At high-stress points of the term, I tend to avoid the Secret Teacher columns. (Whoever said ‘misery loves company’ never experienced the convergence of mock-marking, GCSE clinics and Year 9 reports – under these circumstances I will only tolerate re-runs of the Great British Bake Off and the sweetest, most diaphanous music.) However, when I saw the subject matter of last week’s column being shared around Twitter I couldn’t resist reading it as it touched on discussions I had been having with other teachers as well as complaints I had been making to my long-suffering friends and family. After reading it, I decided to procrastinate by posting some of my thoughts on Twitter. Now, even with the character-limit being extended, I still don’t think I fully explored the points I wanted to make, so as It seems that people are still talking about the article,
I thought I’d have another go at explaining why I took issue with it.
(For reference, here it is: https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2018/may/26/secret-teacher-history-bias-school-fear-student-future )
Why this is an important discussion to have.
I can understand some of the frustrations that this type of article can provoke – the type of picture it paints of History classrooms leaves out some of the brilliant work that is being done. A quick glance at the archives of Teaching History from the last six-months throws up at least 4 articles discussing work being done that is explicitly directed at bringing to the fore previously ignored subjects of historical study or complicating ones that are already prominent. However, any historian is going to pose the question, ‘just how typical is this?’
The most recent Historical Association survey reported that a quarter of schools that responded had reduced the length of their KS3 to two years (and I’d be willing to bet that the proportion has gone up in response to the demands of the new GCSE’s) and even for those that have kept a three-year key stage 3, curriculum time for History is still limited. If we look at the demands of the National Curriculum, (from which many school are theoretically exempt – though quite a few continue to follow it with minor adaptations) in that time students are expected to cover:
1) The development of Church, state and society in Medieval Britain 1066-1509
2) The development of Church, state and society in Britain 1509-1745
3) Ideas, political power, industry and empire: Britain, 1745-1901
4) Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day – this must include studying the Holocaust.
5) A local history study
6) The study of an aspect or theme in British history that consolidates and extends pupils’ chronological knowledge from before 1066
7) At least one study of a significant society or issue in world history and its interconnections with other world developments.
Now call me cynical, but while the examples of possible areas of study for this last requirement include Mughal India and Qing China, I reckon that a lot of schools emulate both schools I have taught and try to tie it in with the topic of empire mentioned in requirement 4, In many cases, this involves a study of the slave-trade. While I think that this should definitely be included and should be taught in the balanced, critical and complicated way urged by the Secret Teacher column, I also think that it is a massive missed opportunity to have that as the extent of study of the history of the wider world.
What’s the issue with the article then?
So I agree with the secret teacher that our curriculum is unbalanced, but where we part company is that I don’t think they’re ambitious enough. They propose the inclusion of the more negative aspects of the British Empire and a study of its continuing impact in countries that were once part of or were in some way affected by it, which is fair enough. But the question I posed (rather mischievously) on reading the article last Saturday was ‘does this still not make Britain and its history the measure of all things?’ To go into a bit more depth; while I don’t think that this is the Secret Teacher’s intention, the changes they propose could still result in a strange one-sided curriculum in which the histories of other countries only come into view with the first, threatening glimpse of British ships on the horizon and then, even once independence is gained, their story is still seen through the lens of the country that once colonised them.
The crux of the problem I think is contained in the argument from ‘relevance’ that is contained in the article – our curriculum should be widened because it is inadequate for giving students understanding of contemporary political problems like the Windrush scandal or the situation of Palestine. Now, I think arguing from relevance is a really poor justification for the study of History in general (Who decides what is relevant and how do we know that things we deem relevant now will continue to be so?) but here I think it really leads us astray. By arguing that we should broaden our curriculum to include more of the history of the wider world on the grounds of relevance alone we ignore the broader and much more important argument that it’s pretty bad history not to!
If I look at the points outlined in the National Curriculum and many of the non-statutory examples given, I can find a good argument for the inclusion of all of them, until I stop and consider what is being left out because they were kept in. I think that the Becket Dispute, the Break with Rome, the Glorious Revolution and the Liberal Reforms are all interesting and historically significant things about British history that students would benefit from learning about. But at the expense of the Silk Road, the international climate crisis of the 17th century, the French, Haitian and Russian Revolutions? I’m not so sure.
In an ideal world, this is the kind of argument that History departments would be having on a regular basis, with the relative significance of Anglo-Saxon England, the Seven Years War and the Ottoman Empire and which should therefore be included in the curriculum being fiercely debated. But I think that problem is that places that do this are probably the exception rather than the rule, not due to any lack on enthusiasm or commitment, but because of a mixture of statutory requirements, time pressures and department time (understandably) being focused on reacting to new exam specifications. The Key Stage 3 curriculum therefore, carries on being lopsided and the history taught within it is still explored through a primarily British lens, not out of conviction that this is the most significant and interesting type of history to teach in the time given, but through lack of any other options.
So what would I do? In the meantime, I agree with the Secret Teacher that the history of empire and its impact should be complicated (not fo the sake of relevance but because to do otherwise is to distort history). However, I would want to go further in striving to try and bring in international links in the other British topics and, more importantly, to make that ‘world history’ requirement count by exploring the potential options widely and teaching them on their own terms. Finally, I think that it is important for history teachers to continue critiquing the present curriculum and, for those not bound by it, planning alternatives that consider a wider geographical thematic and chronological approach, not on the grounds of ‘relevance’, but because there is a lot of interesting and significant history out there and while we can’t hope to include it all, we should certainly have a long and rigorous debate about what we do choose to teach.