
However, there is another, more disturbing possibility. Within about a week, he may have gone native. He may be assuming that Ofsted reports on teaching history are a source of neutral expertise that he must accept as accurate. His comments suggest he may be looking at the report “History for All” which declares that:
The most effective subject pedagogy, which ensured high achievement in history, was shown by teachers whose approach focused on well-structured enquiry, embracing independent thinking and learning. This approach was generally more evident and successful in the schools visited for this survey than in those visited for the previous 2004–07 survey. The following example
illustrates highly effective practice in developing pupils’ enquiry skills.
Students in Year 9 were given the task of investigating changes in bombing strategy, comparing the First and Second World Wars. They devised their enquiries and structured them appropriately with individual guidance from the class teacher. Each student had her or his own laptop and used both academic and general interest websites to research data and find different interpretations. This valuable exercise led to some valid independent work. It was enhanced by the fact that, although students were given a broad framework and a key question which they were required to answer, the structure of the enquiry was not prescribed and
the students were able to develop their own styles and structures.
In the very best lessons seen, teachers developed pupils’ enquiry skills by:
- providing a clear framework and sense of direction for the investigation
- controlling the scope of pupils’ expectations and encouraging them to identify and pursue valid lines of enquiry
- ensuring that research activities were matched by high levels of cognitive challenge
- encouraging pupils to think for themselves and giving them sufficient time to consider what they were studying and what this told them about, for example, the importance of an event, or the consequences of an action
- maintaining a relentless focus on subject-specific thinking which helped to develop pupils’ willingness to work things out for themselves, pose high quality historical questions and propose hypotheses about the past.
Not surprisingly, from a point of view that says children working things out for themselves is the best sort of teaching, then there is nothing wrong with the current dumbed-down, skills-based history curriculum. From this perspective, the new-knowledge-based curriculum is an unnecessary change forced on history teachers by those reactionary souls who want kids to actually know stuff.
Tristram Hunt is one of the few Labour MPs with a record of opposing dumbing-down. I can only hope that his latest speech is an aberration, and he does not feel that his new job requires him to spout the line, and accept the advice of the education establishment in supporting a situation which leaves kids staggeringly short of basic historical knowledge.